Jeff Fisher, St. Louis Rams Head Coach
Each year, parity seems to be very evident in the NFL.
For example, only six teams that made the playoffs in 2010 returned to the postseason in 2011.
So as we approach the 2012 campaign, this gives us a chance to predict which teams may surprise fans and clinch a playoff berth. Did anyone see the Bengals making the playoffs last year? How about the 49ers nearly getting into the Super Bowl with a rookie head coach after missing the playoffs the previous nine seasons?
Which team will make that run this year?
Here's a look at five teams who could possibly go from missing the playoffs in 2011 to a postseason berth in 2012, and who knows, maybe even a win or two once they get there?
2011 Record: 7-9 (third place in NFC West)
Key Free-Agent Signings: Matt Flynn, Jason Jones, Barrett Ruud, Deuce Lutui
Key Losses: Atari Bigby, John Carlson, David Hawthorne, Robert Gallery
Key Draft Picks: Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner, Russell Wilson, Robert Turbin
After a 2-6 start to last season, the Seahawks won five out of six games at one point and were contending for a playoff spot. They also had solid wins over teams like Baltimore, Philadelphia and Chicago.
Pete Carroll will be entering his third season as Seahawks head coach where he has posted back-to-back 7-9 seasons, one in which they actually won the division.
This will be a key season for him and his team as they look to break .500 and get into the playoffs.
The big splash the Seahawks made in the offseason was to bring in free-agent quarterback Matt Flynn, who came over from Green Bay for three years and $26 million.
But, the team also drafted Russell Wilson, and there's said to be a quarterback race between the two of them and Tarvaris Jackson. I don't think the Seahawks brought Flynn in to be a backup, and we should see him under center in Week 1.
They have a very good, bruising runner in Marshawn Lynch, who is coming off an excellent season in which he ran for over 1,200 yards with 12 TDs.
They have a solid nucleus of receivers that includes Sidney Rice, Mike Williams, Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Ben Obomanu.
Their defense was also solid in 2011, ranking ninth in the league.
The pieces are there for the Seahawks to make a run. They'll rely heavily on Lynch, but Matt Flynn will need to prove he was worth all the hype this offseason. Mike Williams really needs to bounce back from an awful 18-catch campaign as well and prove he's a solid No. 1 or No. 2 receiver.
The 49ers are still the class of the division, but the Seahawks can definitely contend for a wild card.
2011 Record: 7-9 (fourth place in AFC West)
Key Offseason Additions: Peyton Hillis, Brady Quinn, Kevin Boss, Stanford Routt
Key Losses: Brandon Carr, Kyle Orton, Leonard Pope, Le'Ron McClain, Demorrio Williams
Key 2012 Draft Picks: Dontari Poe, Jeff Allen, Devon Wylie
We all heard the excuses why this team didn't play well last season, and they may have been valid. After all, Jamaal Charles, Tony Moeaki and Eric Berry were all lost very early on to injury. Then, quarterback Matt Cassel was lost in Week 10 with an injury to his hand that landed him on injured reserve.
The Chiefs were left to rely on guys like Tyler Palko and Jackie Battle. Who? Exactly.
After winning the AFC West in 2010, expectations were very high for this team. But not even a year later, they were last in the division, and their former head coach, Todd Haley, didn't even last the season.
In comes Romeo Crennel, who finishes the year 2-1 and earns the job as head coach. In that time, the Chiefs became the only team to defeat the Green Bay Packers in the regular season.
So, can the Chiefs return to their 2010 form? Many feel the AFC West is wide open this year.
This will really be a make-or-break campaign for Matt Cassel and should he falter, Brady Quinn would love to have a chance to succeed him.
Getting Jamaal Charles back will be a huge boost, and they now have Peyton Hillis behind him, possibly forming somewhat of a thunder-and-lightning combination.
Crennel is also known for his defensive prowess, and he's sure to get the most out of that side of the ball.
