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2012 NFL Season & Super Bowl Predictions

Will the Patriots roll through an easy schedule on their way to yet another Super Bowl appearance?

Does Peyton Manning’s presence make the Broncos the team to beat in the AFC West or will another team unseat Denver in the division?

Can the Eagles unseat the Giants in a tough NFC East? Will the Falcons take advantage of the Saints’ tumultuous offseason and finally get over the playoff hump?

The start of the 2012 NFL regular season is just days away, which means it’s time to hand out our predictions for the new year. Below you’ll find division-by-division picks, as well as playoff and of course Super Bowl projections as well.

Dear God, football is back.

AFC EAST
1. New England Patriots
2. Buffalo Bills
3. New York Jets
4. Miami Dolphins

The Patriots won’t suffer a letdown after reaching the Super Bowl back in February. Their offense remains steady thanks to Tom Brady and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and their defense keeps improving under Bill Belichick’s guidance. The addition of Defensive ROY candidate Chandler Jones will help the Pats pressure the quarterback, which was one of their weaknesses the last year. Considering they have the easiest schedule of all 32 NFL teams based on the opponents’ records in 2011, the Patriots shouldn’t have any issues winning the AFC East again this season…The Bills upgraded their defense with the additions of free agents Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, as well as the selection of first-rounder Stephon Gilmore. They also have a solid offensive core in Fred Jackson, C.J. Spiller and Stevie Johnson, plus an improving offensive line. But Buffalo will only go as far as quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick takes them and unfortunately for the Bills, he’s often exposed by top defenses. While some are predicting Buffalo to reach the postseason, come the end of the year I have the Bills on the outside looking in…The offseason “battle” between Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow has taken the onus off the real problem in New York: The offensive line. The two years the Jets made the playoffs with Sanchez under center their defense and running game were outstanding. The defense is still one of the league’s best but they’re going to have to pitch shutouts because as the preseason showed us, the Jets are going to have a difficult time finding the end zone behind their O-line. “Gang Green” will be fortunate to finish .500 this season…The Dolphins have a new head coach, new coordinators, and a new quarterback but they’ll struggle to win games in 2011. Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Sam Bradford, Cam Newton and Andy Dalton have proven that rookie quarterbacks can have a great deal of success their fist years in the league, but Ryan Tannehill isn’t surrounded by great talent. This isn’t the worst team in the league but the Fins will likely top out at six wins again.

AFC NORTH
1. Baltimore Ravens
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
3. Cincinnati Bengals
4. Cleveland Browns

The offensive lines in Baltimore and Pittsburgh are both question marks entering the season but I see the Ravens’ O-line gelling throughout the season. I can’t say the same about the Steelers’ front five, which lost rookie guard David DeCastro in preseason. Joe Flacco and Cam Cameron butted heads last year because Flacco often felt that the offense was too tepid. But Flacco has been energized by Cameron’s decision to incorporate more no-huddle elements into the offense. And with the re-signing of Ray Rice and the development of budding star Torrey Smith, the Ravens’ offense is finally ready to carry this team. Granted, the defense is getting long in the tooth and the loss of Terrell Suggs is significant. But the secondary is solid and the Baltimore defense always finds a way to be productive…The Steelers will once again challenge the Ravens for first place in the division. That’s just what they do. But Ben Roethlisberger can’t keep running for his life behind a shaky offensive line. Pittsburgh thought it had upgraded the unit over the offseason but as previously mentioned, DeCastro will miss significant time due to a knee injury and second-round pick Mike Adams proved in preseason that he wasn’t ready to take over the starting right tackle spot. Pittsburgh’s defense is also aging and if younger players like Ziggy Hood, Cam Heyward and Keenan Lewis don’t step up, we could see Dick LeBeau’s squad start to unravel. The Steelers are still a playoff contender but for how much longer?…The Bengals were no fluke in 2011. Andy Dalton may take a step back in his second year like most quarterbacks do, but it would be a mistake to question whether or not he can win in this league. That said, Cincinnati doesn’t have much behind star A.J. Green in its receiving corps and the depth along the defensive line and in the secondary is also thin. This team was 0-4 against the likes of Pittsburgh and Baltimore last season and if they can’t win games in the division I don’t see them making a repeat trip to the postseason…The Browns are once again starting over with rookies Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden, who will struggle after facing soft defenses in the Big 12. While Greg Little and Josh Gordon certainly have potential, Weeden also doesn’t have a true No. 1 receiving target and outside of Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, questions remain along the offensive line. Defensively, injuries continue to take their toll along the front four and while Joe Haden is a stud in the making, the secondary is littered with holes as well. In a tough division, Cleveland will have a hard time competing.

