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NFL season projections: Who rises and who falls in 2012?

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There's a new general leading Denver, and Pat Kirwan thinks he'll keep them atop the AFC West. (US Presswire)  
There's a new general leading Denver, and Pat Kirwan thinks he'll keep them atop the AFC West. (US Presswire)  

As the 2012 NFL season draws near, NFL Insider Pat Kirwan predicts how all 32 teams will finish the season.

AFC East

The AFC East has been a one-horse race for the top spot with the Patriots, but the Jets have made some noise in recent years claiming they're the team to beat. The Jets went backward a bit last year as they left their successful formula of a solid run game and aggressive defense.

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The Jets added to the 2012 drama with the addition of Tim Tebow, which undoubtedly puts pressure on Mark Sanchez. While all the drama surrounds Gang Green the Bills have taken a few big steps to close the gap on the top two teams. And some believe they are ready to pass the Jets for the No. 2 spot. Meanwhile down in South Florida, the Dolphins seem to be following the Jet formula rather than a quiet team building approach. Hard Knocks will be at camp while a rookie head coach trying to find his way in what could be a QB controversy.

The Patriots' Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski could not be stopped by division opponents last year as they combined for 93 receptions and 11 touchdowns. Tom Brady had no trouble throwing the ball against the division. Brady threw for 2,194 yards and 16 touchdowns against divisional foes and appears to have more weapons this.

The Bills beefed up their pass rush to get after Brady with the addition of Mario Williams and former Patriot Mark Anderson. It looks like Buffalo can get after any quarterback without blitzing and that's a good start to closing the gap on New England.

The Jets still have to blitz to get to Brady and he sees the blitz more than the blitz finds him. The Dolphins are changing to a 4-3 defense and it remains to be seen if they have enough to slow down the Pats offense.

AFC East: Pat Kirwan's 2012 Projected Team Records
PlaceTeamProjected RecordPat Kirwan's Take

1.

New England
New England
12-4The Patriots almost won last season's Super Bowl and still went out and signed 15 free agents to improve the roster. They also dedicated the first six picks in the draft to the defense. Bill Belichick has always loved "joker" players on defense that keep quarterbacks guessing whether they'll rush the passer or drop back into coverage. It used to be Teddy Bruschi, Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel. Now it's going to be Chandler Jones, Donta Hightower and Rob Ninkovich.

2.

Buffalo
Buffalo
9-7Last year when RB Fred Jackson could play 60 minutes of football, the Bills were 5-4. Without him, the Bills were 2-5 -- but it was an opportunity for C.J. Spiller to get more playing time and it now gives them great depth at the running back spot. Expect the Bills to use both running backs at the same time this year, which will present unique problems for opponents. As for the defense, there is great depth on the defensive line and the secondary looks solid in nickel or dime packages.

3.

N.Y. Jets
N.Y. Jets
8-8Using a Tebow package in the red zone is interesting, but pulling Mark Sanchez the first time he makes a mistake will cause problems in the locker room. Outspoken wide receiver Santonio Holmes will be quick to speak out against a passing game likely to disappear with Tebow under center. Tebow completed fewer than 15 passes in 10 regular season games last year. On defense, New York needs more of a pass rush without blitzing so much.

4.

Miami
Miami
5-11If it's truly a rebuilding season for the Dolphins, it probably means we will see rookie QB Ryan Tannehill early. The loss of Brandon Marshall is hard to make up for and Chad Ochocinco doesn't have enough left in the tank to close the gap. Without Marshall on the field, it will be tough on the quarterbacks to get a good feel for the coverages in front of them. Last year at least 60 percent of the opposing coverages involved a rotation to Marshall, which helped Dolphins QBs know where to go with the ball. As for the defense, they were solid and should be decent in 2012, but they don't get the ball back for the offense enough. They created 19 turnovers as compared to New England's 34 and 31 for both Buffalo and the Jets.

AFC North

Many consider the AFC North the best division in football and I certainly think it could be considered the toughest. Three teams (Ravens, Steelers, Bengals) made the playoffs last season and all three are contenders once again.

