For the next several months or so, the NFL will not be catching many headlines, largely in part due to the tabloids, who would much rather talk about the NBA Finals and Stanley Cup then a football season in its least active time frame. However, there is a lot of unfinished business left to be done, such as the signings of rookies or reaching agreements with star free agents. In this article, I will be discussing the three most competitive divisions in all of football. Please feel free to comment on what you think!
1. AFC North: Within the past decade, the AFC North has always been dominated by the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers. From time to time, Cleveland may put up a fair fight against these two powerhouses, but it is short lived. Last season, however, the Cincinnati Bengals (thanks to a highly successful draft) went from 4-12 in 2010, to 9-7 in 2011. The team depended on rookie stars AJ Green (left) and Andy Dalton, both first round picks. The Bengals defense improved tremendously as well, and over time this young team will flourish into one of the league’s best. The Pittsburgh defense is beginning to age, yet it managed to rank 1st overall by the end of December. The Steelers should be optimistic for the 2012 season, after picking up two spectacular offensive linemen in David DeCastro and Mike Adams. Wide receiver Antonio Brown had a breakout season last year, and it should be interesting to see if he can stay consistent. Similar to the Steelers, Baltimore defenders are getting old, and before long the veterans will be nonexistent. Luckily, there is still gas left in the tank, and it will be another 3 or 4 years until the Ravens need to adjust. In the draft, Baltimore added linebacker Courtney Upshaw, who should be able to make a slight impact on the defense. Cleveland is a few years away from being a competitive team, but Trent Richardson should be a decent replacement for Peyton Hillis.
2. NFC North: It seems like just yesterday, the Detroit Lions became the worst team in NFL history thanks to a 0-16 record back in 2008. Following the winless season, the Lions were below .500 in both 2009 and 2010. One of the many problems in that span was in part due to a hole in the quarterback position. Though they drafted Stafford in ’09, he dealt with injuries throughout the year and into next season. In 2011, however, Mathew Stafford played all 16 games and lead his team to a 10-6 record, earning them a spot in the playoffs as the number five seed. His spectacular statistics were out shined by the fabulous team in Green Bay, led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Up until Week 15, the Packers were undefeated, but after a loss to Kansas City, they finished off the year 15-1. The year previous, Green Bay defeated Pittsburgh to win their 4th Super Bowl in the organization’s long and storied history. The Packers remain the powerhouse of the NFC North, but Detroit will be a great matchup against Green Bay. The Chicago Bears were one of the bigger disappointments in 2011, for their record dropped from 11-5 to 8-8, completely missing out on that season’s playoffs. Jay Cutler may not be a star in Chicago, but the Bears have done their best to improve their quarterback by adding Brandon Marshall. The Bears had a highly successful draft, where they selected defender Shea McClellin and wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey. The Bears defense has always been top-notch, and 2012 has the potential to be a great season for Chicago. As for the Minnesota Vikings, they are several years away from becoming one of the league’s best. Christian Ponder is young and lacks experience, but offensive lineman Matt Kalil will be a nice blocker. Their pass rush ranked first overall last season, all having to do with star defensive end Jared Allen. Though I have always said a great running game does not win championships, having Adrian Peterson certainly does not hurt the Vikings in anyway. I expect Green Bay to win the division title, but the fight for second will be one of the more interesting headlines come 2012.
3. NFC South: This off season, no story has been more shocking then that of the Saints bounty scandal. As soon as Roger Goodell and the National Football League confirmed these rumors, many important figures in the Saints organization were suspended. Now that New Orleans is in a state of chaos due to the loss of Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis, the NFC South should be a much closer division. Atlanta has become a top contender since Matt Ryan was drafted back in 2008, but last season was somewhat of a disappointment, for they missed the playoffs. The Falcons offense is top notch, and is the reason why Atlanta’s record back in 2010 was 13-3. Though the Falcons missed out by not owning a first round draft pick, they still managed to recruit center Peter Konz, a spectacular new addition to an already excellent offensive line. Though the defense struggles from time to time, Atlanta is the best possible contender against New Orleans. Carolina appears to be in great shape after yet another nice draft, and they should be led by sophomore quarterback Cam Newton. Linebacker Luke Kuechly deserved to be taken 9th overall, and his skills will contribute to a more improved Panthers defense. Last but not least, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Tampa Bay had an off year last season, finishing the season 4-12. However, the Bucs were eager to sign several free agents on the market, and they were successful in doing so. On April 13, the Buccaneers signed Pro-Bowl wide receiver Vincent Jackson, and just 24 hours later picked up guard Carl Nicks. These two new additions have given a new life to Tampa Bay football, and they will try to make the playoffs for the first time since coach Jon Gruden won the division title in 2007. The investigation has rattled not only New Orleans, but the NFC South, and these suspensions will open the gate for other contenders to win this division’s title.