AFC SOUTH
1. Houston Texans
2. Tennessee Titans
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
4. Indianapolis Colts

The Texans are the class of the division and they might have the most talent of any team in the AFC, which includes the Patriots. The loss of Mario Williams won’t hurt as much as some think because he simply wasn’t a fit for Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense. Thanks to Arian Foster, Ben Tate and a very good run-blocking offensive line, the Texans will control the clock and win tight games because of their stingy defense. The biggest question is whether or not Matt Schaub can put this team on his shoulders for 16-plus games and, if guys like Andre Johnson can stay healthy…The Titans are my Cincinnati Bengals of 2012. A darkhorse if you will. Jake Locker must become a more accurate and consistent passer but he’s going to produce plenty of big plays thanks to his arm strength and OC Chris Palmer’s decision to install Run ‘N Shoot elements into his offense. Locker also has a couple of nice weapons in Kenny Britt (if he can stay healthy and out of trouble), Kendall Wright and Chris Johnson, who should have a bounce back year. Granted, the offensive line wasn’t very good from a run-blocking standpoint last year and the defense doesn’t do one thing particularly well but I like the Titans to surprise and qualify for one of the Wild Card spots…The Jaguars received huge sigh of relief when Maurice Jones-Drew finally reported to team head quarters. But holdout running backs have a tendency to struggle (look at Chris Johnson last year) when they miss all of training camp and preseason, and Blaine Gabbert will still suffer through plenty of ups and downs. That said, this team will be more competitive than it was a year ago. Gabbert has made marked improvements as a passer and the addition of Justin Blackmon gives this team a much needed playmaker at receiver…The Colts will be better than they were a year ago because of rookie QB Andrew Luck, who looks like the real deal. But there’s not much around him. It’ll be a year or two before Chuck Pagano can get the right pieces in place to run his 3-4 defense and the Colts simply don’t have enough weapons on offense to be competitive.

AFC WEST
1. Denver Broncos
2. San Diego Chargers
3. Kansas City Chiefs
4. Oakland Raiders

The Broncos have a brutal first-half schedule but if Tim Tebow can win a playoff game in Denver than logic dictates that Peyton Manning can do the same. As long as Manning stays healthy and the defense doesn’t take a step back, the Broncos should win this division…That said, the Chargers might have the best starters of the four teams in the West, and if they can finally start out of the gates hot they could very well win the division. Robert Meachem isn’t Vincent Jackson but he deserves a chance to prove that he can be a No. 1 guy and when healthy, Antonio Gates and Ryan Mathews give Philip Rivers a couple of nice weapons. That said, the left tackle position is a concern and the defense underachieved last year. The top spot is up for grabs in this division but in the end I see the Broncos losing one less game than the Bolts…The Chiefs might have the most overall talent and the deepest depth of any team in the division. The problem is that Matt Cassel is their quarterback and while some are predicting that Kansas City will win the West, I just can’t put my faith behind Cassel. That said, thanks to Dwayne Bowe, Jamaal Charles, Peyton Hillis, Jon Baldwin and Romeo Crennel’s defense, the Chiefs will keep things interesting…The Raiders narrowly missed the playoffs a year ago but they’re going to pay for past mistakes, specifically Hue Jackson’s decision to trade a first round pick for Carson Palmer last season. Palmer looked shaky in preseason and the offense won’t be as explosive under Gregg Knapp as it was last year under Jackson. If Darren McFadden can stay healthy Oakland will be competitive and the defense does look like it’s improved. But there’s no question that Palmer is on the down slope of his career and it’s not unrealistic to suggest he’s finished as a productive quarterback.

