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Cowboys, Ravens will be better in 2012; Patriots, Steelers worse

At this time of the year, with the preseason ending, everyone wants the answer to one simple question:

Will my team be better or worse than last season?

Looking into my crystal ball, I've predicted whether each team will exceed or fall short of its 2011 record.

(Remember, though: Having a superior regular-season mark is not as important as being at your best in the playoffs. Just ask the Green Bay Packers.)

Arizona Cardinals

2011 record: 8-8
2012 verdict: Worse

No quarterback, no offensive line spells trouble for the Cardinals as they try to compete in the NFC West. Hard to believe Arizona can match up, personnel-wise, with the dominant defenses of the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers.

Atlanta Falcons

2011 record: 10-6
2012 verdict: Worse

The Falcons are a good team in a tough division and an even tougher conference. They might actually field a better team in 2012 but post a worse record than they did in 2011. The NFC playoff spots will go down to the wire, and Atlanta will have to play really well on the road this year to secure one.

Baltimore Ravens

2011 record: 12-4
2012 verdict: Better

For the first time in a long time, the Ravens' offense has a chance to be better than their defense. If Baltimore allows Joe Flacco to establish the pass early in games, utilizing his deep-throwing talent, the defense will be able to play with a lead, making it even more dangerous. This approach would make Ray Rice even better, too.

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Buffalo Bills

2011 record: 6-10
2012 verdict: Better

The Bills will have a better record, but will that translate into a playoff season? Hard to tell. After a Week 1 road opener against the New York Jets, we might have a really good idea.

Carolina Panthers

2011 record: 6-10
2012 verdict: Better

Like the Bills, the Panthers will be better, but determining how much better is difficult to do at the moment. Based on what we saw in the preseason, Carolina looks to be improved on defense. If that's the case, the Panthers have the talent to contend for an NFC playoff spot.

Chicago Bears

2011 record: 8-8
2012 verdict: Better

The Bears will be better, but maybe only by one game, which might not be good enough in the loaded NFC. Every NFC game they play outside the North will be critical, given the potential tiebreaking implications. The Bears' offensive line remains the biggest concern entering the season; that unit will determine Chicago's playoff chances.

Cincinnati Bengals

2011 record: 9-7
2012 verdict: Same

The Bengals are right in the middle of the pack in terms of overall talent. They must get a great season out of quarterback Andy Dalton, but I'm not yet convinced he can raise his game to the next level.

Cleveland Browns

2011 record: 4-12
2012 verdict: Better

Mike Holmgren said winning five games in 2010 was unacceptable and made a coaching change, dropping Eric Mangini and bringing in Pat Shurmur. Unfortunately, Cleveland proceeded to win just four games in 2011. What does 2012 have in store for the Brownies? More wins, but not many more, and still no playoffs. With so many young players starting, there will be a huge learning curve, which will result in some huge growing pains, i.e., losses.

Dallas Cowboys

2011 record: 8-8
2012 verdict: Better

I know the 'Boys have an offensive line in transition, no real third receiver and all sorts of problems with Dez Bryant, but they also have more than enough talent to win more than eight games -- and should. Will just eclipsing eight wins allow them to take the NFC East? I don't think so.

Denver Broncos

2011 record: 8-8
2012 verdict: Better

If Peyton Manning is back at 100 percent, the Broncos easily blow past eight wins. Even if he is around 80 percent, I still see them winning more than eight games. Less than 80 percent, though, and my crystal ball gets a little cloudy.

Detroit Lions

2011 record: 10-6
2012 verdict: Worse

I like this Lions team, but feel it will be hard for it to duplicate last season's success. Like the Falcons, Detroit might be a better team with a worse record.

Green Bay Packers

2011 record: 15-1
2012 verdict: Worse

The Packers were brilliant throughout the 2011 regular season, finishing with a 15-1 mark, but I am sure head coach Mike McCarthy only focuses on the 0-1 record in the playoffs. My crystal ball says Green Bay will not be as good as 15-1, but way better than 0-1.

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Houston Texans

2011 record: 10-6
2012 verdict: Better

The Texans have a solid team and play in a weak division, so they should be able to improve their record and challenge Baltimore, Pittsburgh and New England for home-field advantage in the playoffs.

Indianapolis Colts

2011 record: 2-14
2012 verdict: Better

The Colts are going to win more than two games and will be a tough team to play come November and December as everyone adopts the personality and mental toughness of new franchise quarterback Andrew Luck. It will still be a long year for Indianapolis, but Colts fans will know they have a promising future.

Jacksonville Jaguars

2011 record: 5-11
2012 verdict: Same

The Jags have questions all over the field, even after the return of Maurice Jones-Drew. But they are better on defense, and if Blaine Gabbert can build off his preseason success, Jacksonville has a chance to be better.

Kansas City Chiefs

2011 record: 7-9
2012 verdict: Better

Just getting some marquee players back from injury will significantly upgrade Kansas City. Adding Brian Daboll as offensive coordinator will also help improve quarterback Matt Cassel, which will boost the Chiefs as a whole.

