The NFL season officially kicks off on Wednesday night with the reigning Super Bowl champion New York Giants facing the Dallas Cowboys.   America’s favorite sport returns, finally!   There is nothing like letting the football season help move autumn along.

On that note, this is my last chance to make a few predictions for the season while every team is still undefeated and most players are still healthy.

Sports Sense predicts:

Cam Newton will be Offensive Player of the Year

Every year it seems there is a surprise team in the NFL.  This year that team will be the Carolina Panthers.  The Panthers will supplant the leaderless New Orleans Saints and will show the Atlanta Falcons that there is a new team to be reckoned with in the NFC South.

Cam Newton

But that will only happen because last year’s runaway rookie of the year, Cam Newton, is big and strong-armed and can pass with the best of them.  He proved that last season by setting the NFL record for rookie passing yards.  The former Heisman Trophy winner was much better than advertised.  He is a legitimate star who will keep getting better.

Tim Tebow will eventually start for Jets

New York Jets incumbent starter Mark Sanchez is competent, only competent and more importantly still lacks the star quality which is what is required to be the man in the Big Apple.  His backup, Tim Tebow, though, has enough star power to fuel the entire team.   But the real question is; when Tebow does eventually supplant Sanchez, can he finally look like he belongs calling signals in the NFL, or will he continue to miss wide open receivers?  I say he takes a big step forward.

Peyton Manning will retire at end of season

Peyton Manning will not lead Tebow’s old team, the Denver Broncos to the playoffs.  Manning will play well but the injured neck which kept him on the sidelines all last season, will be on everyone’s mind including his, every time he gets sacked or knocked down during a pass rush.  Manning could retire at season’s end and return to his home in Indianapolis and lead cheers for Andrew Luck.

Peyton Manning

Indianapolis Colts begin turnaround

Manning’s old team, the Indianapolis Colts will be significantly improved, winning at least eight games, which is a big improvement over last season’s NFL worst two wins.  And Manning’s replacement Andrew Luck will vie for rookie of the year honors but he won’t win it.  On the downside for the Colts: a bad management decision is allowing wide receiver Austin Collie to return to action despite suffering another concussion during the preseason.  Collie could incur another head injury and be forced to retire.

Russell Wilson wins Rookie of the Year

The rookie of the year will be Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.  Wilson, the former University of Wisconsin and North Carolina State signal caller wrestled the starting quarterback spot from former Green Bay backup Matt Flynn, who many predicted would have a breakout year starting for Seattle.  Well at least Flynn is used to holding a clip board.  He’s going to be on the sidelines a long time.  Russell Wilson, while shorter at 5’11” than NFL scouts prefer their quarterbacks to be, simply knows what to do with a football.   Wilson, who has a real feel for the game despite his supposed size disadvantage, will outshine both Andrew Luck and Heisman Trophy winner, Robert Griffin III, who is now the Washington Redskins’ starting quarterback.

Russell Wilson

Regular NFL Referees Finally Earn Respect

While the NFL negotiators and Commissioner Roger Goodell let the referees’ lockout go on too long, it nonetheless served the purpose of showing just how valuable the regular guys in the striped shirts really are.  The replacement refs have served notice that they truly are out of their league with the kinds of mistakes and missed calls they made during the preseason.  I can’t see the owners wanting to squeeze the refs too much longer when the real games will be determined by some guy who officiated games in the Lingerie League.

Super Bowl Winner – Pittsburgh Steelers

I don’t think the New York Giants will repeat as Super Bowl champs because repeating is hard.  The Giants were lucky to even make the playoffs at all last season at 9-7.  But they will win the NFC East and win at least one playoff game.  The Green Bay Packers, who last year finished with the NFL’s best regular season will make the playoffs again, but I think they missed their window last season when they almost went undefeated and then lost at home in the playoffs. San Francisco will be good again, winning the NFC West division but will get a strong challenge from Seattle, which may earn one of the playoff wild cards.   The surprises in the NFC will be Carolina, and Seattle.  Detroit crashes back down to earth.  And Atlanta and Dallas will disappoint their fans again. In the end I see Carolina and San Francisco in the NFL Championship game, with the 49ers going to the Super Bowl this time.

On the AFC side, it’s still predictable and still strong, it’s the usual suspects, I believe Pittsburgh, New England, and Baltimore will have the conference’s best records, with San Diego and Houston winning their divisions, but are not quite on the level of the playoff regulars I just mentioned.  Kansas City will be much improved this season as will the Colts, but neither of those teams will make the playoffs.   The AFC Championship will pit the Steelers against New England with the Pittsburgh Steelers going to the Super Bowl.

In the end I pick the Steelers to defeat the 49ers to win a record seventh Super Bowl title.

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