NFC EAST
1. New York Giants
2. Philadelphia Eagles
3. Dallas Cowboys
4. Washington Redskins

Once again this is the most difficult division to predict in the NFL. The Eagles arguably have the most talent in the division but I don’t trust that Michael Vick will stay healthy and even though the defense was very good in the second half last year, Juan Castillo has a tendency to be exposed against good playcallers…The Cowboys seemingly fixed their problems in the secondary and thanks to a number of weapons on offense, they’ll rack up plenty of yardage again this season. But can the skill players stay healthy? Will this offense once again struggle to score points despite moving the ball at will? Is the secondary really fixed or will it remain a problem? Somehow, someway the Cowboys usually find a way to get in their own way…Which brings us to the defending Super Bowl champion Giants. I don’t know how Eli Manning survived behind that offensive line last year and if the pass rusher falters at all, the back seven isn’t good enough to keep the defense afloat. But my general rule when it comes to the Giants is that if nobody is paying attention to them, bet the house that they’ll win. They thrive in the underdog role and they’ve played second-fiddle to the Eagles, Cowboys and even in-state rival the Jets all offseason. Thus, despite Dallas and Philadelphia having better talent, I like New York to once again qualify for the postseason…The Redskins are going to be fun to watch this year thanks to Robert Griffin III. They’ll also be able to run the ball because of Mike Shanahan and they have more weapons on offense than they did a year ago thanks to the additions of RGIII and Pierre Garcon. But the secondary is an issue and questions remain about whether or not this team can keep Griffin upright. The Skins also play in an ultra-competitive division so while they’ll be competitive, they’ll likely fall well short of the playoffs.

NFC NORTH
1. Green Bay Packers
2. Chicago Bears
3. Detroit Lions
4. Minnesota Vikings

The Packers have one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL thanks to Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson, and the addition of Cedric Benson will pay dividends as well. There’s no way the defense will rank 32nd again so the Pack are poised to make another postseason run…There are two massive question marks surrounding the Bears. One is the offensive line, which continues to be inconsistent and the second is the defense, which is aging quickly. Will Father Time catch up with Chicago’s defense this season or will it hold off another year? That said, if Jay Cutler and Matt Forte don’t get hurt last year then the Bears make the playoffs as the fifth seed in the NFC. Plus, keep in mind that Chicago is just two years removed from winning the division and the additions of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery finally give opposing defensive backs something to be concerned with on Sundays. I like the Bears to win one of the two Wild Card spots…I think the Lions will regress this season. The passing game will be dangerous but can Matthew Stafford once again stay healthy for a full 16 games? Can this team win behind a shaky offensive line and no running game? On the other side the ball the defense doesn’t play with discipline, Louis Delmas’ health remains a concern and rookie Bill Bentley will line up opposite Chris Houston at cornerback. The Lions’ defense was brutal down the stretch last season and while Calvin Johnson will once again be fun to watch, a .500 season seems more realistic than a repeat playoff appearance…The Vikings will continue to grow behind Christian Ponder but Adrian Peterson’s health is obviously a concern, they don’t have a weapon opposite Percy Harvin in the passing game and the defensive secondary isn’t very reliable. In a stacked division Minnesota will once again have a difficult time competing.

