The 2011 NFL season began with the Green Bay Packers as heavy favorites to not only repeat as Super Bowl champions, but dominate in doing so. However, as the New York Giants showed us, that is why they play the games.
With an unexpected, eerily familiar run to the Super Bowl in 2011, the Giants took down not only the high-flying Green Bay Packers, but the powerful New England Patriots as well to reclaim the Vince Lombardi trophy.
But who will take home the title this year?
We can't know. It seems doubtful that the New York Giants would have been the pick of many heading into last year. There are, however, a handful of teams that will, barring injuries, almost certainly make a run at Super Bowl 47.
In a league that is now packed to the brim with talented teams, there is a case for just about any team in the NFL to make a run, as is evident by the New York Giants' most recent mad dash through the playoffs. These are the teams most poised to make that run as we look forward to the 2012 season.
After a shaky start to the 2011 season, the Bears quickly became one of the hottest teams in the NFL. 2-3, and dead in the water in the minds of many, Chicago rebounded to win five tough games in a row behind Jay Cutler and Matt Forte.
However, in the wake of injuries to Forte, and, more importantly, Cutler, the Bears inevitably faded.
In that five game win streak, the Bears showed flashes of what could be in Chicago. Cutler began to show that he was the quarterback the Bears needed and Matt Forte proved himself to be one of the elite NFL running backs.
With Cutler at the helm, the Bears are no longer the Bears of old, relying on a heavy dose of running plays and defense, but they have the same Super Bowl potential. The defense, behind Urlacher and Briggs, still has gas left in the tank.
Beyond that, new GM Phil Emery, who replaced the much maligned Jerry Angelo, had an outstanding first offseason in Chicago. He not only stole Brandon Marshall from Miami, but signed Michael Bush to play alongside Forte and drafted Shea McLellin to start a youth movement on the defensive side of the ball.
Furthermore, Emery drafted Alshon Jeffery to give Cutler yet another weapon on a team that is suddenly full of those. He also signed Jason Campbell to ensure that if Cutler were to go down again, the Bears would have a legitimate starter to fill the void.
On paper, the Bears have an outstanding offensive unit, a good defense, and perhaps the best special teams unit in the game. If Cutler plays to the level he was approaching in 2011, the Bears are dangerous. In addition, if the contract dispute between Matt Forte and Chicago that has plagued the Bears continues, Michael Bush is an outstanding insurance policy.
Playing in the hardest division in the NFL will make it a challenge, but the Bears could undoubtedly be Super Bowl contenders.
A few hiccups along the way against Tennessee, Jacksonville, Seattle and San Diego provided skeptics with plenty of room to doubt their legitimacy, but Baltimore proved strong. Although they were ousted by the Patriots, Baltimore was a field goal away from possibly going to the Super Bowl.
A constant theme of the 2011 season in Baltimore was the debate over whether or not Joe Flacco was good enough to lead the Ravens throughout the season. The consensus around the league seemed to be that the Ravens were surviving Flacco's play, not benefiting from it.
As 2012 begins, in the NFL that debate will surely rage on and either inspire Flacco, or crush the Ravens.
The Ravens made almost no changes in the offseason but, coming so close to the Super Bowl, that may have been reasonable.
The biggest news out of Baltimore this offseason was the torn ACL that Terrell Suggs suffered. If Suggs is hurt, the defense in Baltimore will still be strong, but unquestionably battered. It was recently reported that Suggs was off crutches, which would be a huge boost to Baltimore making yet another run. Without him, they will have a huge hole in their lineup.
There is no doubt, however, that the Ravens can be considered Super Bowl favorites, especially if Flacco elevates his game.
Good news? The Texans locked up Arian Foster. Bad news? The Houston offensive line is now a shadow of its former shelf.
In the wake of injuries to both Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson, Foster had his best season to date and helped the Texans make the playoffs—and even win a game.
