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Thursday, January 26, 2012
Updated: January 27, 11:26 AM ET
Right and (mostly) wrong: NFL forecasts

By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN.com

NFL Predictions
That crystal ball sure looked a lot clearer to our so-called NFL expert back in early September …

Anyone can make a list of NFL preseason predictions. But not everyone mocks their knucklehead picks at season's end. I do.

The scoring scale:

35-46 correct answers -- Bill Belichick invites you on his boat to watch game tape.

25-34 -- You get to make a pick for the Green Bay Packers in the upcoming draft.

15-24 -- You wear thigh pads to work and smear on eye black.

5-14 -- Your mom knows more about the Cover 2 than you do.

0-4 -- You watch National Geographic documentaries on earthworms on NFL Sundays.

1. AFC East

What I wrote back then …

(Order of finish)

Robert Kraft
Our man knew Robert Kraft's Pats were going to be good … though maybe not AFC championship-good.

New England Patriots -- The Patriots are so good that even Randy Moss is making noise about a return to Foxborough.

New York Jets -- Two things have to happen on offense for the Jets to overtake the Patriots: QB Mark Sanchez has to bump his completion percentage above 60 (54.8 last year) and RB Shonn Greene has to do better than 766 yards and two TDs.

Buffalo Bills -- Slowly, the Bills are no longer an automatic out.

Miami Dolphins -- Coach Tony Sparano has to keep his team competitive while fighting off rumors of his dismissal. Thing is, there is talent on this defense. Will it be enough? Uh, no.

How it looks now …

Stuck the landing on this one. The Gronkers easily won the division, followed by the dysfunctional Jets (Greene finished with 1,054 yards and six TDs but Sanchez once again couldn't crack the 60 percent completion ceiling, coming in at 56.7 this season), followed by a 6-10 tie by the Bills and Fish.

Score: 1 point.

2. MVP Finalists

Then …

QB Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers; QB Tom Brady, New England Patriots; QB Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints; QB Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers; and QB Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles.

Now …

Nailed this one, too. Picked the three finalists, but offer late shout-outs to Detroit Lions WR Calvin Johnson, Jacksonville Jaguars RB Maurice Jones-Drew, Houston Texans RB Arian Foster and New York Giants QB Eli Manning.

Score: 1 point.

3. And the winner is …

Then …

I'm sticking with the man with the championship belt, Rodgers. Too many weapons at his disposal.

Now …

I'll bet my one share of Packers stock (it was a Christmas gift, so don't get your shorts in a bunch) that Rodgers wins it.

Score: 1 point.

4. Runner-up

Then …

Brady.

Now …

Almost. It's going to be Brees. And should be.

Score: 0 points.

5. If they gave the MVP to somebody who tackled for a living …

Then …

LB DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys. He had 15 1/2 sacks in 2010, so just think what happens with the hyper-aggressive Rob Ryan as the D-coordinator.

Justin Smith and Drew Brees
If Drew Brees had a vote for MVP, he just might cast it for the 49ers' Justin Smith.

Now …

It's not like Ware stunk it up. He had 19.5 sacks, second in the NFL and only a half-sack off his career high. He got double-teamed as soon as he got off the bus. I felt for the big lug.

But he wasn't the league's defensive MVP. I'm not sure he was in the top eight. I'd give it to San Francisco 49ers defensive end Justin Smith or Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs or possibly the 49ers LB tag team of NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis.

Score: 0 points.

6. AFC North

Then …

(Order of finish)

Pittsburgh Steelers -- It's boring, I know, but the Steelers are going to win the division, and they're going to win it the way they always do: by making other teams cry for their binky.

Baltimore Ravens --The Ravens still have lots of pride and also have RB Ray Rice and the underrated and over-criticized QB Joe Flacco.

Cleveland Browns -- Probably a year away from making the playoffs, but new coach Pat Shurmur has a nice core of talent to work with here.

Cincinnati Bengals -- Nothing against rookie QB Andy Dalton, but if Carson Palmer couldn't win with this team, then Dalton isn't going to do any better.