NFC SOUTH
1. New Orleans Saints
2. Atlanta Falcons
3. Carolina Panthers
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Saints had a tumultuous offseason, losing head coach Sean Payton and middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma to the bounty scandal suspensions, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (who was also suspended) to the Rams, and Carl Nicks and Robert Meachem to free agency. But Drew Brees had a huge hand in Payton’s offensive game plans the past four years so he’ll keep New Orleans afloat. Plus, the loss of Vilma was negated with the addition of Curtis Lofton, who is a much better run-stopper than Vilma, Meachem is merely a No. 3 receiver and the team did well to replace Nicks with Ben Grubbs. New DC Steve Spagnuolo (who is an upgrade over Williams) will have to get creative when it comes to his pass rush but this team will be fine…There’s a ton of optimism surrounding the Falcons this season because of the decisions they made this offseason. Mike Mularkey was a solid offensive coordinator but Matt Ryan had outgrown his conservative, run-first approach. In steps in new OC Dirk Koetter, who has installed an up-tempo offense that suits Ryan. Julio Jones looks like he’s ready for a monstrous second year and he should only make Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Harry Douglas better around him. Defensively the Falcons hired Mike Nolan to replace Brian Van Gorder, who wasn’t a bad coordinator but his philosophy under head coach Mike Smith was to stop the run and play bend-but-don’t-break schemes in the back seven. That won’t work against the likes of the Saints, Packers and Giants, so Nolan has installed a scheme that will focus on stopping the pass. The Falcons also traded for Asante Samuel, who will join forces with Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson to form an exciting cornerback trio. If young players like Sean Weatherspoon and William Moore have breakout years, the Atlanta defense will be much improved…Cam Newton will keep the Panthers in most games. He has loads of playmaking ability and plenty of weapons around him in Steve Smith, Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Greg Olson. But the defense only has one true pass rusher (Charles Johnson), the linebacker corps is always suffering from injuries and the safety position is a major question mark. Simply put, the defense will keep Carolina from earning playoff berth but watch the Panthers stay in contention all season…Thanks to new coach Greg Schiano the Bucs will be tougher and more focused in 2012. The front office also did well to bring in Carl Nicks and Vincent Jackson in free agency, which will certainly appease QB Josh Freeman (who is poised to have a bounce back year). Rookie first-rounder Mark Barron might also wind up being the steal of the 2012 draft in that he’s NFL ready having played for Nick Saban at Alabama. Fellow rookie Doug Martin looks like he’s ready to explode in his first year as well. That said, the front seven remains a huge question mark on defense and this team doesn’t have the ability to blow teams out. Under Schiano the Bucs will attempt to win the time of possession battle by keeping the ball on the ground and trying to win games in the fourth quarter. This is an up-and-coming team but it’ll be a year before Tampa is challenging for a playoff spot again.

NFC WEST
1. San Francisco 49ers
2. Seattle Seahawks
3. St. Louis Rams
4. Arizona Cardinals

There aren’t a lot of believers in Alex Smith but the fact is he managed games well last season and stayed out of the way as the 49ers’ defense and running game produced wins. Thanks to the additions of Mario Manningham, Randy Moss and rookie A.J. Jenkins, Smith has plenty of weapons around him to succeed. (Vernon Davis, Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree obviously remain the highlights of the offense.) Thanks to the best defense in the league and weak competition in the division, the Niners will challenge for the top seed in the NFC again this season…Some believe the Seahawks will struggle under rookie Russell Wilson but if the kid were four inches taller he would have been a top 10 selection. He’s smart and he has the skill set to succeed – it’s just too bad that outside of an unreliable Sidney Rice, he has nobody to throw the ball to. The defense is underrated so if Wilson can move the ball, look for the Hawks to hang around before eventually fading down the stretch…Jeff Fisher and his coaching staff are worth two or three wins alone in St. Louis. The Rams will be better than they were a year ago but plenty of questions remain. The offensive line isn’t very good, the middle of the defense will be exposed on a weekly basis because of poor safety play and the book is still out on Sam Bradford. He has yet to raise the level of his play when under pressure and his O-line won’t do him any favors this year. This is also the youngest team in the league and depth is a massive problem…The Cardinals have the least effective starting quarterback in the NFL thanks to John Skelton, who will play behind one of the worst offensive lines in football. Ray Horton’s defense is going to surprise people this year but it’s also going to be on the field a lot because of the struggles of the offense. Maybe Skelton has more magic up his sleeve and hey, he does have Larry Fitzgerald, Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams at his disposal. But chances are it’s going to be a long year in ‘Zona.

PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS

AFC PLAYOFF TEAMS
1. Patriots
2. Texans
3. Ravens
4. Broncos
5. Steelers
6. Titans

NFC PLAYOFF TEAMS
1. Packers
2. 49ers
3. Saints
4. Giants
5. Bears
6. Falcons

WILD CARD PREDICTIONS
Ravens over Titans
Steelers over Broncos
Falcons over Giants
Saints over Bears

DIVISIONAL PREDICTIONS
Patriots over Steelers
Ravens over Texans
Packers over Falcons
49ers over Saints

CHAMPIONSHIP PREDICTIONS
Ravens over Patriots
Packers over 49ers

SUPER BOWL PREDICTION
Packers over Ravens

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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Chad Johnson, Dwayne Bowe, Mike Wallace & more NFL Quick-Hits

Every Sunday our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter provides his quick-hits from the week that was in the NFL.

Did this Mike Wallace situation escalate or what?
Last Wednesday the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the Steelers had broken off contract talks with Wallace until he signs his one-year, $2.472 million tender and reports to the team. That same evening, Mike Tomlin held a press conference and said that the situation is “bigger than Wallace” and that he was going to go work with Emmaunel Sanders “because he’s here, and be exited about doing it.” Two days later, the Steelers hand $42.5 million to Wallace’s teammate Antonio Brown, which wasn’t a message to Wallace as much as it was a statement that the team wasn’t playing around. Reports have also surfaced that Wallace rejected a contract offer in the five-year, $50 million range and that he could be traded during camp. But a trade is going to be incredibly difficult because no team will want to surrender a first-round pick for Wallace this offseason and keep in mind that the Steelers only received a fifth-rounder for Santonio Holmes (who was a Super Bowl MVP, mind you). Thus, it appears as though Wallace has two choices: Play for just over $2 million this season or holdout, which really doesn’t help him achieve what he wants (that being a long-term deal). At this point, the Steelers are in complete control. If Wallace signs his tender, reports to camp and is motivated to stick it up Pittsburgh’s ass, then the Steelers win. If he doesn’t report, then the Steelers are already preparing for life after Mike Wallace.

Chad Johnson appears to be a tad delusional.
While speaking to the media earlier this week, Johnson predicted a “monster” season for himself this year in Miami and then essentially blamed his poor performance last season on the Patriots. Said the Twitter artist formerly known as Ochocinco: “My personality was controlled last year. You perform. It’s never been vindictive. I never got anybody in trouble.” He went on: “The didn’t hear me at all last year. Zero. Zilch. When my mouth is running, it forces me to stuff that I do well, I do extremely well. The Pats know what I do well. You put that player in position to make those same plays he’s been making his whole career. It’s not rocket science.”

Let’s keep in mind that Bill Belichick and the Patriots coveted Johnson. It’s not like they grabbed him off the scrap heap and paid him the veteran minimum – they gave up a fifth and a sixth round pick because they thought he could still play. What they quickly found out is that they acquired damaged goods. According to a report by the Bengals’ official website back in June, T.J. Houshmandzadeh used to tell Johnson where to line up on offense when the two were in Cincinnati. And around that same time, multiple sources told the Boston Globe that Johnson just didn’t have the “football I.Q.” to succeed with the Patriots, who used to tell him to run a route a certain way and he would do the opposite. New England also gave him the benefit of the doubt by keeping him on their roster until this spring when it was clear that he still hadn’t fully grasped the offseason. So it’s a little arrogant on Johnson’s part to blame his poor 2011 on the Patriots because they didn’t let him be him. Belichick’s rigid ways may have had some negative impact on Johnson’s play but his declining skills are mostly to blame for his one-year stop in New England.