Not only did Baltimore win the division last season, it swept the division giving up only 15 points a game against Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Cleveland. The Ravens are facing setbacks with the losses of Jarrett Johnson and Cory Redding to free agency and Terrell Suggs to injury. As usual, Baltimore believes in the new players it will start: Paul Kruger for Johnson, Pernell McPhee for Redding and rookie Courtney Upshaw for Suggs. I have some concerns about the Ravens' pass protection and their ability to play consistently on the road where all five of their losses came.

The Steelers are getting old on defense (seven starters over the age of 30) but they still held 11 teams under 20 points and should be able to come close to that again. The offense is relatively young but in transition as Todd Haley revamps the Bruce Arians offense. Many suspect it means a return to the ground-and-pound philosophy, but that's probably not the case since the strength of this offense is at quarterback and wide receiver.

Cincinnati is an emerging team, but one that possibly had an inflated record last season when you consider it went 0-7 against playoff teams -- averaging only 16 points in those games. The Bengals' defense is solid with a strong defensive line rotation. As for the draft I thought it was excellent -- adding at least six players who will contribute in 2012.

Unfortunately for the Browns, they play in this division. Cleveland averaged 12 points against division opponents and a repeat of that production will put them right back in the basement. The Browns' defense is underrated, considering it surrendered only 20 points per division game last season. The focus of the draft was offense, and expect a rookie quarterback, running back and offensive tackle to start from Day One. Cleveland will close the gap in the division, but the record may not reflect it.

AFC North: Pat Kirwan's 2012 Projected Team Records
PlaceTeamProjected RecordPat Kirwan's Take

1.

Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh
11-5The Steelers were embarrassed by the Tim Tebow-led Broncos in the playoffs, sending them to an angry offseason. Their old defense will be fine early, but they need to produce more than the division-low 15 turnovers they got last season. Once a weakness, the offensive line is now a strength. Isaac Redman may be a better running back than Mendenhall. Not many teams can match up with WRs Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders.

2.

Baltimore
Baltimore
10-6The Ravens haven't been to the Super Bowl in 12 years, but they know how to get to the postseason. Joe Flacco takes some unwarranted criticism from hometown fans, but he has what it takes to get to the championship -- as does coach John Harbaugh. If the Steelers don't figure out Flacco (four TD passes last year) and Ray Rice (46 touches, 238 yards, three TDs) then I have the order in the standings wrong.

3.

Cincinnati
Cincinnati
9-7BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a perceived upgrade from last year's running back, Cedric Benson, but he better produce more than the 1,149 yards and six touchdowns Benson produced. QB Andy Dalton is an emerging star but six touchdown passes and seven interceptions in seven games against playoff teams isn't good enough.

4.

Cleveland
Cleveland
4-12I think Trent Richardson will have a 1,000-yard rookie season and QB Brandon Weeden will throw more touchdowns than Colt McCoy did last season. But amomg their first five games are dates opposite the Eagles, Giants and Ravens.

AFC South

The AFC south was dominated for a decade by the Peyton Manning-led Colts but those days are over with the Texans first to take advantage. Now, the Texans are going to find out it is harder to stay on top than climb to the top.

Houston lost key players in the offseason on the offensive line, traded away defensive leader DeMeco Ryans because he wasn't a great fit in the new 3-4 defense and will never know if Mario Williams would have been a 15-sack player in the new scheme.

The Titans were a very quiet 9-7 team last year and believe they can knock off the Texans. Tennessee's run defense gave up 650 yards rushing to Houston and Jacksonville in four games last year and unless they fix that problem they will fall short again.

Jacksonville hopes Blaine Gabbert can take a quantum leap in his second year. In 2011, Gabbert threw 3 touchdown passes in five division games. Compounding the Jaguars' issues is Maurice Jones-Drew holding out for more money. General manager Gene Smith says he expects MJD to honor the last two years of his contract.

The Colts are in a rebuilding phase with rookie Andrew Luck under center from day one. The Colts should be a better team in the second half of the season if Luck is still upright.

AFC South: Pat Kirwan's 2012 Projected Team Records
PlaceTeamProjected RecordPat Kirwan's Take

1.