2011 Record: 9-7 (second place in AFC South)
Key Free-Agent Signings: Kamerion Wimbley, Zac Diles, Steve Hutchinson
Key Losses: Cortland Finnegan, Jason Jones, Barrett Ruud
Key Draft Picks: Kendall Wright, Zach Brown
This may not be much of a surprise team seeing as how they challenged for a playoff spot up until the final game last year, but since they missed the playoffs, I'll include them.
This season will start for the Titans with an important decision. Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker? That may be the biggest decision of head coach Mike Munchak's entire tenure.
Hasselbeck did nothing to lose the job in 2011, throwing for 3,571 yards and 18 TDs. But how long do you keep your former first-round pick on the bench? In his brief amount of time last year, Locker showed glimpses of being very good as well.
After a long contract dispute, Chris Johnson, or CJ2K, had what many felt was a major off year, despite still running for over 1,000 yards. However, he did only see the end zone four times.
They were also without Kenny Britt for much of the season after he tore his ACL in September. Prior to that, Britt was on a torrid pace, catching 17 balls for 289 yards and three TDs.
The Titans had the NFL's 18th-ranked defense and will need to make some improvements there, particularly after losing Cortland Finnegan to free agency.
But with the right choice at quarterback, a rebound season from Chris Johnson and a healthy Kenny Britt, this team is a contender.
2011 Record: 2-14 (Last in NFC West)
Key Free-Agent Signings: Cortland Finnegan, Barry Richardson, Scott Wells, Steve Smith
Key Losses: Brandon Lloyd, Ron Bartell, Josh Brown, Donnie Jones
Another NFC West team? Why not?
The Rams were a trending pick to surprise last year, but it never materialized. In fact, it didn't even come close.
Quarterback Sam Bradford had an injury-plagued season in which he only threw six TD passes, a "sophomore slump" to say the least. But many experts believe that Bradford will still be a very good NFL QB.
One of the team's big questions will be who will Bradford throw the ball to? They lost Brandon Lloyd to free agency, leaving them with Danario Alexander, Brandon Gibson, Danny Amendola, Austin Pettis, Steve Smith, Brian Quick and Greg Salas at the position.
The big move the Rams made in the offseason was the hiring of head coach Jeff Fisher after parting ways with Steve Spagnuolo. In Tennessee, Fisher was regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, compiling 142 wins and a Super Bowl appearance in 17 seasons there.
The Rams also hired Gregg Williams as the defensive coordinator, and following the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal, he has been suspended for the entire season. How will that affect the team?
The Rams are on this list because, aside from the Niners, the NFC West is a toss-up. Jeff Fisher will bring a winning attitude to this team, and the entire organization will benefit from it. His hiring was one of the best moves any team made this offseason.
The Rams will have a long way to go after only winning two games a season ago, but they nearly won the division a year before.
2011 Record: 6-10 (third place in NFC South)
Key Offseason Moves: Mike Tolbert, Haruki Nakamura
Key Losses: Dan Connor, Travelle Wharton, Legedu Naanee
Key Draft Picks: Luke Kuechly, Joe Adams
This is my favorite darkhorse team from this coming season. I know they play in a tough division, but this team can compete.
The Panthers had the 28th-ranked defense in the NFL last year, and that will have to change. They drafted linebacker Luke Kuechly out of Boston College in the first round to help turn things around.
On the offensive side of the ball, it obviously starts with QB Cam Newton, who's coming off an amazing rookie season—one in which he passed for over 4,000 yards and 17 TDs and ran for another 706 yards and 14 more scores!
Newton also helped wide receiver Steve Smith have a great bounce-back season in which he caught 79 passes compared to just 46 the prior year. He also averaged 17.6 yards per catch.
Between Newton, DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, and now Mike Tolbert, the Panthers possess a vaunted running game.
If they can get anything out of their much-maligned defense to slow down the high-powered offenses of teams like New Orleans and Atlanta, then the Panthers are a team to watch out for.