What exactly is Dwayne Bowe’s game plan here?
He took exception to the Chiefs slapping him with their franchise tag earlier this year, so he skipped OTAs and minicamp in efforts to voice his displeasure with the situation. But now that he’s no longer eligible for a long-term deal, why skip training camp? Why not sign the one-year tender and play for $9.5 million guaranteed? I get it – if you’re Bowe, why bust your butt in training camp if you can show up for Week 1 and make the same amount of money. But he’s not endearing himself to the Chiefs or other teams by skipping training camp. Look, there are no guarantees in life. Bowe could get hurt in training camp or on the first snap of the regular season. He could also go on to have a great season without taking one practice rep, assuming pf course that he even shows up for the regular season. But if the ultimate goal is to receive a long-term contract, then why drive another stake between yourself and the people who can accomplish that objective? If you want your bosses to give you a raise, or if you want to make yourself more attractive to the competition, you don’t stop driving into the office.

Here’s an idea to end the stalemate between Maurice Jones-Drew and the Jaguars.
It would appear as though the only way the situation will be resolved is if the two sides come to some sort of compromise. He is the Jacksonville offense but the Jaguars hold all the leverage right now. He’s under contract for the next two years and the team doesn’t want to set a precedent for paying players with more than one year remaining on their deals (which makes sense). I don’t write contracts for a living but one would think that if the Jaguars would be willing to make at least some of his current deal guaranteed, MJD would report to camp with a slight raise. If not, then the Jaguars might as well keep fining him until he shows up because with or without him, they’re not going to challenge for a postseason berth this season. Besides, in 2009 the Jaguars and MJD agreed to a fair contract. The team expected him to be this good, which is why they invested so much money in him then. For him to turn around and now try to hold the team hostage for more money is slightly ridiculous. Thus, if the two sides can come to some sort of compromise that makes all parties happy and gets MJD to camp, that would appear to be the best solution.

It would be a mistake if soon-to-be Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III let Mike Holmgren go.
Poor ownership, failed player evaluation and scouting, and bad hiring decisions have all contributed to the lack of success that Cleveland has had over the years. But a lack of vision, continuity, and cohesion has been the biggest reason the Browns have suffered through a decade of losing. Holmgren’s first two years in Cleveland haven’t been very successful but there’s excitement building thanks to the first-round selections of Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden. Holmgren knows how to build a winner, as he did so he Green Bay and Seattle before Cleveland hired him as its team president back in 2010. It’s understandable if Haslam wants to bring in his own people but to fire Holmgren and start over isn’t a move that brings the Browns closer to competing. This is a team that has lacked vision and while Holmgren hasn’t done enough to earn his new boss’s trust, Haslam owes it to the fan base in Cleveland to keep the train on the tracks.

Sunday Morning NFL Quick-Hits

Every Sunday morning our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter will provide his “quick-hits” from around the league. You can follow him on Twitter @AnthonyStalter.

- LaDainian Tomlinson hasn’t rushed for over 1,000 since 2008 but it’s hard to argue that he isn’t the best running back of the last decade. He’ll retire with 13,684 rushing yards and 145 touchdowns on 3,174 carries throughout his Hall of Fame career. He also set a single-season record with 28 touchdowns in 2006 and ranks fifth all-time in yards from scrimmage with 18,456. On top of his outstanding career, LT was a class act, too. I had an opportunity to meet him during an event in New York City and there was nothing fake about him. He was a competitor right through his final carry.

- When Maurice Jones-Drew and the Jaguars agreed on a five-year, $30.95 million deal back in April of 2009, both sides assumed that he would live up to his contract. It’s not surprising that he went out and rushed for over 1,300 yards in his next three years, including his league-leading 1,606-yard performance in 2011. But what is surprising is that MJD now wants more money. It’s not like the Jaguars stiffed him on his ’09 contract. Both sides agreed that it was a fair deal and now that MJD has lived up to the contract he wants more? Yes, teams can cut players at any point and players need to make as much as they can, when they can. But this was a bad move by MJD and his agent, who are highly unlikely to sway the Jags into paying them more.