Houston
Houston
9-7It looks like Matt Schaub is going to be ready for the season and that makes the Texans the favorite to win the division again. Games against the Dolphins and Jaguars mean Houston should get off to a fast start. But that will get evened out when they face Peyton Manning's Broncos and Aaron Rodgers' Packers in the next few weeks. It's no secret Houston wants to run the ball 35 times a game but without Eric Winston and Mike Brisiel up front it could be a bit tougher to generate the yardage.

2.

Tennessee
Tennessee
9-7Chris Johnson held out last year and got off to a terrible start. He has beefed up ten pounds and is ready to return to his pro bowl status. I think he's ready for a 1,200 yard rushing season and another 600 receiving. Look for Matt Hasselbeck to win the starting job from Jake Locker. The Titans will need his experience in the first four weeks when they face Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Mathew Stafford and Matt Schaub. The Titans run defense was bad last year and they may be weaker up front this year with the loss of Jason Jones and William Hayes. Tennessee has great hope that third-round pick Mike Marin will be a factor at the tackle position.

3.

Jacksonville
Jacksonville
6-10Jacksonville has the fourth-ranked quarterback in the division and that always spells trouble. Mike Mularkey is installing a new offense and MJD hasn't been there for any of it. It remains to be seen if the Jaguars' pass defense can handle the passing attacks they are going to see. It may take a year to build up the back end of the defense.

4.

Indianapolis
Indianapolis
2-14Andrew Luck is going to be an excellent pro quarterback, but there are questions in the offensive line and at running back. After Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie, there are questions at wide receiver as well. While the offense is in a rebuild the defense is trying to convert to a 3-4 package. Can Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis be as effective rushing from a linebacker stance and can either one of them drop into coverage when asked to drop?

AFC West

The AFC West didn't have one team with a winning record within the division last year. Every team went 3-3 in the division, and consequently the West was turned upside down.

Enter a new head coach in Oakland (and to some degree, Kansas City) as well as five new coordinators on offense or defense. Not one team had a top-10 defense and only San Diego had a top-10 offense.

The Chargers have been respectable over the past five years (10 wins per season) but the other three teams have been in a slump. Since 2007, Denver has averaged 7 wins, Kansas City 5.4 and Oakland 5.

The biggest story heading into 2012 is the arrival of Peyton Manning hoping to improve Denver's No. 25-ranked offense.

San Diego has played Manning well in the past, sporting a 5-4 record against him and giving up 16 touchdown passes, but intercepting him 18 times and sacking him 13 times. Manning has done better against Kansas City (7-1) and Oakland (3-2). With Manning joining Philip Rivers, Carson Palmer and Matt Cassel, this division has picked up the offensive firepower and the pass defenses better be on their game.

AFC West: Pat Kirwan's 2012 Projected Team Records
PlaceTeamProjected RecordPat Kirwan's Take

1.

Denver
Denver
10-6The Broncos won the division last year without Peyton Manning and it's hard to imagine they won't be better this year. Denver better be sharp early, because in their first eight games, they won't play a team that had a losing record in 2011. The Broncos were the No. 1 rushing offense in the NFL last year, thanks to Tebow contributing 660 yards, but this year, Manning will be lucky to gain 25 yards rushing. He might never cross the line of scrimmage because of his previous neck issues and his ability to beat teams throwing the ball.

The defense gets after the passer and will be even better this year when Manning scores points and forces opponents into one-dimensional passing teams. Denver really needs defensive tackles Ty Warren (injured all of 2011) and rookie Derek Wolfe to be stout against the run as teams try and keep Manning off the field by controlling the clock with a ground attack.

2.

San Diego
San Diego
9-7Hard to explain how Philip Rivers suffered 20 interceptions and lost five fumbles last year. When Rivers was picked two or more times last season, the Chargers were 2-6, and when he had fewer than two, they were 6-2. In the past two seasons, Rivers averaged 595 pass plays (37 per game) and even though he lost Vincent Jackson in free agency, he will continue to put it up with the addition of Robert Meacham and Eddie Royal.

On defense, they need rookie pass rusher Melvin Ingram to be effective early to complement Shaun Phillips and Antwan Barnes and move up from 23rd in the league in sacks. I got a very good look at the Chargers' top three draft picks at the Senior Bowl, and DT Kendall Reyes and S Brandon Taylor, as well as Ingram, should all contribute.

