2012 NFL Offseason: 5 Non-Playoff NFC Teams Most Likely to Make Super Bowl
The upcoming NFL season may see one of the most competitive NFC conferences in league history. Teams are making bold moves in the draft, via trade, and free agency. Each year, the playoff picture looks vastly different. 2012 will be no different.
In 2011, the NFC powerhouses were the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints, and San Francisco 49'ers and of course, the eventual champion New York Giants. Who will challenge them for the right for NFC supremacy and a Super Bowl berth?
Here are five teams that could surprise.
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I'd be even higher on them if they didn't have a QB controversy, which I think Matt Flynn will win. And if he can be anything close to the quarterback who threw for 480 yards and six touchdowns against the Detroit Lions in Week 17 last year, they'll have a good one.
The Seahawks have a rapidly improving defense, with one of the best young safeties in the game in Earl Thomas. They have been criticized for their selection of Bruce Irvin, but if he works hard and learns the system, this is a system that is designed for him to get double digit sacks. Also, with Bobby Wagner, Barrett Ruud, and Leroy Hill, the Seahawks have a surplus of quality linebackers to work with.
Marshawn Lynch is one of the best backs in the league, and Seattle will have a great run game if he can stay healthy. He also gets an upgrade at left tackle if former sixth overall pick, Russell Okung, makes a successful comeback from a pectoral injury.
The NFC West figures to be ruled by the dominant San Francisco 49'ers. But with the St Louis Rams not close to being ready, and the Arizona Cardinals with their own QB controversy, a wild-card spot may be Seattle's to grab.
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Yes, the NFC North is an awfully tough division with the Packers and Detroit Lions. But Chicago will be no joke this season. Last year, prior to Jay Cutler's injury, they were 7-3 and their defense was one of the best in the NFL. Cutler himself was making many strides, even though he was in an offense, run by Mike Martz, that was clearly not catered to his abilities .
He had one of the NFL's worst receiving corps and a still shoddy offensive line. Now, the Bears finally have their act together and got Cutler some serious weaponry to work with. They got Cutler the best target he's ever had, Brandon Marshall, who is one of the NFL's legit No.1 receivers. They drafted Alshon Jeffrey with a second-round pick, who has all the tools to become a dominant red zone target. They can now move Devin Hester to the slot and get him the ball in space, where he will be more effective than his old flanker role.
Gabe Carimi, Chicago's first-round pick last year, should be able to come back strong for 2012 to anchor the offensive line and significantly improve Cutler's protection. The Bears also finally added a legit No.2 back in Michael Bush, who has produced like a workhorse in his starting role while Darren McFadden was hurt. And if they can get Matt Forte, Chicago's leading offensive player, in camp? This is suddenly a very prolific offense to go along with an always-dominant defense.
Couple that with the progress Cutler has made over the last couple of seasons with the Bears, and I see a breakout for the Bears this season if they can stay healthy.
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I'm riding the bandwagon a little bit, but I think that their selection of Morris Claiborne is slightly overhyped. Rookie cornerbacks are like rookie offensive linemen: it takes time for them to make an impact. That said, Claiborne is a special prospect and if he can be anything like his former LSU teammate, Patrick Peterson, the Cowboys will be more than satisfied.
What I really think makes them poised to succeed is their depth at cornerback, not just Claiborne. With Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick, and Mike Jenkins, there will not necessarily be so much pressure on Mo to shut down DeSean Jackson or Hakeem Nicks every snap. The experience of going up against guys like Miles Austin and Dez Bryant in training camp will also help the young corner.
Speaking of Dez Bryant, I think this guy is ready to break out. Most receivers take one or two years to really have their coming out party. It's not like Dez has been a slouch so far, but there is no way he's shouldn't be the undisputed No.1 receiver on this team. He's far too talented, big, and athletic to not be. He needs to mature and get healthy, but if those two things happen, I think we're looking at a Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald-level player. Yes, he's that talented.
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I don't think any team disappointed more in professional sports than the Philadelphia Eagles last season. Billed as the "Miami Heat" of the NFL for their prolific offseason acquisitions of Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins, and Vince Young, the Eagles were instead dogged by turnovers and blowing leads in the fourth quarter.
I think this team is close. Through nine games (when they were seriously in playoff contention), they were 3-6, but had leads in five of their losses and blew the lead because of silly mistakes.
Like the Cowboys, problems resided in their secondary. The Eagles problems had to do with stopping the run and making simple tackles that prevent long catch and runs. They finally addressed this by picking up the productive DeMeco Ryans, the former captain and middle linebacker of the Houston Texans. They drafted well, picking up another good linebacker, Mychal Kendricks, with one of the best DT's in Fletcher Cox.
It's scary to think what kind of defensive line Cox can form with Cullen Jenkins and terrifying speed-rushers in Jason Babin and Trent Cole, one of the most underrated defensive ends in the league. Maybe it can rival their division rivals' defensive line, the New York Giants.
And maybe the Eagles can give the Giants a run for the NFC East crown.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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You have to put an NFC South team in here when their division is in so much flux every year. Looking at history trends, it actually is possible that the New Orleans Saints or Atlanta Falcons will miss the playoffs and someone else will take their spot.
Most people will pick Cam Newton's Carolina Panthers, but I really like what Tampa Bay did. I think they finally got themselves a legitimate back in Doug Martin. Greg Schiano wants to run the ball, and LeGarrette Blount has been less than spectacular. Martin is a back with amazing balance, a natural receiver, and most importantly, excellent at picking up blitzes.
The Buccaneers need more development from their top-two picks in the 2011 draft, Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers, who was once considered top-pick material until his knee didn't check out. They added Vincent Jackson to finally have a true No.1 receiver. They have an awesome pass-catching tight end that is just so essential to a modern day NFL offense in free-agent signee Dallas Clark.
Josh Freeman needs to make a huge bounce back. If he can return to the form in 2011 that threw 25 TD's to 6 interceptions while showing some nice fourth-quarter chops, the Bucs can be dangerous. And throw in the signing of the best guard in the NFL, Carl Nicks, to anchor that interior line, and it can only help that process.