- It’s only June but John Harbaugh has to be concerned about his offensive line. Jah Reid, who spent most of this week’s mini camp at right tackle because the Ravens told Bryant McKinnie to focus on his conditioning instead of practicing, was carted off the field on Thursday with a leg injury. Center Matt Birk also missed camp after undergoing surgery to repair a varicose vein in his leg and former Pro Bowl guard Ben Grubbs is now in New Orleans after signing a free agent deal with the Saints. Michael Oher and Marshal Yanda are entrenched at their spots but the rest of Baltimore’s O-line is a major question mark right now.

- The Falcons will wind up regretting not bringing in outside options at left tackle. The hope is that new offensive line coach Pat Hill can restore Sam Baker back to his early days, but what does that entail? Baker was a second-round prospect back in 2008 but the Falcons drafted him in the first because GM Thomas Dimitroff panicked when he saw all of the tackles flying off the board. (And he needed a left tackle to protect his prized position in the ’08 draft, quarterback Matt Ryan.) Since then, Baker has been average at best and a complete disaster at worst. He’s in a contract year so maybe he’ll play well, but “well” for him at this level hasn’t been nearly good enough. The Falcons should have at least kicked the tires on Demetress Bell, King Dunlap or Anthony Collins this offseason.

+ Assuming the Cardinals defense makes significant improvements from last season (and it should), Ray Horton will become one of the hotter names in head coaching circles next offseason. His defensive influences come from Dick LeBeau’s scheme in Pittsburgh, so the system works if every player understands his role. As I wrote last week, there was a ton of confusion among Arizona defenders last year in Horton’s first season as coordinator. But now that everyone has a better grasp of the system, Horton will likely become a sought after commodity next year.

- Speaking of the Cardinals, Arizona Republic’s Kent Somers writes that he “couldn’t make a clear call on” the competition between Kevin Kolb and John Skelton. That’s not good for the Cardinals, who don’t want to have competition at quarterback. They acquired Kolb and paid him all of that money so that he could solve their issues at the position. Instead, he’s only added to the problems.

- If I were the GM of a team that needed an upgrade at backup quarterback, I wouldn’t hesitate to send Cleveland a sixth or seventh rounder for Colt McCoy. The Browns did what they had to do in drafting Brandon Weeden. McCoy doesn’t have the arm strength to win in Pittsburgh or Baltimore in late December with the playoffs on the line. But he isn’t without ability. He’s mobile, accurate (or at least he was accurate at Texas), and he can run a NFL offense. Looking around the league, many teams could do worse than add McCoy as a backup, especially for the low cost of a late round pick.

- The Panthers are another defense that should improve upon last year’s effort (although how could it not, after last year’s Carolina team gave up the most total yards, passing yards, points and touchdowns than any squad in its 17-year history). Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was at such a disadvantage last offseason because of the lockout but players are starting to get a better feel for his scheme in Year 2. Getting Jon Beason (Achilles’ surgery) back certainly helps and Luke Kuechly was viewed as one of the safest picks in his year’s draft. Granted, outside of Chris Gamble (who was solid in coverage last season) the secondary is a major question mark but there’s little doubt that Carolina’s outlook is bright for 2012.

- I truly believe Jeff Fisher will not be a bust hire for the Rams, but he’s got issues at outside linebacker. They missed an opportunity to land Mychal Kendricks, Zach Brown or Lavonte David in the second round of this year’s draft and while they gave the impression that they were fine with Lo-Jonn Dunbar starting, they just signed free agent Rocky McIntosh on Thursday. A combination of Dunbar, McIntosh and Mario Haggan doesn’t scream reliability and chances are outside linebacker will be atop their needs list next offseason.