Things are quiet out in San Diego with all the focus on the Broncos and a fan base that did not want to see Norv Turner return. Turner is 49-31 as the Chargers' head coach and he deserves another shot at winning the whole thing.

3.

Kansas City
Kansas City
8-8The Chiefs had critical injuries last year in a disappointing season. The good news was they gave up only 13 points a game in divisional play, which was the stingiest in the AFC West. When Romeo Crennel took over as head coach, the defense gave up 33 points in the last three games of the season and are poised to have a solid 2012.

The offense gets back Jamal Charles, who causes matchup problems and has plenty of big-play potential. In the two years before his 2011 injury, he touched the ball 505 times for 3,352 yards and 16 touchdowns. Matt Cassel is considered the weakest of the four quarterbacks in the division, and once again he has a new offensive coordinator. Matt has had five different coordinators since he took the field in New England as a starter five years ago. The Chiefs stole a very good player when they signed OT Eric Winston (released by the Texans) but they have some scratching their heads about drafting nose tackle Dontari Poe in the first round.

The Chiefs have the receivers and tight ends to have an explosive passing attack this season and might be the surprise team in the AFC west.

4.

Oakland
Oakland
6-10New GM Reggie McKenzie had a lot of tough decisions to make to get the salary cap and contracts in order, and it will affect the quality of the 2012 football team. A year from now, we will look back on the purge and realize it was the right thing to do. The last time the once-proud Raiders were in the playoffs was 2002, and the fans are restless.

Carson Palmer came off the street and started the last nine games with little preparation and still threw for 2,753 yards. That projects out to a 4,400-yard season but he must cut down on the interceptions. He needs to take a page out of Eli Manning's book when he cut down on his 2011 interceptions and took a few more sacks.

As for the defense, there's a strong possibility middle linebacker Rolando McClain will miss a large part of the season for off-the-field issues. Oakland was 26th against the run with the big middle linebacker and the club might need to sign a veteran like Gary Brackett if McClain is on the sidelines. New head coach Dennis Allen has a fine defensive mind and will mix up the fronts, but in the end they are a better four-man front than a three-man front.

NFC East

This is truly a four-horse race. The Redskins beat the Giants twice last year and appear stronger this year, but their record might not indicate that by the end of the year with a rookie quarterback going though the growing pains.

The Eagles got the defense straightened out late in the year and will be back in 2012, ready to go with DeMeco Ryans running the unit. The Giants are the world champions and have the talent to do it again with Eli Manning fully established as an elite QB in the league. The Cowboys, ironically, are the team lying in the weeds going unnoticed, but have a chance to add six or seven new starters. Can Michael Vick stay healthy for 16 games and lead his team to a Super Bowl?

Can RG3 have a Cam Newton/Andy Dalton rookie season? Can the Giants stay hungry coming off the Super Bowl? Can the Dallas defense live up to its end of the bargain and take some of the pressure off Tony Romo and the offense?

NFC East: Pat Kirwan's 2012 Projected Team Records
PlaceTeamProjected RecordPat Kirwan's Take

1.

Philadelphia
Philadelphia
10-6Last year, the Eagles had the best divisional record at 5-1 and will need that performance again to nip the Giants for the division title. In 2011, Philly gave up 132 points (26.4 per game) in the first five weeks and went 1-4. That will not happen in 2012.

2.

N.Y. Giants
N.Y. Giants
10-6The Super Bowl champs got hot at the right time last year, but they also were 5-7 against the NFC and needed a 4-0 record against the AFC East to win the division. This year, they get the AFC North and have no room for error. A 3-3 repeat record in their own division will force them to settle for a wild card.

3.

Dallas
Dallas
8-8I believe the Cowboys will be a better team in 2012 than they were in 2011 with the additions of Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Brodney Pool in the secondary -- as long as they don't blitz all day. They lost all four games to Eli Manning and Michael Vick and gave up 122 points (30.5 average) in those four games.

4.

Washington
Washington
6-10The Redskins have a solid defense, but RG3 will play three of his first four games on the road, which is tough for any rookie. Cam Newton went 0-4 on the road to start his career. Washington will be a much better team in the second half of the season.

