2012 NFL Story Lines: Looking Ahead to Each NFC Division
With the New York Giants having just won Super Bowl XLVI, I can't help but think back to how we got here.
Rewind seven months and the NFL season was in jeopardy as we were right in the middle of a labor dispute over revenue and rookie wage scales, among other topics, between the players and owners in the NFL.
In the end, owners and players worked it out as the NFL only lost one preseason game, and the season was salvaged.
Bring it forward seven months and we are now officially in the offseason, after a season whose outlook at one point was bleak.
We live in a world of the current, the now and what have you done for me lately.
With the season officially over, NFL fans can't wait for 2012 and the excitement it will bring.
It's never too early to look ahead and now we take a look at the top story lines in each NFC division.
NFC North: It's the Packers' Division to Lose
Coming into 2011, many predicted the reigning Super Bowl champs would be the divisional champions, and many were correct. But, many thought of an 11-5 season, with a one-game lead ahead of Detroit, as the most practical outcome in Green Bay.
While Detroit did end with a 10-6 regular season, not many expected Aaron Rogers and the Packers to come out firing like they did and end the regular season with one loss.
Rogers won the MVP and the Packers made it to the divisional playoffs, falling to the eventual Super Bowl champions the New York Giants.
2012 will be yet another year with Green Bay in the driver's seat.
Minnesota's rookie quarterback Christian Ponder was good, for a rookie.
In 11 games he put up the same number of interceptions as touchdowns (13) while not getting to the 2,000-yard mark. The defense played the run well, but that was probably more a product of how vulnerable their secondary was. This team won't go from 3-13 joke to playoff contender in a year. Strides will be made but nothing that puts the 2011 NFC North champs in danger.
The Chicago Bears have a new face in the front office with Phil Emery taking over as general manager.
He has been around college talent for a while and will probably look to make the Bears a better team through the draft. There are definitely some parts of Chicago's team (receivers, offensive line and defensive back) that need some tuning up.
The Bears were on a roll with Jay Cutler still healthy, but once he went down, as well as running back Matt Forte, everything turned south for Chicago, losing five of their last six. They even had chances to win some of those games, but just couldn't put it together.
A team that fragile is walking on thin ice.
While they could come back strong, if Green Bay doesn't beat themselves, Chicago will be playing the underdog role in the NFC North.
Then you have Detroit, Green Bay's toughest threat for the division.
In two games against the Lions, the Packers put up 900 yards of offense. While both of those games were competitive, in the Thanksgiving Day game, seven of Detroit's 15 points were scored in garbage time.
The second matchup featured Matt Flynn stepping in for the resting Rogers in a game they didn't need to win but put up 45 points anyway. Green Bay has certainly had Detroit's number, beating them five out of the last six times they've met.
Detroit will compete with Green Bay, but the division is in the hands of the "Discount Double Check" and Aaron Rogers, all they have to do is hold on and not beat themselves.
NFC East: Who Will Emerge from the Pack
While the New York Giants did just win the Super Bowl, a lot of us forget how they finished the season 9-7.
Their ability to make the playoffs came down to a week 17 battle with the Dallas Cowboys. "Win and you're in" was the situation for New York, not the typical phrase you hear when talking about Super Bowl champions.
The Giants made a great run in the playoffs, getting hot at the right time to win a championship. I take no credit away from what coach Coughlin was able to do with his group in January and February.
Let us not forget, though, how they finished only one game ahead of the Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles. While the Giants postseason success is something many are celebrating for now, looking towards next year, it is important to remember they went 3-3 in the division.
We know both of those teams will compete yet again in 2012 for a divisional crown, but can the Giants get hot during the regular season like they were able to during the playoffs? Dallas was also bitten by coaching errors. Can they correct those inconsistencies next season?
Those will be the questions for New York and Dallas.
Also, remember when the Dream Team was a lock to go far in the playoffs? The Eagles made a big splash in the free agency market over the quick offseason in 2011.
Then coach Andy Reid couldn't put it all together, at least at the beginning, as Philadelphia lost four of their first five. During that stretch they turned the ball over 15 times.
The defense, a unit that looked to be headed for an incredible year, allowed over 24 points per game during the slide. Having so much star power with names like Asomugha, Rogers-Cromartie and Jenkins clearly overwhelmed a team that could not handle the expectations.
That was the early part of the season that many Eagles fans will be trying to forget for a while.
The Eagles actually made a playoff push, though. They did not make the playoffs but did finish second in the division with a 5-1 record against NFC East foes, and weren't eliminated from contention until very late.
They were in the top 16 in passing/rushing offense and defense.
Some question the move to bring back Juan Castillo as defensive coordinator, but he showed progress over the course of the 2011 season. Low and behold this Eagles team finished right next to the two other teams who were battling for the NFC East title.
And hey, with some rumors that may favor Washington, who knows? Maybe the Redskins could jump into this conversation. Probably not, but I've seen crazier things than a 5-11 team compete for the playoffs the following year.
Needless to say, this division has no clear favorite, even with the champions of Super Bowl XLVI representing the division well and coming back with a lot of potential. The NFC East will be wide open, but who will emerge from the thicket as champions? It's anyone's ballgame.
NFC South: Quarterbacks Rule the Day
In the NFC South, the quarterback is king.
Each of which are lead by a quarterback who can provide offense beyond simply managing the game.
The 2012 season will be no different, but each team has issues outside the quarterback position that will decide their fate.