Now …

The Steelers and Ravens had identical 12-4 records, but Baltimore won the division. … I whiffed on Dalton and the Bengals, who squeezed into the playoffs as the second wild-card team. … And really, do we have to talk about the Browns?

Score: 0 points.

7. General Manager of the Year

Then …

Thomas Dimitroff, Atlanta Falcons. If his audacious draft day roll of the bones on WR Julio Jones pays off, then Dimitroff could get his own statue.

Mike Brown
Wait! How did Mike Brown get into the GM-of-the-Year picture?

Now …

Jones cost the Falcons five draft picks, but he clearly was a game-changing player as a rookie -- when he was healthy (he missed three games because of injury). And the Falcons made the playoffs but were humiliated by the Giants 24-2 in the first round.

Still, I like, not love, the deal.

But -- and I can't believe I'm saying this -- the NFL exec of the year has to go to Bengals owner Mike Brown. He drafted well. He traded well. He stockpiled future high draft picks like cords of firewood. (The Patriots are experts at using that model of draft day flexibility.)

Brown wins it over the 49ers' Trent Baalke and the Detroit Lions' Martin Mayhew.

Score: 0 points.

8. Seven dates to remember (or you could just write them down)

Then …

Sept. 8 -- New Orleans at Green Bay. I smell a postseason rematch.

Sept. 11 -- The Ryan Bowl: New York Jets coach Rex vs. Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob.

Oct. 30 -- Dallas at Philadelphia. Rob Ryan isn't buying the "Dream Team" thing -- and said so.

Nov. 6 -- Green Bay at San Diego. First team to score 100 wins.

Nov. 6 -- Baltimore at Pittsburgh. First team to score 14 wins.

Nov. 27 -- New England at Philadelphia. Coach Hoodie will downplay it as a non-conference game, blah, blah, blah, but we know better.

Dec. 26 -- Atlanta at New Orleans. Not Pittsburgh-Baltimore intense, but getting there.

Now …

My sense of smell needs work, but the Saints-Packers game was a keeper (Green Bay 42, New Orleans 34). … The J-E-T-S R-A-L-L-I-E-D to win against Dallas. … Philly blew out the Cowboys. … The Pack and Bolts almost got to 100 (they totaled 83). … Baltimore swept the Steelers with 23-20 win. … Bill Belichick crushed the Vick-less Eagles. … Bourbon Street drunks could have put up more of a fight against the Saints (New Orleans 45, Atlanta 16).

Score: Half-point.

9. NFC Rookie of the Year

Then …

RB Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints. Atlanta's Jones is the popular pick, but I think Ingram will have a bigger impact over the course of the season.

Now …

Ingram was the Saints' third-leading rusher. He had an impact, but it wasn't profound.

Von Miller
Geno was on the Von Miller bandwagon from the beginning. Smart man.

QB Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers is the easy pick. They're always easy after the season. But Newton was a football revelation as a rookie.

Score: 0 points.

10. AFC Rookie of the Year

Then …

LB Von Miller, Denver Broncos. If you can find somebody who doesn't gush about Miller's potential, let me know.

Now …

Can I call it a tie between Cincy QB Andy Dalton and Miller?

Score: Half-point.

11. AFC South

Then …

(Order of finish)

Houston Texans -- Gary Kubiak saves his job by leading the Texans to their first-ever postseason appearance.

Indianapolis Colts -- Until four-time MVP Peyton Manning returns -- if he returns -- to the Colts lineup after Thursday's cervical neck fusion surgery, Indy will have make do with 38-year-old Kerry Collins.

Jacksonville Jaguars -- At least the Jags have a safety net named Maurice Jones-Drew. And no way do the Jags finish 28th in total defense this season, not with LB Paul Posluszny.

Gary Kubiak
The Texans made the playoffs, and Gary Kubiak doesn't have to be looking over his shoulder any more.

Tennessee Titans -- Drama king Vince Young is gone, replaced by 35-year-old Matt Hasselbeck. … But Hasselbeck can run a team, something Young couldn't figure out.