NFC North

The NFC North has three legitimate contenders for the playoffs: Green Bay, Detroit and Chicago.

No team scored more points than the Packers last season and they are capable of averaging 35 a game this season. The Lions have had off-field issues that could affect 2012 if maturity remains an issue. The Bears parted ways with Mike Martz, which helps pass protection and the run game if they get Matt Forte in on time. The Vikings are a work in progress and are developing a young quarterback, so this will not be their season.

Can the Packers improve the front seven on defense and create more pass rush and stop the run? If the Lions are to challenge for the division title, they have to slow down the Packers, who scored 72 points in two games against them last year. The Bears are sitting back with a more realistic offense this year while adding Brandon Marshall to the passing game. Can Chicago score points? In their last six games of 2011, they generated 85 points (14 per game) and can Jay Cutler play more than 10 games like he did in 2011? The Vikings have been raving about Jerome Simpson all spring, but he was recently suspended for the first three games. Christian Ponder needs to impress early, or the calls for Joe Webb will be loud and clear.

NFC North: Pat Kirwan's 2012 Projected Team Records
PlaceTeamProjected RecordPat Kirwan's Take

1.

Green Bay
Green Bay
11-5I think they are a better team than the 2011 team that went 15-1, but so are the Lions and Bears. If Nick Perry comes through early as a solid pass rusher opposite Clay Matthews, then the Packers can do better than 11-5.

2.

Chicago
Chicago
10-6I like the fact that Mike Tice runs this offense now. It should go a long way toward making Jay Cutler available for all 16 games and more effective. If they play their normal defense and improve their road record (3-5) they can beat out Detroit for the second spot.

3.

Detroit
Detroit
10-6Jim Schwartz will get the discipline issues straightened out, even if he has to cut someone. Can the running game become a factor for the team that threw the ball more (702 attempts) than any other team? The last game against the Bears probably will have wild-card implications.

4.

Minnesota
Minnesota
4-12The Vikings could have a better record (six games vs. teams with losing records in 2011) but they are putting a lot of pressure on rookie kicker Blair Walsh. Last year, they lost nine games by a touchdown or less.

NFC South

The NFC South has a very nice collection of quarterbacks leading their teams. Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton and Josh Freeman make this a very impressive division heading into 2012. The Saints, of course, have their own set of problems with coach and player suspensions. The Falcons know how to make the playoffs, but not how to win a playoff game and the pressure could be mounting. The Panthers are a "hot" team that went 4-2 down the stretch last year with Cam Newton's electrifying play. The Bucs fell apart in 2011 and the organization was overhauled. Enter college coach Greg Schiano and his no-nonsense style.

The NFC South faces a tough schedule with the NFC East and the AFC West this year. It could be the division winner winds up with a 10-6 record rather than a 13-3 record like the one the Saints had last year. The four defenses better be ready for Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, Michael Vick and Carson Palmer.

Can the Saints win the division without Sean Payton on the sideline for the whole season? Minus Will Smith for four games, can the Saints get after opposing quarterbacks with that pass rush? Did the Falcons hurt themselves on defense by letting middle linebacker Curtis Lofton go to the Saints? Can the Falcons get after quarterbacks this season after not really upgrading the pass rush?

Carolina has questions on a defense that gave up 30 or more points seven times, as well as giving Cam Newton more targets to throw to in 2012. The Buccaneers had the worst pass rush in the NFL last year and need immediate improvement. They dumped Josh Freeman's No. 1 target in 2011, Kellen Winslow, and they are holding their breath about Aqib Talib and a possible suspension.

NFC South: Pat Kirwan's 2012 Projected Team Records
PlaceTeamProjected RecordPat Kirwan's Take

1.

Atlanta
Atlanta
10-6There's a perfect opportunity for the Falcons to win the division with all the turmoil in New Orleans. Matt Ryan is only 2-5 vs. New Orleans, but there are no excuses now. Asante Samuels will help the secondary defend the pass.

2.