New Orleans was very close to the NFC Championship game, actually, but couldn't make it past the Divisional Round.
Drew Brees broke the all-ime passing record for yards in a season by reaching 5,476 yards. Though he is an unrestricted free agent this year, it seems certain he will be a Saint next season, one way or another.
So, where do the Saints look to improve?
With defensive coordinator Gregg Williams directing the defense, the Saints loved to try to get after the quarterback. This group did not always achieve success in this, though, and as a result, ranked 30th in the league in pass defense.
They were 12th against the run, but, under new defensive coordinator and former St. Louis Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo, we may see a more balanced defense.
He did guide the Rams to a 2-14 season in 2011, but he has had true success as a coordinator.
Defense was the only thing keeping the Saints from reaching the NFC title game and that is where they will look to improve.
Yet again, though, the production of Brees, coming off his best year ever, will be the key to bringing the Lombardi Trophy to New Orleans. Brees will have to continue to play at a high level while the Saints experience changes elsewhere on the team.
Atlanta also had some success in the 2011-2012 season, but they fell to the Super Bowl champion New York Giants during wild card weekend of the playoffs.
The Falcons were lead by quarterback Matt Ryan who, in his fourth year, threw for close to 4,200 yards. He, too, was the piece that kept it all together.
The running game, by which he was backed up, was nothing incredible ranking 17th in the league. Some poor instances of coaching (see week 10) also were worrisome.
Head coach Mike Smith will have to work on the inconsistencies and get his guys to play more disciplined football. In the meantime, Ryan will have to be the one who holds everything down while the Falcons do everything else they can to get back to their 2010 form (13-3).
In Charlotte, North Carolina is where some serious strides were taken.
Some criticized the Panthers for taking Cam Newton first overall in the 2011 draft, but it proved to be one of the best decisions they could have made.
Newton broke the rookie passing record, throwing for over 4,000 yards. He also ran for over 700 yards and 14 touchdowns bringing his total touchdowns to 35. He got some help from a great ground game, but outside of the aging Steve Smith and couple good tight ends in Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey, Newton wasn't working with the greatest situation.
This was especially the case with a defense that simply could not find a way to slow other teams down. While losing your best player on defense (Jon Beason) explains some of it, nobody outside of cornerback Chris Gamble looked like they'd be a starter anywhere else.
Getting Beason back will help, but the Panthers definitely will have to look to someone outside the organization (in the draft or free agency) to help out a lackadaisical defense. In the meantime, Newton will have to try to continue the magic we witnessed with him commanding Carolina's offense to make sure a team headed in the right direction keeps on that path.
Heck even in Tampa Bay, where the Buccaneers went 4-12, quarterback Josh Freeman could be important. If Freeman can bounce back from a career high year in interceptions (22), that would make a huge difference towards making Greg Schiano's new job a lot easier.
At the start of every season, everyone starts in the same place and has a fair shot at taking home their division's title. In the NFC South, who jumps out to a lead and maintains that lead will largely hinge on how each team's quarterback ties together his team.
NFC West: Who Will Challenge the 49ers?
In the 2010 season, the NFC West was nothing short of pathetic as they sent a 7-9 Seattle team to the playoffs.
In 2011, the story was a little bit different.
First year head coach Jim Harbaugh moved his San Francisco 49ers into the upper echelon of NFL teams. Though the 49ers' schedule may have been weaker playing in the NFC West, they still went 13-3 after a dull 6-10 season the year before.
The Bay Area was watching a much different team in 2011 and witnessed a turnaround that shows this team could be a consistent contender in the near future.
The defense was the best against the run and Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis led one of the most intimidating units in the league.
Quarterback Alex Smith finally had a head coach who wasn't defense-oriented and knew how to handle a quarterback. Though the 49ers were 29th in passing, Alex Smith made strides towards becoming not only a better player on the field, but a better leader as well.
Now that the NFC West has a team that can actually finish the year above .500, the only question that remains is who will challenge them?
The Arizona Cardinals went an even 8-8 in 2011 lead by quarterbacks Kevin Kolb and John Skelton, the former a big free agency acquisition and the latter a second-year signal-caller who only played half the year.
The Cardinals are going to look to do something for the quarterback position. Rumors have spread of Peyton Manning going to the desert. If this is something that comes to fruition, the Cardinals will most likely look to move either Skelton or Kolb.
If Manning is a no-go, the Cardinals are still left with a couple quarterbacks who showed some promise. Getting the whole situation figured out as soon as possible is important as the Cardinals have some other issues they'd like to attend to (total defense, rushing offense).
The Seattle Seahawks went 7-9 in 2011. A defense with no real big names on the roster surprised people as they ranked in the top 15 in rushing and passing defense.
Quarterback Tavaris Jackson, an offseason acquisition, was not the answer.
Seattle was 22nd in passing, and in a passing league, had trouble keeping up with legitimate competition. They also were 21st in the running game so the Seahawks will need some help on offense if they are to challenge the new sheriffs in town. Kyle Orton and David Garrard are some free agent quarterbacks that come to mind.
This team needs someone to bring a spark to this team who was fifth in the NFL in turnover margin but lacked a flare under head coach Pete Carroll heading into his third year.
I won't go too far into a 2-14 Rams team that needs help all over, but we can be pretty sure they won't be too much of a threat for a team that ranked in the bottom 10 for three major statistical categories.
In the NFC West, can either the Seahawks or Cardinals take big enough steps to challenge the 49ers?