Now …

Picked the winner, chicken dinner. … The Titans finished 9-7 but missed the playoffs. … MJ-D gained 1,606 yards. … Indy owner Jim Irsay tweeted a lot and fired people a lot.

Score: Half-point.

12. Words sure to be spoken by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell next April

Then …

"With the first pick in the 2012 NFL draft, the Cincinnati Bengals select Stanford University quarterback Andrew Luck -- and trade his rights to the San Francisco 49ers."

Now …

"With the first pick in the 2012 NFL draft, the Indianapolis Colts select Stanford University quarterback Andrew Luck."

Score: 0 points.

13. AFC West

Then …

(Order of finish)

San Diego Chargers -- A 2-5 start knee-capped their postseason chances in 2010. It won't happen in 2011.

Kansas City Chiefs -- For a moment, I actually thought about swapping the Chiefs for the Chargers.

Oakland Raiders -- I'm trying to figure out how the departures of CB Nnamdi Asomugha, OG Robert Gallery and TE Zach Miller make the Raiders a better team. Oh, wait, they don't.

Denver Broncos -- If the Broncos don't win more than their 2010 total of four games, I will shave my head in the Friar Tuck/Tim Tebow rookie hazing style. Rookie LB Von Miller's arrival and veteran DE Elvis Dumervil's return, coupled with a better-than-you-think offense, could bump the Broncos ahead of the Raiders.

Now …

I was right about the Chargers -- they didn't start 2-5. Instead, they started 4-1 and then walked into oncoming NFL traffic, dropping six in a row. … Who could have predicted that Tyler Palko would start at QB for the Chiefs? … Not even the Carson Palmer trade could save the Raiders. Or now-fired coach Hue Jackson. … The Broncos not only won more than four games in 2011, they doubled the total and made the playoffs. If only I could remember the name of their quarterback.

Score: 0 points.

14. Dead Coach Walking

Then …

Tony Sparano, Miami Dolphins. The first hint that Sparano wasn't ownership's particular brand of vodka is when they tried to hire Jim Harbaugh from Stanford … with Sparano still on the payroll!

Tony Sparano
It was all over but the shouting for Tony Sparano in Miami by mid-December.

Now …

Sparano was canned Dec. 12, with three games remaining on the Dolphins' schedule. Said owner Stephen Ross, who's always good for a yuk, at the post-firing news conference: "I'd like to find a young Don Shula if that's possible."

It wasn't. Ross hired Packers offensive coordinator Jim Philbin, 50, to replace Sparano.

Anyway, this one was tooeasy.

Score: 1 point.

15. Runner-up

Then …

Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals. The guy has nine coaching lives. But he runs out of them after this season.

Now …

Or he leads the Bengals to the playoffs.

Score: 0 points.

16. NFC East

Then …

(Order of finish)

Philadelphia Eagles -- I think this is a closer division race than most people think. … I'm not absolutely convinced they're the gimme winner of the East.

Dallas Cowboys -- I'm guzzling the Jerry World Kool-Aid this season.

New York Giants -- If the retooled offensive line doesn't do its part, then the Giants are going to miss the playoffs for a third consecutive season.

Washington Redskins -- [Rex] Grossman is the guy who popped off about the Redskins being "ready to take over" this division. It's a nice thought, but it only happens if the Eagles, Cowboys and Giants switch to the AFC. I look at this roster and I don't see six wins.

Now …

Some Dream Team. It finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs. … And so did the Cowboys. … And so did the Redskins, who, as predicted, didn't win six games. … And so did the Giants. Wait, they're going to the Super Bowl?

Score: 0 points.

17. Breakout candidates

Then …

I see many ESPN Top 10 Plays of the Day appearances by San Diego RB Ryan Mathews, Green Bay TE Jermichael Finley, St. Louis WR Mike Sims-Walker, New York Jets RB Shonn Greene, Dallas RB Felix Jones and Denver LB Von Miller.

Now …

Too bad I didn't see Rob Gronkowski (though, in my defense, I did take him fairly early in our ESPN fantasy draft and have the cashed check to prove it; that is, if we had played for money … which we didn't), Newton, Detroit QB Matthew Stafford and G-Man WR Victor Cruz.

