Top Super Bowl Contenders for 2012

Craig HortonCorrespondent IMarch 12, 2012

Top Super Bowl Contenders for 2012

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    The storm is about to start.

    The NFL's free agency signing period starts Tuesday, March 13.

    Every team will attempt to sign "the" player who will put them over the top.

    There are a few teams though, who are already in position to contend for a Super Bowl title.

    Here is a look at the teams that will be contenders regardless of how free agency plays out.

Whoever Signs Peyton Manning

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    Can one elite quarterback be the difference in raising a team to a Super Bowl contender?

    Absolutely. It has happened before.

    Kurt Warner was 34 when the Arizona Cardinals signed him in 2005. The Cardinals had long been one of the worst franchises in league history. They had won exactly one playoff game since 1947.

    With Warner the Cardinals won the NFC and, if not for a spectacular game-winning drive by Ben Roethlisberger, would have won the Super Bowl.

    Manning, if healthy, can do the same with any team that gives him the right supporting cast.

New York Giants

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    The Giants just won their second Super Bowl in five seasons. Once again they got hot at the right time—the playoffs.

    Despite their regular season troubles they were clutch when it counted most. Each team they beat on their Super Bowl run had a better regular season record.

    With their defense and a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, don't count this team out in 2012.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    The Steelers' season ended with an upset loss to the Denver Broncos.

    They gave up an 80-yard touchdown pass by Tim Tebow on the first play of overtime to lose their first-round playoff game 29-23.

    The Steelers are aging and their receiving corps will look much different next year.

    They still have the top ranked defense, a two-time Super Bowl winner in his prime and one of the brightest young coaches in the NFL.

    With all those pieces they will once again contend next season.

New Orleans Saints

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    The Saints season came to an abrupt end in San Francisco.

    They lost a game they thought they couldn't lose—a 36-32 shootout against the offensively challenged 49ers.

    Despite an NFL record 5,476 passing yards, Drew Brees couldn't lead the Saints to another Super Bowl.

    The Saints could lose several key players to free agency, Drew Brees is not happy and then of course there's Bountygate.

    That's not the kind of offseason a Super Bowl contender wants to have.

Baltimore Ravens

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    The Ravens were a missed field goal attempt away from overtime and possibly upsetting New England in the AFC Championship Game.

    Quarterback Joe Flacco took a lot of heat for not getting the team into the end zone on that final drive of their season.

    In the minds of many, Flacco took a step backward in 2011. He completed less than 60 percent of his passes, threw 12 interceptions and was sacked 31 times.

    Even though he has his critics, Flacco has led the Ravens into the playoffs every year of his career. He is the only quarterback in the NFL that has won at least one playoff game each of the last four years.

    If Flacco can limit his mistakes, Ray Lewis and the defense can lead the Ravens to the Super Bowl.

Detroit Lions

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    Your eyes are not fooling you. This is a slideshow of Super Bowl contenders, and the Detroit Lions are among them.

    Just three years after a miserable 0-16 season, the Lions made their first playoff appearance since 1999. As we have learned in recent years, any playoff team that gets hot at the right time can win the Super Bowl. For that reason the Lions are on this list.

    Their fifth ranked offense is led by Matthew Stafford, who—due to big targets like Calvin Johnson—passed for over 5,000 yards last year. Stafford's health was one of the keys to Detroit's success last season.

    They are still a work in progress and need some more improvement. The defense was ranked 23rd and the Lions were only 1-5 against playoff teams.

    If they fix those things, the Lions could be in the Super Bowl for the first time ever.

Houston Texans

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    Most people don't realize how good the Houston Texans really are. They don't get the TV attention they deserve.

    Last year with third-string quarterback, T.J. Yates, they came close to winning at Baltimore in the AFC playoffs.

    Even though they might lose Mario Williams to free agency, their second ranked defense should be fine.

    The Texans have Arian Foster to lead the running game, and an elite receiver in Andre Johnson.

    Johnson and quarterback Matt Schaub missed a significant amount of time in 2011. If they can stay healthy this year, the Texans are legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

New England Patriots

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    The Patriots lost their second Super Bowl in five seasons last year. They were once again the victims of an Eli Manning last-minute comeback.

    Their defense was horrible, but it didn't stop them from winning the AFC.

    Tom Brady and company will be back for another run in 2012. Besides the defense, wide receiver will be a spot New England hopes to upgrade in the draft and free agency.

    The balance of power in the NFL has shifted back to the NFC.

    Even so, as long as Brady and Belichick are together the Patriots will be Super Bowl contenders.

San Francisco 49ers

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    After a nine-year absence, the San Francisco 49ers made a triumphant return to the NFL playoffs. With a rookie head coach and a much-maligned quarterback, the 49ers nearly made it to the Super Bowl.

    If not for special teams mistakes, they would have played the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.

    Though the offense struggled, quarterback Alex Smith was efficient and didn't make mistakes at critical times.

    The defense was a beast. They were fourth in total defense. The 49ers forced 38 turnovers, while only losing the ball 10 times. The plus-28 differential was best in the NFL.

    With a full offseason to work with this year, they should be even better.

Green Bay Packers

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    A strange thing happened to the Green Bay Packers on their way to a repeat Super Bowl victory.

    They got mowed down by the New York Giants at home in the NFC playoffs. Thus, the Packers were the latest top-seeded team to go one-and-done in the playoffs.

    Despite the unexpected ending in 2011, the Packers will enter 2012 as a favorite to win the Super Bowl again.

    Aaron Rodgers was league MVP. All he did in 2011 was throw for 4,643 yards, 46 touchdowns and only six interceptions. His rating was a mind-boggling 122.5.

    The defense needs fixing in 2012. The Packers were dead last in total and passing defense. The 2010 defense that won the Super Bowl was fifth.

    Returning to that form will help the Packers hoist another Lombardi Trophy next February.