New Orleans
New Orleans
9-7The Saints will play with a chip on their shoulder and tons of pride, but Payton's absence will affect a game or two, for sure. The defense needs a pass rush. Drew Brees will put up points like always, but it remains to be seen what life without Carl Nicks means to the pocket protection.

3.

Carolina
Carolina
7-9The Panthers are headed in the right direction and could get to 9-7 with a little luck. Give some credit to the defensive coaches preparing for the Panthers offense and 16 games of tape to study Cam Newton. Cam had five rushing touchdowns after his first round of division games, but he wound up with only one after that.

4.

Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay
3-13Greg Schiano will eventually turn this franchise around, but it will take time. The Bucs defense gave up over 37 points a game in the second half of last season. Tampa Bay might want to be a running team, but what will they do in game when they're trailing in the second half?

NFC West

The NFC West has been a division where any team can emerge as the winner. It has been very unpredictable over the past few years to say the least, but after the 49ers went 13-3 last year, it appeared stability at the top would change the division's image.

The Niners lost only one starter (G Adam Snyder) in the offseason but added three veterans (Jacobs, Manningham, Moss), as well as their first three draft picks, who should enhance the offense. A repeat of the 2011 success still rests on the arm of QB Alex Smith.

The Seahawks are trying to decide who the starting quarterback is on a young, emerging team that is looking for more consistency. Last year, they stunned the Giants on the road but lost in Cleveland in their next game. Pete Carroll has built the biggest secondary in the NFL, and now it's time to get a better pass rush, which is why they shocked the draft when they selected Bruce Irvin in the first round.

The Cardinals also have a quarterback battle. Kevin Kolb was paid to be the starter but John Skelton wins more games mostly because he throws to Larry Fitzgerald no matter what the coverage dictates. The longer the team waits to decide the winner, the less likely it will be ready for the season opener against Seattle. Arizona's defense lives up to its end of the bargain when you consider it gave up 18.8 points a game in their six divisional contests and should be better in the second year under Ray Horton.

The Rams cleaned house after the season and paid Jeff Fisher to return to the sideline. The defense will be better under Fisher, but the offense, which scored fewer than 20 points in 13 games last season (and in six of eight divisional games), needs a big season from Sam Bradford.

The big division questions are: Can Alex Smith continue his growth under Jim Harbaugh's coaching? Will Matt Flynn solidify the Seahawks offense and reduce the sacks while throwing more touchdowns? Can the Cardinals running game finally be the factor head coach Ken Whisenhunt has been trying to build since he got to Arizona? Will the suspension of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams have a negative effect on the rebuilding of the Rams' defense?

NFC West: Pat Kirwan's 2012 Projections
PlaceTeamProjected RecordPat Kirwan's Take

1.

San Francisco
San Francisco
10-6I talked with Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner, Alex Smith, Joe Staley, Justin Smith and Aldon Smith, and to a man they really have an edge about them and look at 2012 as unfinished business. Alex Smith will get more freedom in the offense this year and have more weapons in the passing game. All 11 starters return to a defense that created 38 turnovers last year (2.3 per game). The opener at Green Bay could be a preview of the NFC Championship Game.

2.

Seattle
Seattle
8-8The 'Hawks like the way the defense is coming along and have high expectations for rookie pass rusher Bruce Irvin. On offense, there are questions to be answered about the pass protection, quarterback and production from the tight end position.

3.

Arizona
Arizona
7-9The Cardinals have playmakers in Patrick Peterson, Larry Fitzgerald, Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell, to mention a few. Can the offensive line jell, and will the team pick the right quarterback? The Cardinals will start the season with Seattle, New England and Philadelphia. They have four games on the East Coast, where they haven't played well in the past.

4.

St. Louis
St. Louis
5-11The Rams will be a better team this year if they keep players off injured reserve. Last year, they finished the season with cornerbacks who weren't even on their training-camp roster. There is a lot of pressure on their second-round pick, WR Brian Quick, to be a contributor early in the season.


Pat Kirwan has been around the league since 1972, serving in a variety of roles. He was a scout for the Cardinals and Buccaneers, a coach for the Jets as well as the team's Director of Player Administration where he negotiated contracts and managed the team's salary cap. He is the author of Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, and the host of Sirius NFL Radio's Moving the Chains.
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