Score: 0 points.

18. Breakdown candidates

Then …

I see health problems for Cincinnati rookie QB Andy Dalton, Miami RB Reggie Bush, San Francisco RB Frank Gore, Seattle QB Tarvaris Jackson and New York Jets WR Plaxico Burress.

Now …

You know it's a weird year when Bush starts 15 games. But he did and generally played well (1,086 rushing yards, 43 receptions). And Dalton survived his rookie year in basically one piece.

Score: 0 points.

19. Comeback Player of the Year

Then …

Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions. Just think what he can do if he's out there for all 16.

Albert Haynesworth
Albert Haynesworth as a comeback-player-of-the-year candidate in New England? Oopsie.

Now …

Here's what he can do: 5,038 passing yards, 63.5 completion percentage, 41 TDs and a 97.2 QB rating.

Score: 1 point.

20. Runner-up

Then …

Albert Haynesworth, New England Patriots. If Bill Belichick thinks Haynesworth has some game left, then he has some game left.

Now …

No, he didn't. Belichick waived him. So "The Hoodie" and I were both wrong. Go figure.

If I had a do-over, it would have been the Niners' Alex Smith.

Score: 0 points.

21. NFC North

Then …

(Order of finish)

Green Bay Packers -- I can't even invent a reason why the Packers won't win the division.

Detroit Lions --It's not complicated. With QB Matthew Stafford, the Lions make a playoff run.

Chicago Bears -- I still don't see a No. 1 wide receiver, still don't see a dependable offensive line and still don't know if Major Wright is the answer at free safety. I know this: Jay Cutler has stay upright for the Bears to have a chance and wide receiver import Roy Williams has to deliver the goods.

Minnesota Vikings -- If Donovan McNabb can figure out how to work the Way Back Machine, who knows?

Now …

Not exactly advanced calculus in this division. Packers finished 15-1. … Lions made the playoffs behind Stafford. … Bears didn't have a No. 1 WR or a dependable free safety, and Cutler couldn't stay healthy. … McNabb was waived by the Vikes with a month to go in the season.

Score: 1 point.

22. Coach of the Year

Then …

Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers.

Now …

I could gloat, but seriously, I didn't expect the Niners to go from 6-10 in 2010 to 13-3 and the NFC championship in 2011.

Score: 1 point.

23. Runner-up

Then …

Pat Shurmur, Cleveland Browns.

Now …

Shurmur wasn't even runner-up in his own division.

Score: 0 points.

24. The NFC team most likely to surprise us

Then …

Chicago Bears. Ten wins will get them a wild-card spot.

Now …

Ten wins got the Falcons and the Lions into the playoffs. But Cutler's season-ending thumb injury cost the Bears a playoff spot and GM Jerry Angelo his job.

Score: 0 points.

25. Runner-up

Then …

Dallas Cowboys. For a pleasant change, the Cowboys aren't all hat, no cattle.

Now …

Actually, they were more like dairy cows.

Score: 0 points.

26. The AFC team most likely to surprise us

Then …

Jacksonville Jaguars. Reason: With Manning's return date a mystery and the Texans' nagging history of missing the playoffs, the Jags have a real opportunity to make some unexpected noise.

Now …

Well, they surprised us by cutting quarterback David Garrard. Then they surprised us by going 5-11, firing coach Jack Del Rio and selling the team. But I didn't predict any of that. So …

Score: 0 points.

27. Runner-up

Then …

Cleveland Browns. A soft-ish early season schedule gives the Browns a chance for a fast start.

Now …

The Browns won two of their first three games and three of their first six. Big whoop. They ended up with four victories.

Score: 0 points.

28. NFC player who will feel the most pressure

Then …

Julio Jones
If the Falcons' Julio Jones felt any pressure this season, he did a good job of hiding it. He excelled.

Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons. He doesn't have to be Roddy White this season, but he absolutely can't be Darrius Heyward-Bey, who has a grand total of 35 receptions and two TDs after being chosen with the seventh overall pick by Oakland in 2009.

