10 bold NFL predictions for second half

BY Peter Schrager • November 8, 2011

Looking back on my "20 Bold and Beautiful Predictions for 2011" column from August, there are some things I was right about and some that I was — well — way, way off on.

With more than just a stink of arrogance, I wrote the following, with my know-it-all hat atop my head and my chest puffed out wide, just three months ago:

"Bengals rookie Andy Dalton won't fare nearly as well as Cam Newton. The Bengals will go a league-worst 1-15, putting them in the driver's seat in the all-important 'Race for Andrew Luck.' Similar to Jimmy Clausen in Carolina in 2010, Bengals brass will need to decide whether they plan on sticking with their second round pick or go with another QB first overall in April. I'll save my 2012 NFL draft predictions for a bit later in the year."

Yep. That was me! A genius.

Sure enough, Cincinnati is 6-2, tied for the best record in the AFC and the Bengals have won five straight games. When was the last time Cincinnati won five straight games? Dalton also has 12 touchdown passes through the first eight games of the season, the most ever by a rookie in his team's first eight games of the season since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.

But I'm hesitant to give Bengals fans the green light to book Super Bowl travel plans just yet. Before we dig into the Week 10 Cheat Sheet picks, here are my thoughts on the mighty Bengals and nine other things to look for in the second half of the 2011 regular season:

1. The Bengals Will Come Back Down to Earth in the Season's Second Half

You can't take anything away from a team that replaced a two-time Pro Bowl quarterback, its top two receivers, a longtime offensive coordinator and a Top 5 NFL cornerback in a condensed NFL offseason, and gets off to a 6-2 start.

But before we give the Bengals the keys to Indy and their fans a reason to throw a parade, let's take a look at who they've beaten and what's ahead.

The Bengals' six wins came against teams that average 2.5 wins on the year.

In the next five weeks, the Bengals face the Steelers twice, travel to Baltimore and play Houston in a game which could make or break both team's playoff chances. Cincinnati also finishes the season with the Ravens. If the Bengals can go through that gauntlet and still make the playoffs, they'll be a hard team to beat come January.

2. A Very Stressful Christmas in New York

When you hear "Christmas in New York," you think about the tree outside Rockefeller Center, the Rockettes doing those leg kicks and all the fabulous windows dressed up along Madison Avenue. This year, New York sports fans will be thinking about playoff tiebreaker scenarios, 3-4 schemes and Ahmad Bradshaw's ailing foot.

The Giants and Jets, both very much in the hunt for division titles, square off at 1 p.m. on Christmas Eve. The outcome could be the difference in both teams' playoff lives. Thought the holidays were stressful enough, already? Toss in a "Win and In" scenario against your crosstown rivals in Week 16.

Nothing says "Christmas in New York" like a guy in a fireman's helmet and a Sanchez jersey screaming in the face of a curmudgeon dressed in blue.

3. The "Matt Barkley is a better pro prospect than Andrew Luck" bandwagon is going to pick up steam

We've seen this happen too many times before to not be prepared for it this time around. You know the story: "Can't miss prospect" gets a ton of media love throughout the college football season; after they're finished drooling over said prospect, the media and scouts begin to pick his game apart. Magically, a second quarterback is said to be as good, if not better, than the original golden boy. Manning-Leaf, Ryan-Henne, Bradford-Clausen, Newton-Gabbert — it happens every draft.

University of Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian, a former USC assistant, came out and said, "If I'm an NFL coach right now I would pick Matt Barkley ahead of Andrew Luck," on Monday.

That's only the tip of the iceberg. Don't be shocked if Barkley has more buzz surrounding him than Luck by the time April's draft rolls around.

4. The two Packers-Lions games could set the tone for the NFC Playoffs

It's all about the Packers at the moment, but the undefeated season and record-breaking talk could come to a screeching halt if the Lions beat Green Bay in front of a nationally televised audience on Thanksgiving.

The two teams then play again in a Week 17 matchup in Green Bay. The Packers will most likely have a playoff berth locked up by the season's final week, but the Lions could still be fighting for their first berth since 1999. Circle both those games.

If Detroit can go 2-0 over Green Bay in the regular season, there's reason to believe the Leos are more than just a bunch of talk and dirty play this season.

5. The Houston Texans will finish up strong

Since they first became an NFL franchise in 2002, the Texans have been absent from the NFL playoff picture. Barring an epic second half collapse, the lone NFL team to never reach January's Field of 12 should make it there this year.

The Texans finish the season with three very winnable games against the Panthers, Colts and Titans.

6. Jared Allen and DeMarcus Ware will both challenge Michael Strahan's single-season sack record

Though Aaron Rodgers' pursuit of various passing records will make more headlines, both Allen and Ware are on pace, through eight games, to surpass Michael Strahan's single-season sack record of 22.5, set in 2001.

Ware's pass rushing stats have been aided by Rob Ryan's 3-4 scheme (and padded by the emptiest four-sack effort ever last Sunday night versus the Eagles), while Allen's doing his handiwork without the services of departed free agent Ray Edwards on the other end of the line.

