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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Friday, July 20, 2012 at 10:11 AM

Last year's NFL proved to be a feel-good time for the likes of the Detroit Lions and the Houston Texans - the former snapped a decade-plus year-long playoff drought while the latter made it to the post-season for the first time in its 10-year history and than who could forget the exploits of the born-again San Francisco 49ers?

The NFC West champs rock-n-rolled their way to a 13-3 SU (straight-up) regular-season record and were just mere moments away from playing for a Super Bowl crown in Year One of the Jim Harbaugh Era.

We bring up these three NFL teams because they each took giant steps forward to make their respective splashes on the pigskin scene and now the $64,000 question is what pro football squads are expected to make giant strides forward this year - and which NFL teams expected to do so may well fall short.

Okay, so here's three NFL teams that have grandiose thoughts regarding this upcoming 2012 season:

CAROLINA - It's safe to say there is a major buzz surrounding this year's Panthers after last season's league Rookie of the Year QB Cam Newton helped engineer a 6-win campaign that just so happened to include five losses by a full touchdown or less.

You know the deal: Now folks in/around Charlotte believe that Newton and Company will get "over the hump"and win those close games especially with an offense that's expected to be even better this time around (and note the Panthers averaged a heady 25.4 points per game in 2011).

Here's the problems:

Number one, Newton is now a "marked man"in this NFL and he figures to take some major hits once he decides to tuck-and-run and you tell us what's the odds of a quarterback - even one as large and physically imposing as Mr. Newton - staying in one piece throughout a blood-and-guts 16-game regular season?

Secondly, consider that the Panthers last year ranked a lowly 27th in the league in total defense while ranking 25th against the rush (allowed nearly 131 ground yards per game) and 24th versus the pass (surrendered nearly 247 aerial yards an outing) and already this NFC South squad has major depth issues along the defensive line and remember reserve DT Andre Neblett must serve a four-game suspension for violating the league's drug policy on performance-enhancing substances.

The good folks in Las Vegas right now have Carolina with an over/under wins total of 7.5 (and - 140) and so that means the Panthers must play .500-or-better ball for you to cash and you have to lay a buck-forty to a "dollar".

Be careful, be very careful!

INDIANAPOLIS - Can a team literally rise up from the ashes of a "lost season"to be a 6- or 7-win squad with practically a brand-new roster?
That's the pressing question in "Nap Town"as the here-and-now Colts - one year removed from a 2-14 SU season (tied with St. Louis for the worst mark in the 32-team NFL) - look to rebound behind No. 1 draft pick QB Andrew Luck and a cast of other new characters that includes first-time head coach Chuck Pagano (the former defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens) and new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians (the former OC of the Pittsburgh Steelers)?

We'll say this for the Colts:

The fact that this club is so young will be a positive in terms of playing with passion and spirit and the overall enthusiasm might even overshadow some mistakes but the true key to this season will be how the offensive line jells in front of Luck and we believe Arians and his staff will play a huge role in shaping up this unit into a good one despite the fact C Jeff Saturday flew the coop for the bucks in Green Bay and OL Ryan Diem retired.

The over/under wins total for this AFC South squad currently stands at 5 (-130) meaning you lay $130 to win $100 and Indy must win more than five games to cash.

If you go by the premise that home games against Minnesota (Week 2), Jacksonville (Week 3) and Cleveland (Week 7) in the first half of the season are "winnable"than the guys with the horseshoes on their helmets could be a near-.500 team in Year One of the real Post-Peyton Manning Era (okay, Year Two if you want to point out he never played a single down in 2011).
WASHINGTON - Think the football-crazed nation's capital is buying all the "RG3"hype?

Well, mark us down for somebody that thinks rookie QB Robert Griffin III (Baylor) is going a tad overboard in his television commercials ... he hasn't played a single down in this man's league and already he's been splashed across our flat screen TVs for much of the past couple of weeks with advertisements for this and that.

Okay, so maybe that won't have served as a distraction but why not lay a bit lower when you're coming into the NFL as the second overall draft pick behind the aforementioned Luck?

