In every NFL season, there's a changing of the guard. Good teams from the year before take steps back. Teams that struggled make adjustments and move up in the standings. There's always the old standbys of course. The New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers and those pesky New York Giants always seem to be there in the end.
The San Francisco 49ers rose from the ashes left by Mike Singletary, the Detroit Lions improved dramatically behind a healthy Matthew Stafford and the Denver Broncos made the playoffs with an inspired defense and clutch quarterback play.
It happens every year. That's what makes the NFL so enjoyable to watch. So, who will be the teams to dramatically change their fortunes in 2012?
I've selected one team from each division that I think will show dramatic improvement next season.
Here's my list. Enjoy!
Cleveland isn't the most exciting team to watch. I mean, no disrespect to the Browns fanbase, but that team needs star power like Floyd Mayweather, Jr. needs sensitivity training.
Peyton Hillis is the closest thing they have, and who knows if he'll be there next year? This article from ESPN.com suggests his motivation should be seriously questioned.
Regardless of their star power, they'll be better for two reasons. One, the Cincinnati Bengals won't match their 9-7 record from a year ago. In my opinion, they simply benefited from a weak schedule; they failed to beat one team with a winning record.
Two, the Browns should be able to instantly upgrade their team through the draft. If I were them, I'd make the trade with St. Louis right now and draft Robert Griffin III.
If not, maybe they'll land Trent Richardson. Either way, they should be more exciting to watch, and their record will be better. Unfortunately, they'll still miss the playoffs.
Is it that big of a stretch to say a 2-14 team will improve? No, it's not, but I'm going to say it anyway.
The Indianapolis Colts will improve next year. Not because they have nowhere else to go but up, but because they'll actually be a better team.
The Colts will improve because they have a new coach. Jim Caldwell was a fine coach when Peyton Manning was around to motivate the troops and run the offense. Remove Manning, and Caldwell was revealed as an uninspiring figure head.
Chuck Pagano was brought in from Baltimore and will immediately alter the attitude of this team. He'll motivate them, particularly the defense, to be better. He certainly had great success in Baltimore.
I should mention that my prediction is based on the presumption that Peyton Manning will be gone and Andrew Luck will be the starting quarterback, assuming he won't get beaten out by Curtis Painter (insert laughter here).
Luck will start from day one, but he won't be Peyton Manning. I don't think he'll be Cam Newton either. He will be an upgrade from Painter and Dan Orlovsky, though. As a result, the offense will improve.
You can't lose six of seven games to open the season and expect to make much noise in the NFL. It's hard to recover from that type of start.
Yet Arizona did recover. Despite the losses and injuries to key players, they improved and ended the year winning five of six.
The Cardinals are not a bad team. I'm not ready to write Kevin Kolb off even though his record was 3-6 last year. He missed seven games. Give him a full season, and I think he'll show that he's a starter in this league.
Beanie Wells is a good running back, and they have a good tandem of receivers in Larry Fitzgerald and Early Doucet.
The San Francisco 49ers will run away with this division, but there's no reason why the Cardinals can't improve significantly on their 8-8 record from last year.
The Carolina Panthers were a one-trick pony last year. Cam Newton was a stud and accounted for his offense being in the top 10 in the NFL, but Carolina's defensive unit was one of the worst in the league.
Not surprisingly, Newton and the offense found themselves in more than a few shootouts. Unfortunately, they were on the losing end of most of them.
Here's the positive spin. Six of their 10 losses were by eight points or less. I believe that through the draft, free agency or simply making adjustments, the Panthers will improve that defense.
When they do, those losses will become wins.
Newton's going to do what he does. I don't see him regressing. If they're able to add one more playmaker on offense, that will just be icing on the cake.
Their defense is key, though. With a defensive-minded coach like Ron Rivera, you know it will be the focus of their offseason.
If they can improve their defense, the Panthers will challenge for the Wild Card next year.
With a record of 10-6 and in arguably the toughest division in the NFL—the NFC North—you might think the Detroit Lions have no chance of improving. Here's why you're wrong.
The Green Bay Packers will not win 15 games this year. They're a great team, but they're not repeating that success.
Look at the 2007 Patriots, who won all 16 of their regular season games. They went 11-5 in 2008. I believe the Packers will suffer a similar letdown and the Lions will take advantage of their regression.
In 2010, Detroit finished their year strong, winning four in a row. The success carried over, and they won five in a row to start the 2011 season.
They also ended 2011 strong, although their 3-3 record might not automatically indicate that. Chalk those three losses up to a depleted secondary and having to face Green Bay twice and New Orleans once.
No matter, they won the games they absolutely had to win in order to get into the playoffs. It was the way they won that was most impressive, though. Matthew Stafford flipped the switch and carried the team on his back. Ever since, the Lions have been riding high—even after their playoff loss.
This team is gelling, and they're extremely talented in all the skill positions. Their defense got a bum rap last year but is capable of dominating teams when healthy and not suspended (Ndamukong Suh).
They'll legitimately challenge Green Bay for the division title in 2012.
What makes a team go from winning their division one year to being last in the division the next? Injuries, injuries and more injuries; that's what.
Four key starters were lost to injury last year. Those were insurmountable losses which cost coach Todd Haley his job.
In 2012, the mantra in Kansas City is, "Let the healing process begin." All their injured starters—Matt Cassel, Jamaal Charles, Eric Berry and Tony Moeaki—are slated to return at full strength.
They're essentially the same team that went 10-6 in 2010, except under a new coach, Romeo Crennel.
I believe the Chiefs will reclaim their seat atop the division in 2012.
If a certain GOAT from Indianapolis comes to town as this article from NFL.com suggests, then it's Super Bowl or bust for the Chiefs.
The Miami Dolphins were given up for dead last year after opening the season 0-7. Yet despite numerous reasons to shut it down and mail it in, this team did not.
The went 6-3 the rest of the year and proved that they're a team to be reckoned with going forward. If you just looked at their record you'd never think that, though.
The reality is this team has all the pieces in place to be successful in today's NFL: a tandem of talented running backs, an elite receiver, a Pro Bowl left tackle and a stingy run-stopping defense.
The only thing they lack is a great quarterback, although this isn't essential for them to show significant improvement next season. They just need consistency from that position.
According to ESPN, Miami is the front runner to sign Peyton Manning. If that happened, Miami would instantly become the favorite to challenge New England for AFC East supremacy.
Even if Manning decides to sign elsewhere, the Dolphins will continue their upward trend. Where there was once despair there is now optimism. They'll ride that feeling into 2012 and should challenge for a Wild Card spot in the playoffs.
Calling the Philadelphia Eagles 2011 season a disappointment would be like calling the sinking of the Titanic a small mishap. It was, in fact, a disaster.
This team was everyone's consensus pick to win their division and vie for the Super Bowl. They brought in a bevy of high-priced talent and were dubbed "The Dream Team" for gosh sakes.
Titles and predictions mean nothing, though. The team struggled to adjust to all the new faces, and they lost four of their first five. Every time you thought they'd turn the corner, they lost two in a row.
Here's why they'll improve the most next year.
They only won three games at home last year. That will change. They also won four games in a row to close out the season. During these wins, they corrected the defensive glitches that plagued them previously. They only gave up an average of 11 points a game.
The offense was firing on all cylinders as well. They averaged 31 points a game during that stretch.
As I've said, finishing strong one year is a good indication of success the next, and they're too talented not to be better.
My prediction is the Eagles will soar in 2012. They'll unseat the Super Bowl champion New York Giants for the division crown, and they'll finally earn their "Dream Team" moniker.