Expect the New England Patriots and Houston Texans to be two of the leading teams in the 2012 AFC season (Image | Getty)

It is often referred to as America’s game and the parallels between the nation and its most popular sport are too many to list, but one thing is for sure the NFL is all about ‘big’. It is the most profitable sports league in the world with television deals worth $27 billion, and franchises worth an average of $1.2 billion. Each NFL season is worth about $9 billion dollars to the US economy, this compared to $7.5 billion for the NBA or $3 billion for the NHL. Pro football is big business and this season is promising not to disappoint.

The 2012 schedule kicked off on Wednesday with a 24-17 triumph for the Dallas Cowboys over the Super Bowl champion New York Giants. This season looks to be closer than any in recent memory with almost all of the thirty-two teams significantly bolstering their rosters in the off season. So here is The Armchair Pundits’ preview to the 2012 NFL season; we will take a look division by division and pick the playoff picks from each and then at the end a Super Bowl prediction, that’s right we are picking the overall winner before it has even began.

Tonight: previewing the AFC

East

The AFC East has been the most uncompetitive division in the NFL over the past ten years with the New England Patriots claiming the division title nine out of the last eleven seasons. That does not look like it is going to change this year, with the Patriots looking to repeat their trip to last year’s Super Bowl. The Patriots have strengthened their offence adding deep threat Brandon Lloyd to a passing offence that could put up forty five points a week quit easily. They may well have to do just this with their defense, which was ranked 31st in the league last season. Some strong additions have been made such as rookies Dont’a Hightower and Chandler Jones but look for the Patriots to outscore opponents rather than grind them down on defense.

Standout defensive end and former Texan Mario Williams brings star quality to the Buffalo Bills (Image | bettor.com)

Elsewhere in the AFC East the Buffalo Bills have made significant strides to improving their defense with the record signing of the best defensive end in the league, Mario Williams. Buffalo could be a good pick for one of the wild card spots if they are able to keep offensive production at a consistent level.

The New York Jets have had yet another dysfunctional off-season. The signing of Tim Tebow led to months of debate on whether he or Mark Sanchez should be starting quarterback. What is definitely true is that the Jets will have to dramatically up their pre-season offensive effectiveness if they are to have any chance of a winning season. The Jets scored one touchdown in 240 minutes preseason play. Unfortunately for Jets fans this season will most likely be another full of disappointment and dysfunction with the Jets ending up with a losing record.

Much to the dismay of Miami fans the Dolphins find themselves in yet another “rebuilding” season as the search continues for a QB to replace the immortal Dan Marino. Rookie Ryan Tannehill is the latest to attempt this feat and he will need running back Reggie Bush to finally live up to his college promise if the Dolphins are to break their fifteen year funk.

In the end, the Patriots, perennial title contenders, will win the division, securing home field advantage in the process with a 12-4 record. The Bills will perform far better than expected finishing 9-7, gaining their first playoff berth since 1999. Miami will finish third at 6-10 after rallying to a promising finish to the regular season and the Jets will struggle to a 5-11 record.

South

The Houston Texans find themselves in the surprising position of being heralded as the team most likely to win their division in the whole league. Matt Schaub will return as the QB of an underrated offense that will churn out easy wins against each of the Texans’ division rivals. This ought to be the year the Texans finally make it to the big show, they certainly have all the tools in place to do so if Schaub stays healthy – although that is a big if.

Behind them, the Tennessee Titans are one of those average teams that could, like last year’s Bengals, rally to a wild card spot. Apart from running back Chris Johnson they look decidedly adequate however if QB Jake Locker starts turning it on, getting the completion percentage up above last year’s 51.5 percent then look to the Titans to sneak into the playoffs on the last day of the season.

Stanford standout Andrew Luck steps into big shoes as the rookie QB joins up with the Indianapolis Colts (Image | AP)

The Indianapolis Colts followed the Peyton Manning tradition of drafting a once-in-a-lifetime talent at QB with Andrew Luck who looked well rounded in pre-season. Unfortunately he lacks the weapons he would need around him to be affective this season but look to the future because with Luck the Colts have a bright future.