No doubt the Redskins - who finished 5-11 SU a year ago and have not made it to the playoffs since the final year of the Joe Gibbs II Era back in 2007 - trust that Griffin can jump-start an offense that last year averaged only 18 points a game but how about the fact the 'Skins allowed 33-or-more points in four of their final regular-season games last year?

While the over/under wins price for the Redskins right now stands at 6 (- 145) the cruel reality is fellow NFC East teams the New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles all improved greatly this off-season and the sked says the Redskins will play non-divisional road games this year in New Orleans (Week 1) and in Pittsburgh (Week 8) to go along with non-divisional home games against Cincinnati, Atlanta and Baltimore.

What we're trying to say is that while third-year head coach Mike Shanahan's club should be improved in '12, the odds of winning 6-or-more games ain't great.

It may take one more year for the 'Skins to really take that next big step. Sit tight, you Hogs!

Jim Hurley and his Network of Handicappers and Bloggers will continue to crush the folks in Las Vegas with all the MLB Winners - so sign up today and get it all with Sides & Totals Winners. Just be sure to check in with us either right here online or else at our exclusive toll-free telephone # of 1-800-323-4453 for all the daily and nightly MLB winners. The NFL Preseason is right around the corner with action on Sunday, August 5th, so sign up today for the full season, and get all the NFL Preseason Winners FREE!


Heck, every time you tune into ESPN or the MLB Network the "reporters"bombard you with the same old names as to whom most likely will be traded prior to the July 31st Trade Deadline ...

Chicago Cubs RHP Matt Garza, Houston Astros LHP Wandy Rodriguez, Colorado C Ramon Hernandez and Arizona OF Justin Upton (among some others) seem to be on the tip of everyone's trade talk tongue these days but here's three names from American League teams that could be getting change-of-address slips sometime in the next 10 days:

JAMES SHIELDS, RHP, TAMPA BAY - Maybe it seems blasphemous to say this innings-eater for the Rays will be dealt away but Shields (8-6, 4.44 ERA) could bring back a couple of bats and TB really needs to get its offense righted (ranked 10th in the AL in runs scored) if Joe Maddon's crew is gonna make any sort of American League wild card run (you can absolutely forget about catching the New York Yankees, folks!).

The fact of the matter is the Rays' rotation could plug in another solid arm in Shields' wake (see RHP Wade Davis comes to mind providing Tampa Bay can "stretch him out"after 31 consecutive relief appearances this season). It's possible that Tampa Bay could move Shields to a National League team (see the Los Angeles Dodgers) and bring back at least two quality sticks.

JOSH WILLINGHAM, OF, MINNESOTA - In case you haven't been paying close attention, this Twins leftfielder entered Thursday's action with 23 home runs and 66 runs batted in (plus he also had 22 doubles) and surely Minny could stock up with some younger players if they send Willingham packing to a team that's desperate for a right bat (did anyone say the New York Mets?).

Maybe Minnesota wants to hold onto Willingham if it believes his bat is too valuable to move - note that former Washington/Florida outfielder has a slew of big hits/homers this year - but send him to the Mets for a young arm or two or maybe ship 'em to Oakland for some Triple-A guys and it might make sense all around.

JON LESTER, LHP, BOSTON - Here's a name that hasn't come up but in the world of new manager Bobby Valentine not every past Red Sox hero is untouchable. Just ask Kevin Youkilis!

The fact is the Red Sox believe they have some solid up-and-coming pitchers in the system (rookie LHP Felix Doubrount is 10-4 already and headed to stardom) and the fact is this Boston lineup could use a real makeover.

If the Sox can package Lester to someone like the St. Louis Cardinals and get back 3B David Freese as part of the return than it could represent a real "win-win"blockbuster deal for both sides. Now go ahead and have some ESPN talkie tell you that trade should be brewin'!

NOTE: Lots of NFL and NCAA Football comin' your way in Jim Sez columns the rest of this Summer of 2012.

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