While it's not quite McGwire and Sosa simultaneously pushing each other towards 61, it's a fun race to watch between two of the game's elite defensive players.

Don't sleep on Jason Babin, either. The veteran Eagles pass rusher could become the Ken Griffey, Jr. in this race by season's end.

7. We will see Jason Campbell — the best quarterback in the AFC West this season — under center again in Oakland this year

Though it feels like ancient history now, the Raiders were — once upon a time — actually playing a very good brand of football this season, and Jason Campbell was much of the reason why. Campbell spent the offseason working with young receivers Darius Heyward-Bey, Jacoby Ford and Louis Murphy, and was the undisputed leader in the locker room.

He was working with an offensive coordinator he had worked with before in Al Saunders and he had the backing of his coach, Hue Jackson.

If — and that's a major "if" — Campbell is cleared and deemed healthy enough to be inserted back into the lineup, Jackson and the front office need to swallow their pride, ignore the media criticism of the Palmer trade and get him back in there.

Amazingly, the Raiders are still tied for first in the muddled AFC West standings. This division could still be won. Campbell's the guy to win it.

8. The Browns and Redskins may not win games the rest of the season

Both teams look awful and have looked awful for weeks.

In the case of Washington, they don't have the offensive firepower necessary to compete because of a string of crippling injuries that did them in towards the end of last month.

In the case of Cleveland, they don't have the offensive firepower necessary to compete because the front office never gave Colt McCoy any tools to work with this summer.

Look at the Browns depth chart when you get a chance. You can make the argument that pound for pound, starter for starter, there's no team in the league with worse running backs and worse receivers than the Browns. They traded away the fifth pick of the 2009 draft for a bounty of picks and veterans and the sixth pick in this year's draft for more future selections.

At what point does Cleveland just draft some talented players?

Neither the Skins' nor Browns' schedules get any better from here on out. Washington still has to face the Cowboys, Eagles and Giants once more, as well as the Jets and Patriots. Cleveland, meanwhile, has two games with the Steelers, two games with the Ravens and a meeting with the Bengals left on the slate. Yikes.

9. The 49ers can clinch the NFC West by Thanksgiving … and they will

There's no other team in the NFC West with more than two wins at the moment, and there's been no real signs of improvement from the other three squads in the division.

There's a very strong chance the Packers and 49ers clinch home games and first round byes by early December. It's like the mid-'90s all over again.

10. The Dolphins will finish up strong

The Dolphins have played good, sound football the past few weeks and were rewarded with a 31-3 win over the Chiefs on Sunday.

From here on out, don't be shocked if the Dolphins — a team with good talent on its roster — finds a way to string off a few victories and throw a corkscrew in a few opponents' seasons.

If I were to tell you the Dolphins were to beat the Jets and Bills down the stretch, would you be surprised? This team can play. "Suck for Luck" will be a distant memory once we hit the final few weeks of the season.

As for the Cheat Sheet, last week was a rough one. I'm putting it in the rearview mirror and moving right along. Here are this week's picks:

Week 9 record: 7-7

Overall Record: 87-45

Week 10 Cheat Sheet Trivia Question: Patrick Peterson's 99-yard punt return for a touchdown marked his third punt return of 80 yards or more for a score this season. Only one other player has returned three punts for 80 yards or more for scores in a season. Who is this man? (See below for answer)

Week 10 Picks

Thursday Night

Oakland at San Diego: Chargers 27, Raiders 21

Sunday, 1 pm EST

Arizona at Philadelphia: Eagles 27, Cardinals 21

Tennessee at Carolina: Panthers 31, Titans 27

Houston at Tampa Bay: Texans 27, Buccaneers 19

Washington at Miami: Dolphins 21, Redskins 3

Jacksonville at Indianapolis: Colts 24, Jaguars 23

Denver at Kansas City: Chiefs 34, Broncos 17

Buffalo at Dallas: Cowboys 21, Bills 17

New Orleans at Atlanta: Saints 34, Falcons 28

St. Louis at Cleveland: Rams 23, Browns 13

Pittsburgh at Cincinnati: Steelers 30, Bengals 17

Baltimore at Seattle: Ravens 24, Seahawks 13

NY Giants at San Francisco: Giants 27, 49ers 24 (OT)

Detroit at Chicago: Bears 31, Lions 23

Sunday Night

New England at NY Jets: Patriots 27, Jets 21

Monday Night

Minnesota at Green Bay: Packers 41, Vikings 23

Schrager Midseason Awards

MVP: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay

NFL Defensive Player of the Year: Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Cam Newton, QB, Carolina

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Von Miller, LB, Denver

NFL Comeback Player of the Year: Alex Smith, QB, San Francisco

NFL Coach of the Year: Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati

NFL Executive of the Year: Mike Brown, Cincinnati

Week 10: Cheat Sheet Trivia Answer: In 2008, Raiders punt return specialist Johnnie Lee Higgins accomplished the feat, returning punt returns of 80, 89 and 93 yards for touchdown scores.