Lastly, theJacksonville Jaguars round off the division needing too many pieces to be competitive this season. Maurice Jones-Drew will be relied on too much in this one dimensional offense, which ranked 32 nd last season. The Jaguars need to obtain an elite QB because Blaine Gabbert, unless radically improved, is not good enough for the Jaguars to hope for anything better than a 500. season.

If all goes as it should in the South, the Texans will win the division with an impressive, AFC-best 14-2 record. Titans will finish 9-7, possibly sneaking them into a wild card spot. The Colts will finish 7-9 with their eyes on the future and the Jaguars record will stand at 3-13 with the organization looking to rebuild with a strong Draft.

West

The AFC West is the most difficult division to predict with all four teams having the potential to make it to the post season. However, the Denver Broncos have the odds in their favor. They only just snuck into the playoffs last year with Tebow at the helm and this year they have Manning, arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, leading their offense. If the Broncos can keep Manning healthy then the division is theirs.

The work of the Kansas City Chiefs’ defensive co-ordinator Anthony Pleasant is paying dividends (Image | Kansas City Star)

The Kansas City Chiefs, who seem to have been rather unlucky over the past few seasons, should if all goes to plan, see a return to the playoffs. With a strong defensive line and multiple deep threats on offense the Chiefs, barring injury, should have a promising year and could well regain the division title they won two years ago.

Filling out the West, Oakland Raiders and the San Diego Chargers are both teams who are on the up. The Raiders especially have a plethora of young talents which should stand them in good stead in the future. The Chargers have been the division’s perennial underachievers but with new defensive coordinator, John Pagano, they may well finally have a defense that can match the panache of the Chargers’ high-powered offense.

In the AFC West expect a fight to the finish with head to head records playing their part in the final outcome. Both the Chiefs and the Broncos should finish 9-7, the Chargers 8-8 and the Raiders 6-10.

North

The rough and tumble AFC North is the Baltimore Ravens’ division to lose. With a strong offense led by the persistently underrated Joe Flacco will keep the points coming while the dynastic defense led by Ray Lewis keep the other team’s scoring at bay. The Ravens have lost at the division or conference championship stage of the playoffs five of the last six years, so this year look for them to take it to the next level and reach their first Super Bowl since 2000.

Will we see more spectacular aerobatics from Bengals star Jerome Williams in the coming campaign? Will Daryl Washington be so lenient next time? (Image | AP)

Elsewhere, last season was surprisingly successful for the Cincinnati Bengals with their stout defense (6th-ranked) and their high flying offense (sometimes literally if your name is Jerome Simpson). This season the Bengals will continue to quietly churn out wins (again a refreshing concept given their noisy Ochocinco-filled past). One should anticipate that the Bengals will build on last season’s success as QB Andy Dalton grows in confidence.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, one of the strongest teams of the past ten years, are in a period of transition with their new offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Ben Roethlisberger, will continue to scramble around the pocket and the Steelers will continue to be contenders for another season at least.

The Cleveland Browns, oh the Cleveland Browns. They should be called the Cleveland ‘Rebuilders’ as that is all they ever seem to be doing. How do you rebuild if you have nothing to start with, is that not just building? They just cannot seem to hold down a good quarterback. Nevertheless, the Browns do have a promising young team who will be sure to produce some offensive highlights in a division traditionally dominated by strong defenses.

The AFC North is the hardman division of the AFC, with each of the four teams displaying strong defense - but will this be enough to see this division of permanent contenders bring home another Super Bowl? The Ravens will finish 11-5, the Bengals will be one of five AFC teams with a 9-7 record ensuring some final week pyrotechnics. The Steelers will finish with their first losing record since 2003 at 7-9. The Browns will improve slightly on last year finishing 5-11.

Josh’s Predictions

AFC playoff teams: New England Patriots, Houston Texans, Denver Broncos, Baltimore Ravens

Wild Cards: Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs

AFC Champions: Houston Texans

Read on to Part Two of Josh’s season preview

Have your say | Tweet the author | @JoshMott8

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