Now …

At times, Jones was better than White, which is saying something. He had 54 receptions, 959 yards and eight TDs, but here's the revealing number: a 17.8-yard-per-catch average (higher than Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and White, among others). And by the way, Heyward-Bey had a nice little season himself.

Score: 1 point.

29. AFC player who will feel the most pressure

Then …

Kerry Collins, Indianapolis Colts. If you think Collins is gray now, wait until he has to carry the Colts during Manning's absence. He'll need a vat full of Just For Men.

Now …

Collins felt it … and couldn't handle it. He lasted three games (49.0 completion percentage, 2 TDs, 1 interception), was winless and ended the season on the IR because of a concussion.

Score: 1 point.

30. NFC South

Then …

(Order of finish)

New Orleans Saints -- I'm not messing with history anymore. No team has ever won back-to-back NFC South Division titles. I thought the Saints would end the streak last year, but Atlanta finished ahead of them. So now it's the Saints' turn to win the division and much, much more.

Atlanta Falcons -- If I felt a tiny bit better about the Falcons' defense, they'd be the pick here.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- The Bucs are younger than Justin Bieber, but, man, do they have some talent. Too bad they're in this division. Then again, they proved everyone wrong last year, too.

Carolina Panthers -- The Panthers are going to double their win total of a season ago! And still finish with the worst record in the NFC.

Now …

The Saints won the division but couldn't make it past the divisional playoffs. … Atlanta finished 12th in total defense, but the Falcons couldn't beat the Saints and actually lost to Tampa Bay. … The Bucs ended up 4-12 and Raheem Morris got pink-slipped. … Carolina actually tripled its win total from a season ago -- from two to six.

Score: Half-point.

31. AFC team most likely to flop

Then …

Indianapolis Colts. With the uncertainty regarding Manning's return, anything is possible, including their first single-digit win total since 2001 and a playoff no-show.

Now …

A 2-14 record. A housecleaning of management and coaching staffs. Yeah, I'd say the Colts did a belly flop.

Score: 1 point.

32. Runner-up

Then …

Miami Dolphins. It's not like anyone is picking the Fish to win the division or reach the postseason. ... A three-win season, or worse, is a distinct possibility.

Now …

Has to be the Chargers and their 8-8, no-playoff season.

Score: 0 points.

33. NFC team most likely to flop

Then …

Tom Coughlin
Second-guess the head coach of the NFC champions? Never!

New York Giants. New York fans are known for their patience and they rarely second-guess coach Tom Coughlin.

Now …

Twelve games into the season, you could get 100-1 odds on the Giants to win the Super Bowl. They entered the NFC Championship Game as 3-1 favorites. Who knew the smart guys in Vegas could screw it up as badly as I did?

Score: 0 points.

34. Runner-up

Then …

Chicago Bears. I know, I had them as a surprise candidate, too. But this is how thin the margin of error is with the Bears.

Now …

The Bears were 7-3 when Cutler got hurt, 1-5 in the post-Jay era. Goodbye, playoffs.

Score: 1 point.

35. Your Week 1 Upset Special

Then …

In the Ryan Bowl, Rob will beat Rex. In other words: Cowboys 20, Jets 17 at the New Meadowlands.

Now that I'm done with that, let's go eat a GD snack.

Now …

And they would have won had Tony Romo not thrown a last-minute interception to Revis Island.

Score: 0 points.

36. Tim Tebow will start for the Broncos if …

Then …

Why doesn't everyone breathe slowly into a paper bag, give Tebow some elbow room and let him develop. Either he'll get it, or he won't.

My prediction: He's no washout.

Now …

He's still a work in progress, but he went 8-5 as a starter, including the playoffs (and that thriller OT win against Pittsburgh). He also led the Broncos to five fourth-quarter comebacks.

Score: 1 point.

37. NFC West

Then …

(Order of finish)

St. Louis Rams -- If the Rams can avoid a 1-6 start, they have enough wiggle room in the second half of the season -- and enough talent -- to recover and win the division.

Kellen Clemens
That is not Sam Bradford at QB for the Rams. It's Kellen Clemens. 'nuff said.