- The Titans avoided a major scare earlier this week when Kendall Wright’s X-rays showed no structural damage to his shoulder. Because of Chris Johnson’s struggles and Kenny Britt’s knee injury, this is a team that lacked playmakers last season. After investing a first-round pick in him this April, the Titans can ill-afford to lose Wright.

NFL News & Notes: Lockout Update, Haynesworth, & MJD’s knee

Washington Redskins’ Albert Haynesworth is seen on the sidelines as the Redskins play a pre-season game against the Buffalo Bills at FedEx Field in Washington on August 13, 2010. UPI/Kevin Dietsch

Players and owners in the “red zone” in terms of labor talks?
A league source tells SI.com that the players and owners are “in the red zone” with regard to the labor negotiations. The source says that back in March, “we weren’t in the same stadium.” But now the two sides are apparently inching closer to wrapping up a deal thanks to the momentum that has been created over the last couple of weeks. The two sides will continue talks on Thursday and Friday, with five players and DeMaurice Smith conversing with Roger Goodell and five owners. While these discussions remain fluid, talks continue to progress.

Redskins won’t release Haynesworth
Mike Shanahan and the Redskins appear determined to leave Albert Haynesworth in NFL purgatory. Philadelphia Sports Daily says that the Skins will not release the DT quickly after the lockout and if any team wants him, they’ll have to trade for him. Apparently Washington doesn’t want to give into what Haynesworth wants, which is to be released. I can’t envision a scenario in which Haynesworth is still a Redskin by the start of the season, but you never know. Shanahan has proven time and time again that he can be stubborn.

MJD: The Jaguars are scared of my knee
In an interview with the Florida Times Union, running back Maurice Jones-Drew says that the Jaguars are “already kind of scared of my (surgically repaired) knee” and are “anxious to throw Rashad (Jennings) in” for more carries. As Rotoworld.com points out, Jaguars offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter insists that there have been no discussions in the offensive staff room over MJD’s knee, although the team’s official website did run a story earlier this week about how the coaching staff wants to get Jennings more involved. Seeing as how the NFL is largely a two-back league now, it wouldn’t be surprising if Jennings did get more touches next year – regardless of whether or not there is concern about MJD’s knee.

Asomugha to receive $19 million a year?
NFL.com’s Jason La Canfora seems to think that free agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha could receive a contact that approaches $19 million a year. If so, it would make Asomugha the highest paid player in NFL history. La Canfora believes that the Bucs could be serious bidders for the cornerback, which makes sense given Aqib Talib’s legal troubles. The Texans are also reportedly interested in Asomugha, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the Lions also got in the mix once the lockout lifts. The Eagles, Ravens and Jets have also been mentioned as possible suitors.

Andre Johnson and Maurice Jones-Drew doubtful for Sunday

Dec 12, 2010; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew (32) heads up field during the game against the Oakland Raiders at EverBank Field. The Jaguars defeated the Raiders 38-31.  Photo via Newscom

The Texans and Jaguars could be without their biggest offensive weapons on Sunday.

Sources tell ESPN’s Adam Schefter that both Andre Johnson and Maurice Jones-Drew are doubtful for their respective games in Week 16. The Texans are in Denver for a meaningless (in terms of playoffs) game against the Broncos, while the Jaguars play a very meaningful game against the Redskins in Jacksonville.

Johnson told the media earlier in the week that he would test his injured ankle in pre-game warmups but he didn’t sound optimistic that he would play. Should he sit against the Broncos, Jacoby Jones would start in his place and could have a big game against a brutal Denver defense (save for cornerback Champ Bailey, of course).

Jones-Drew’s knee is still swollen and the Jags want to give it a chance to rest and heal. And even though they have a huge game on Sunday, the Redskins’ defense is both decimated and awful, so Jacksonville could probably get by with backup Rashad Jennings if MJD can’t go. Jennings is averaging 6.8 yards-per-carry this season and he should get anywhere from 15-25 touches against Washington.

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