Every year there is a team that surprises everyone and makes a strong playoff push. Last year it was the Bengals. In 2010 it was the Chiefs. In 2009 it was the Packers. This year, there is a whole group of teams that could potentially break out, but I’ve narrowed it down to my favorite three.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last season was so bad that it cost Rahim Morris his job. While I think he will eventually earn another shot, it doesn’t change how atrocious the team actually was. This year, they have a new coach, and a chance at revival for 2012. They brought in some proven veteran talent, some talented rookies, and are only two years removed from a 10-6 record.
Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks should help Josh Freeman return to his 2011 form. Rookie running back Doug Martin could complement LaGarrette Blount perfectly, making them a fairly dynamic tandem. On the defensive side, Rookie Mark Barron will bring some much needed stability to the secondary, and Lavonte David will sure up the front seven.
The team’s biggest obstacle in it’s way is the tough NFC South division. The Panthers are on the rise riding the Cam Newton express. Atlanta is a perennial playoff contender with what could be among the most explosive offenses in football this season. The Saints are always dangerous, but the may have some issues as they recover from the bounty scandal.
It will be tough, but with a new coach, improved talent on both sides of the ball, and a more physical style of play, Tampa Bay could surprise many people this year.
St. Louis Rams
Last season was a year to forget for Sam Bradford. He missed six games due to injury, and played most of the rest of the year banged up. Add in his lack of receivers and a below average defense, and nothing was going to go well. Enter Jeff Fisher, a rebuilt secondary, and an actual receiving threat in second round pick Brian Quick, and this turn around could be big.
Rookies Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson will play alongside veteran Cortland Finnegan to revamp the Rams’ defense. The continued development of defensive end Chris Long, along with first round pick Michael Brockers should make for a powerful and impressive defense.
Unlike Tampa Bay, the best thing going for St. Louis is the weak NFC West division. Seattle is in a state of flux, with so many positions up for grabs, and Arizona still has way too many holes since Kurt Warner left. Now while San Francisco is a good squad, especially their defense, but I think people overestimate them because of how weak their division was last year. Even if the niners repeat, St. Louis could still get a wild card spot if they play to their potential.
The biggest x-factor for the Rams is the play of linebacker James Laurinaitis. He is the type of player whose play can improve everyone around him, but he has yet to truly reach that level.
Kansas City Chiefs
Let’s face it, when Jamaal Charles and Eric Berry went down, the team was going to struggle. Add in they lost tight end Tony Moeaki for the year and Matt Cassel was often injured, as well as a slew of other injuries, and the recipe for disaster was complete. But make no mistake, Romeo Crennel will help this team rebound.
There is so much talent on this roster that it would be near impossible not to. The offense is well rounded. For starters, Cassel is a good quarterback. He’s not great, but he’s good. Charles was elite before his injury, and they added Peyton Hillis to help share the load. Dwayne Bowe is one of my favorite receivers, and Moeaki showed as a rookie that he has game.
On the defensive side, Berry leads a tremendously underrated secondary. Brandon Flowers is a talented corner, and while I think Stanford Routt is a step below Brandon Carr, he is no pushover. They have Tamba Hali to rush the passer, Derrick Johnson is a beast at linebacker, and defensive ends Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson have a load of talent. If first round pick Dontari Poe can play to his potential, this defense will be scary.
The AFC West has been up for grabs for quite some time. Denver could be great this year with Manning, but he could struggle in his first year back from injury, with a new team, and a group of unproven receivers. San Diego has been a perpetual disappointment, and there is nothing to show that they won’t do so again. Now Oakland has some talent, but McFadden never seems to be healthy, and the team’s receivers are all unproven and below average.
The play of the Chiefs will depend on how their stars bounce back from their injuries. The people backing them up are just not of the same caliber.