Arizona Cardinals -- This year [they] get Kevin Kolb, who has to be worth at least three more wins, right? And the early-season schedule is warm and fuzzy.

San Francisco 49ers -- Is this the season Alex Smith finally figures it out? … I think Smith makes a quantum quarterback leap, thanks to the same guiding Jim Harbaugh hand that helped Andrew Luck at The Farm.

Seattle Seahawks -- Remember those seven regular-season victories, the division title, the playoff win against New Orleans in 2010? Good, because none of that is going to happen this year.

Now …

Guess what? The Rams couldn't avoid the 1-6 start, QB Sam Bradford couldn't avoid injury and Steve Spagnuolo couldn't avoid getting fired. The good news? Mel Kiper says they can get Oklahoma State WR Justin Blackmon with the No. 2 pick. … Kolb was a semi-bust, but the Cards still finished second in the division at 8-8 (thank you, John Skelton). … I got the Smith/Harbaugh part right, but third place? Dumb. … Seattle got the seven wins but no backdoor playoff spot this time.

Score: 0 points.

38. Team with the best chance to go undefeated

Then …

New England. The first half of the schedule gives the Patriots a crack at an 8-0 start (the Chargers, the Jets and the Cowboys all at Foxborough, but the eighth game is at Pittsburgh). After that, two road toughies: at the Jets on Nov. 13 and at Philly two weeks later.

Now …

The Patriots made it to the third game before losing. To Buffalo. So much for that.

Score: 0 points.

39. Team with the best chance to go winless

Then …

Cincinnati Bengals. It's entirely possible Bengals fans will refer to the 4-12 record of 2010 as "the glory days."

Now …

Well, I've already taken my Bengals whupping like a man. The Colts made a run at 0-16, but the streak ended after 13 consecutive losses.

Score: 0 points.

40. AFC Playoffs: Last Team In

Then …

Baltimore Ravens. They sweat it out with nine wins.

Now …

They didn't sweat out a thing. They won 12 games and won the division. The Bengals were the last ones in.

Score: 0 points.

41. AFC Playoffs: Last Team Out

Then …

Indianapolis Colts. Manning returns, but not in time to rescue the Colts from getting shut out of the postseason.

Now …

The Colts were basically eliminated in Week 1. If I could give myself negative points on this, I would.

Score: 0 points.

42. NFC Playoffs: Last Team In

Then …

Dallas Cowboys. As long as Wade Phillips was their head coach, I couldn't pick the Cowboys to beat Plano High.

Now …

Actually, the Cowboys were eliminated in Week 17.

Score: 0 points.

43. NFC Playoffs: Last Team Out

Then …

Detroit Lions. If Stafford spends the entire season in a Lions uni and not part of it in street clothes, then Dr. James Andrews deserves a playoff share. And I deserve to be mocked for leaving them out of the NFC postseason six.

Now …

Mock away. The Lions were the last team in.

Score: 0 points.

44. AFC Championship

Then …

Pittsburgh vs. New England. A rematch of the Oct. 30 regular-season game, except this time the Patriots will have the home-field advantage. It won't matter, though, as Roethlisberger leads the Steelers to their fourth Super Bowl appearance in the past seven years.

Ben Roethlisberger
Our man said the Steelers would win the Super Bowl. Ben Roethlisberger's body language in Denver said something else.

Now …

Got half of it right. Sort of. Argh, forget it.

Score: 0 points.

45. NFC Championship

Then …

New Orleans vs. Green Bay. The two teams that started the NFL regular season also end the NFC playoff season.

Now …

It's not my fault the Packers forgot they were 15-1. Or that the Saints couldn't hold on to a last-minute lead against the Niners.

Score: 0 points.

46. And the Super Bowl winner is …

Then …

You'd think the fast track at Lucas Oil Stadium would favor the Saints, but it's the Steelers who air it out against [Gregg] Williams' defense.

Now …

OK, I took the Super Bowl oh-fer.

Score: Zero points.

And Geno's grand total is …

Score: 15 points, which means thigh pad status. Not bad, not great.

But no use giving up.

Giants 24, Patriots 23.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

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