Maiocco's NFL predictions: Good season ahead for Bay Area


In a move that's been telegraphed for several months now, my pick for the Super Bowl winner should not be a surprise.

Go ahead and call me a "homer." That's a lot better than what many of you were calling me after I made my prediction in January for the NFC Championship game. But, again, I call it as I see it.

Here are my NFL predictions for the 2012 season. And, please, hold your applause until the first Sunday in February:

AFC (playoff seed)
1) New England Patriots (2)
2) Buffalo Bills (5)
3) New York Jets
4) Miami Dolphins

1) Baltimore Ravens (4)
2) Cincinnati Bengals
3) Pittsburgh Steelers
4) Cleveland Browns

1) Houston Texans (1)
2) Indianapolis Colts
3) Tennessee Titans
4) Jacksonville Jaguars

1) Oakland Raiders (3)
2) San Diego Chargers (6)
3) Denver Broncos
4) Kansas City Chiefs

AFC Wildcard round
Raiders (3) over Bills (6), Ravens (4) over Chargers (5)

AFC Divisional round
Texans (1) over Ravens (4), Patriots (2) over Raiders (3)

AFC Championship Game
Texans (1) over Patriots (2)

1) Dallas Cowboys (3)
2) Philadelphia Eagles (5)
3) New York Giants
4) Washington

1) Detroit Lions (4)
2) Green Bay Packers (6)
3) Chicago Bears
4) Minnesota Vikings

1) Atlanta Falcons (2)
2) Carolina Panthers
3) New Orleans Saints
4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

1) San Francisco 49ers (1)
2) Seattle Seahawks
3) St. Louis Rams
4) Arizona Cardinals

Wildcard round
Packers (6) over Cowboys (3), Lions (4) over Eagles (5)

Divisional round
Falcons (2) over Lions (4), 49ers (1) over Packers (6)

NFC Championship Game
49ers (1) over Falcons (2)

Super Bowl XLVII
49ers over Texans

MVP: Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford
Stafford remained healthy for the first time in his career for a full 16 games, so it should come as no surprise he experienced his breakout season. With a very strong corps of receivers, led by Calvin Johnson, and the lack of a powerful run game, the Lions will pin all their hopes on Stafford. And he will deliver. His touchdowns will rise, his interceptions will fall, and the Lions will overtake the Packers to win the NFC North.

Offensive player of the year: Ravens running back Ray Rice
He is the do-everything Ravens offensive player who rarely comes off the field. The Ravens' defense will continue to do the heavy lifting, and the offense will not have to do too much. And Rice will be in the middle of just about everything on offense. Baltimore does not have a great offensive line, but Rice does not need much room. He will also be a favored target of quarterback Joe Flacco, who might not have much time to get the ball down the field.

Defensive player of the year: 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith
He should have won this award last year. He was the best defender in the league. It seems as if just now -- entering his 12th NFL season -- that he is beginning to get the kind of recognition he deserves. Smith is an absolute game-changer. He is stout against the run, and he is a selfless performer in the passing game, too. He probably will not exceed 10 sacks, but he'll enable outside pass-rusher Aldon Smith to excel, too.

Offensive rookie of the year: Colts quarterback Andrew Luck
Sorry. No points for originality here. Luck came to the Colts with the No. 1 overall pick, which is all the evidence you need to discover he does not have much of a supporting cast. But Luck is now a full-time football player. Instead of spending time attending classes at Stanford, he's spending that time in the film room. There will not be a better-prepared rookie. Yes, the Colts offensive line is bad, but Luck will know defenses so well that he will not take the hits you'd expect most rookies in his spot to absorb. That will keep him healthy. And that will keep the Colts' offense moving.

Defensive rookie of the year: Texans linebacker Whitney Mercilus
Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans are gone. And Mercilus steps in to be one of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' key pieces of this 3-4 scheme. He had 16 sacks at Illinois last season, and that kind of pass-rush ability is something that can't be taught. Mercilus will step in and become a major reason the Texans are the best team in the AFC.

Comeback player of the year: Raiders running back Darren McFadden
Yeah, the comeback player will be from the AFC West, and it will not be the quarterback in Denver. McFadden will remain healthy. And that means he'll return to being his usual explosive, productive self -- for more than just seven games. McFadden will erase any doubt about how he fits into Greg Knapp's offense and the new blocking scheme to rank among the league leaders in rushing.

Coach of the year: Raiders coach Dennis Allen
There is not a whole lot of national buzz surrounding the Raiders, who have not experienced a winning season since 2002. Allen will make the biggest impact of any coach in the league because there's so much that needs fixing with this organization. The penalties will return to acceptable levels, the Raiders will win more than they lose, and the NFL Coach of the Year award will remain in the Bay Area after Jim Harbaugh was the clear winner a year ago. Allen, the youngest coach in the NFL at 39, will engineer the return of the Raiders.

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