Miami Dolphins

2011 record: 6-10
2012 verdict: Worse

Miami is rebuilding, plain and simple. And it will take time to get good, let alone get great. The Dolphins are starting a rookie quarterback with no wide receivers and a marginal offensive line; they will struggle all season long.

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Minnesota Vikings

2011 record: 3-13
2012 verdict: Better

I don't think the Vikings will actually be a better team, but they can win more than three games. Much like the Dolphins, the Vikes are rebuilding, and it will take some time for them to show improvement. Much of that improvement is tied to the play of second-year quarterback Christian Ponder.

New England Patriots

2011 record: 13-3
2012 verdict: Worse

It's very hard to win 13 games in the NFL. Although I feel the Patriots will be vastly improved on defense, I can't see them achieving this feat again. New England still reigns supreme in the East and will compete for home-field advantage, but 12 wins seems about right.

New Orleans Saints

2011 record: 13-3
2012 verdict: Worse

I know the Saints are still the best team in the NFC South and fully expect them to battle for home-field advantage, but the absence of suspended head coach Sean Payton will affect them at some point during the long NFL season.

New York Giants

2011 record: 9-7
2012 verdict: Better

The Giants suffered so many injuries last season that they had to battle just to get into the playoffs. This year, they're a more complete team with improved depth, which will translate into more wins.

New York Jets

2011 record: 8-8
2012 verdict: Worse

I know the preseason really doesn't mean anything, and I also know Rex Ryan thinks this is his best team yet, but the Jets lack talent on offense -- Where are the playmakers? -- and it's hard to expect the defense to carry them to eight-plus wins by itself.

Oakland Raiders

2011 record: 8-8
2012 verdict: Worse

The Raiders have some talented skill players, but there are huge concerns at corner and along the defensive line. Not to mention the biggest concern/question: How good is Carson Palmer? Can he lead this team to the playoffs? I am not a believer.

Philadelphia Eagles

2011 record: 8-8
2012 verdict: Better

Owner Jeffrey Lurie has already said another 8-8 campaign will not be acceptable. Based on the preseason, the Eagles look to be a better team this year -- if, and only if, Michael Vick stays healthy all season. Nick Foles looks good as Vick's backup, but it would be hard for a rookie third-round draft pick to carry this team to the playoffs.

Pittsburgh Steelers

2011 record: 12-4
2012 verdict: Worse

Calm down, Steeler nation. I like your team, but it's hard to imagine it winning 12 games in 2012 if the offensive line is still struggling. The defense looks to have added a nice influx of young talent, which will help Pittsburgh late in the season. This is a good team in a tough division, and come December, the Steelers will be competing for home-field advantage on the AFC side.

San Diego Chargers

2011 record: 8-8
2012 verdict: Better

The Chargers have to stay healthy -- especially on the offensive line -- and the defense must gel if they want to improve on their 2011 record. The main reason to predict a better record in San Diego: I'm counting on Philip Rivers to return to his old form.

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San Francisco 49ers

2011 record: 13-3
2012 verdict: Worse

The schedule gets tougher and the Seahawks are better, so it will be hard for the 49ers to win 13 games again. But San Francisco should still put up a respectable win total and be a force come playoff time. Opening day in Green Bay will tell us a lot about this season's Niners.

Seattle Seahawks

2011 record: 7-9
2012 verdict: Better

There are many reasons to like the Seahawks, starting with their defense, their running game and especially their home-field advantage. Add rookie quarterback Russell Wilson's talent and leadership, and this Seahawks team has a playoff feel.

St. Louis Rams

2011 record: 2-14
2012 verdict: Better

It won't be hard for the Rams to win more than two games, but will they show significant improvement? I doubt it. St. Louis has a huge void of talent on the roster. It will take another year for them to truly be competitive.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2011 record: 4-12
2012 verdict: Better

With a little more discipline, a little more competitiveness and a little more toughness, the young Bucs have to improve. New coach Greg Schiano fully stresses those three areas. How good can Tampa Bay be? Eight wins would represent a great coaching job by Schiano.

Tennessee Titans

2011 record: 9-7
2012 verdict: Worse

Going with second-year quarterback Jake Locker as the starter will be a good decision in the long run, but there will be some growing pains in the short term, equaling some tough losses. The Titans have a good team, and if Chris Johnson can return to his old form, they can be better. But based on what we saw in the preseason, Johnson's not quite fully back to being CJ2K.

Washington Redskins

2011 record: 5-11
2012 verdict: Better

I really thought the 'Skins would be better last year, but a lack of stability at quarterback and scores of injuries doomed their season. Washington will be much better this year with Robert Griffin III at the helm, but a playoff spot will still be very difficult to secure on the NFC side.

As all these teams chase the Lombardi Trophy, let's take a moment to remember the great coach of the Packers on the 42nd anniversary of his death. RIP, Vince Lombardi.

Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.

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