Originally posted on isportsweb.com  |  Last updated 9/2/12

Can you feel it? The excitement, the anticipation, the overwhelming joyous feeling that is the start of the 2012 NFL season?

Week 1 is perhaps the second most special week in the entire pro football season, behind only Super Bowl week. Why, you ask? It’s a matter of hope. Every team, regardless of what the experts, pundits, and bloggers (such as myself) say, “has a chance.” This week, every team’s fans hold the hope that their team could be this year’s “it” team. The one team that no one expected to be any good that turns on that mythical switch and challenges for - or even winning (or repeating, for you Giants fans) – the Super Bowl. A beautiful fiction to be sure, but no matter how far-stretched that hope is, it still exists this week, and this week only.

Can Eli and the Giants repeat as Super Bowl champions? History suggests no, but history has been wrong before.

There are several things that will make this season an interesting one, maybe more so than any season in the past decade or more:

The Replacement Refs

Next to the concussion issue, this is probably the biggest thing in the NFL right now, and will be until the NFL brass sucks it up and makes a deal with the regular Zebras. The players have done nothing but complain, and some of the things these guys (and gal) are doing leave not only the media scratching their heads, but fans as well. I think my favorite example of the ineptitude that the replacements have shown is the non-touchback touchback from the first Redskins pre-season game. The ball was clearly downed at the 3 yard line, but the guys in stripes decided that should be a touchback. Now, I understand that these guys have a tougher job than most – especially because they are replacements – but if you are a referee in football at any level, isn’t a touchback ONLY if the ball goes into the end zone?

And that is just one of many examples one could bring. The pre-season has been a comedy of errors for these guys. It’s almost enough to make you feel kind of sorry for them. Almost. Here’s what I see happening. The NFL will allow this to go past week 1 and maybe even week 2. At some point, there will be a huge blown call (perhaps several) that will cost a team a game, and both the team and the fans will be so livid that the Commish and the owners will have no choice but to strike a deal with the regulars. It absolutely cannot go further than that.

The Rookie QBs

From right to left: Rookie QBs Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden, and Russell Wilson

There will be a record 5 rookie quarterbacks starting for their teams at the start of the 2012 season. You’ve got all the first rounders – Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck, Washington’s Robert Griffin III, Miami’s Ryan Tannehill, and Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden all at the top of their teams’ depth charts. You also have Seattle’s third round selection Russell Wilson who played himself the starter over free-agent signee Matt Flynn. This is unprecedented, as the previous record for starting rookie quarterbacks was 3 (in both 1983 and 2004). But even in those seasons, not all were the day 1 starters.

Based on what I have seen so far Luck, Griffin and Wilson will likely be the better performers this year (statistically speaking). Tannehill and Weeden have both shown flashes, but it looks like they will probably struggle more than their counterparts in Indy, Washington, and Seattle. However they all perform, it doesn’t change the fact that the NFL is now turning a page on the whole “sit for a season or two and learn” philosophy and taking the “trial by fire” initiative instead.

Injuries

Probably the single most important issue facing the NFL – not only now, but in the future – are how it deals with injuries and more specifically, concussions. The controversy has been building the past few years, fueled in large part by both former players and the media, and really exploded this past off-season with Junior Seau’s suicide. While the autopsy revealed no brain trauma that could have resulted in Seau’s decision to end his own life, it still brought to the forefront the issue of player safety. Is the NFL doing enough to keep players from devastating and debilitating injuries?

In my opinion, the NFL is doing what it can for current players. Various rule changes, equipment upgrades, and regulations regarding concussion or concussion-like symptoms have been instituted to help players stay healthy in a brutal game. But the game is, by nature, brutal. Current players have a share of the responsibility in relation to their health also, but understand in a culture of “suck it up and play” it is difficult do so.

The changes really have to be instituted from the bottom and work its way up. Coaches in pee-wee on through high school need to teach players differently. There was just a story on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” that covered a Pop Warner football player named Donovan Hill who was taught to tackle leading with his head. Hill – who was a very good player – is now a paraplegic because of one single tackle he made. Obviously not all youth coaches (and I would venture to say even most) teach this type of technique, but it’s still where change needs to start. Until it does, the status-quo will remain.

Predictions

This is probably what most of you want to read anyway, so I will get off of the preaching and on to the predicting. If you read my “Way Too Early” prediction blogs, you’ll likely notice some changes. I’ll be including my predictions as well as dark horse predictions as well.

AFC Division Winners

AFC East – New England Patriots

AFC North – Baltimore Ravens

AFC South – Houston Texans

AFC West – San Diego Chargers

Dark Horse Winners: AFC East – Buffalo Bills; AFC North – Pittsburgh Steelers; AFC South – Indianapolis Colts; AFC West – Denver Broncos

NFC Division Winners

NFC East – New York Giants

NFC North – Green Bay Packers

NFC South – Atlanta Falcons

NFC West – San Francisco 49ers

Dark Horse Winners: NFC East – Dallas Cowboys; NFC North – Detroit Lions; NFC South – New Orleans Saints; NFC West – Seattle Seahawks

AFC Championship - Baltimore Ravens vs. Denver Broncos

Dark Horse – New England Patriots vs. Houston Texans

NFC Championship – San Francisco 49ers vs. Detroit Lions

Dark Horse – Green Bay Packers vs. New York Giants

Super Bowl XLVII – Baltimore Ravens vs. San Francisco 49ers

Dark Horse – Houston Texans vs. Green Bay Packers

Super Bowl Champions – San Francisco 49ers

Dark Horse – Green Bay Packers

MVP – Matthew Stafford, QB Detroit Lions

Dark Horse – Eli Manning, QB New York Giants; Arian Foster, RB Houston Texans

I’m sure these selections will get me quite a few insults, but hey, I’m ok with that. Leave your comments below if you agree/disagree or whatever. All I ask is that if you disagree, back it up with why you disagree other than “you’re and idiot.”

It will be a great season, as always. Keep an eye out for my initial Power Rankings later this week.

FOOTBALL IS BACK, BABY!!

Follow me on Twitter @expertfan1

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