By Brandon Niles Explorebigsky.com Sports Columnist

With the 2012 NFL regular season underway, it’s time to look at the league and see what fans might be in store for this year. 2011 was an amazing year, with record breaking passing numbers throughout the NFL. Three players threw for over 5,000 yards last season—a feat only two players in the history of the league had ever done before. Drew Brees broke the record for passing yards in a season, a record set by Dan Marino nearly 30 years ago!

Some speculate that the high passing numbers were in part due to modern rules, which favor the offense. Defensive backs can no longer touch the receiver beyond five yards, and pass rushers are consistently under the watchful eye of the league office for illegal hits on the quarterback. Others think that the lockout last season left defenses ill prepared for the season, inflating passing statistics around the league. I think it was probably a combination of the two.

This season, we’ll see whether the passing numbers of 2011 were an aberration, or a sign of things to come. Drawing further intrigue into the current passing phenomenon, 10 teams this year will start the season with a first or second year quarterback at the helm, including five rookies. This is a huge deviation from the norm, where veteran signal callers are typically used as a bridge between youth and the future. Not anymore. With the increased success of rookie quarterbacks over the past five years, the pressure will be on for these rookies to make a big impact early in the season.

Whether the players succeed or not, we should be in for another entertaining NFL season, and for me, it’s the best time of year. As I survey the field, trying to determine what will happen as the 2012 season unfolds, that familiar excitement builds within me. It’s football season.

Here are my predictions for 2012:

National Football Conference

NFC EAST – Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles look great on paper, and toward the end of 2011, all those defensive stars began to learn how to play together. With a strong draft class that includes penetrating defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, the Eagles might be ready to take the next step as division winners. A lot will depend on the health of Michael Vick, but if the team stays healthy, they’ll be Super Bowl contenders.

NFC WEST – Seattle Seahawks

This is a bold pick, as most people are picking the 49ers to repeat as division champs. I’m predicting the 49ers take a step back this year. They have a shaky secondary, and I don’t think quarterback Alex Smith will be able to repeat his performance from last year. The Seahawks have a good defense and a new quarterback, so they have the potential to fall on their face, or rise above the rest of the division. Count me as someone who believes the latter.

NFC NORTH – Green Bay Packers

The Packers have one of the best offenses in the league, and this year they should have an improved running game with the addition of Cedric Benson. During the draft, the Packers shored up a pass rush that struggled all season in 2011, and this year they should be right back in the hunt for another Super Bowl title.

NFC SOUTH – New Orleans Saints

This could be one of the most competitive divisions in football this season. With the Panthers and Bucs improving and Atlanta on the cusp of being a contender, the Saints won’t have an easy time dominating the division. Still, as long as Drew Brees is in charge, the Saints remain the cream of the NFC South crop.

WILDCARDS – New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons

The NFC is going to be difficult this year, with the Giants, Cowboys, Bears, 49ers and Panthers all looking to make a move. However, the Giants are too deep on the defensive side of the ball to give up their spot in the playoffs and the Falcons look ready to take a big step with the development of their passing game and the arrival of cornerback Asante Samuel. This will be a fight to the finish.

American Football Conference

AFC EAST – New England Patriots

It’s difficult to imagine the Patriots taking a step back with Tom Brady leading the charge. He remains one of the best in the game and the rest of the offense has actually improved over the off-season by adding vertical threat Brandon Lloyd at the wide receiver position.

AFC WEST – Denver Broncos

All four of the teams in this division have the potential to rise up or completely crash. The Broncos have added future hall of fame quarterback Peyton Manning to lead their team after he spent 2011 on the sidelines with an injury. If he can stay healthy, he should be the difference-maker in the division.

AFC NORTH – Baltimore Ravens

The Steelers and Bengals will be in the mix, but the Ravens look poised and ready to take the division after they came within a game of the Super Bowl again last season. With an improved passing game and star running back Ray Rice leading the offense, the Ravens should be right back in the hunt again in 2012.

AFC SOUTH – Houston Texans

The Texans need to stay healthy in order to win the division again, but with arguably the best running game in the league and a stellar defense, the Texans should be able to repeat as division champions. Last year, they managed to do it without their starting quarterback or their star wide receiver. This year, they’re hoping both will be available all season.

WILDCARDS – Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets

Defense is the reason these two teams are mentioned here. Both teams have quarterbacks who can step up when the game is on the line and both teams have elite defenses, and the Jets should be even better this year. They added Quinton Coples in the draft and brought in LaRon Landry to improve their secondary. While the Chargers, Bengals, and Titans will be vying for a spot, these two teams will ultimately win out.

SUPER BOWL – Baltimore Ravens over the Green Bay Packers

This will be the year the Ravens finally take that next step forward and quarterback Joe Flacco becomes an elite player at his position. The Packers will win the NFC, but will fall short to a punishing Baltimore defense led by defensive lineman Haloti Ngata, and a dominant run game with Ray Rice.

No matter the outcome, I have an emphatic answer for the iconic question “Are you ready for some football?” Absolutely.

Brandon Niles has done online freelance writing about
the NFL since 2007. His articles range from NFL news
to team-specific commentary. A Communication Studies
graduate student at the University of North Carolina
Greensboro, Niles is also an avid Miami Dolphins fan,
which has led to his becoming an avid Scotch whisky fan
over the past decade.