However, in the offseason Houston's front office let starting right guard Mike Brisiel and right tackle Eric Winston slip away in free agency. The load will be off Foster with the return of Schaub and Johnson, but in the wake of a large contract he will still be pressured to perform at a high level.
Furthermore, Brisiel and Winston weren't the only players to leave Houston. The Texans lost star defensive presence Mario Williams, and let talented linebacker DeMeco Ryans go in a trade to Philadelphia. They missed out on starting cornerback Jason Allen.
For a team that already relied on their offensive heavily, the loss of the two most talented members of their defense hurts.
However, this is a team that made it past the first round of the playoffs without Williams having any impact on the season and without their All-Pro quarterback and wide receiver. If the Texans can overcome the tremendous losses on their line and defense with a high-flying offense, they will have a very good chance to make the playoffs and a further run than last year.
Although Eli Manning already had one Super Bowl title under his belt, 2011 was a year where we saw the younger Manning take control of the Giants and lead them to a win in Super Bowl 47.
And, just like they had time and time before, the defensive line in New York rose to the top on the biggest stage.
The Giants showed determination and toughness in the playoffs after squeaking in with a 9-7 record coming out of the weak NFC East. They beat a talented Atlanta Falcons team, the pre-determined favorites from Green Bay, and then a strong San Francisco team in the NFC half of the bracket.
Then, as they had once already, they beat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
The offseason was busy, and ultimately negative, for the Giants. While they kept Osi Umenyiora and added Marcellus Bennett to upgrade the tight end position, they also lost Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs to the San Francisco 49ers.
The Giants lost two talents, most notably Manningham, that led to their victory last year. That may significantly hurt the Giants' offense. But, if we've learned anything about Tom Coughlin's Giants, it is that you can never count them out.
After Vince Young proclaimed the Philadelphia Eagles "The Dream Team" in 2011, they had a season that fans in Philadelphia will soon try and forget.
Despite acquiring Nnamdi Asoumagha, Ronnie Brown and a host of other notable free agents, including Young, the Eagles were one of the NFL's worst teams and failed to make the playoffs with a wealth of talent.
Despite a breakout year from LeSean Mccoy, the Eagles were not able to overcome Michael Vick's injury-plagued season and a lackluster defense. Although they were tied for the league lead in sacks, the Eagles had one of the worst linebacking groups in the league and did not receive the impact performance they expected from Asoumagha.
However, the addition of DeMeco Ryans could make 2012 a special year for the Eagles. Ryans, a leader, and effective middle linebacker, is exactly what the Eagles need after ranking 19th in yards per carry allowed.
With a presence in the linebacking corps that can prevent the big plays in the run game, as well as the addition of rookie Fletcher Cox on the defensive line, the Eagles could have a defense to complement their talented offense.
They could be a scary team for the rest of the league.
After an amazing 2011 season that inspired fans in Detroit, the Lions will surely look to build on their new-found success. Although they were disappointed by losing to New Orleans, the Lions have a real shot at overtaking some teams in the NFC playoffs and representing the NFC in the Super Bowl.
It may sound far-fetched for them to make such a drastic leap in such a short amount of time, especially with Chicago as a real threat to complement Green Bay this year, but the Lions have the talent to do it. With a sturdy defense and a dynamic threat in the connection between Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson on offense, the Lions have talent all over the field.
Detroit made few moves in the offseason, but made sure to lock up Johnson as well as leading tackler Stephen Tulloch. As was evident in Philadelphia, the importance of a middle linebacker cannot be overlooked.
Detroit is on the rise, and it may be quicker than we all think.
If not for two very costly mistakes by Kyle Williams, we may have been discussing how the 49ers would go about repeating their Super Bowl victory.
With Patrick Willis anchoring the best defense in football, or one of them at least, and John Harbaugh reviving the career of Alex Smith, the Niners came out of nowhere to become one of the NFL elites.
The Niners made a brief run at the services of Peyton Manning in the offseason before dropping out, but managed to have a huge offseason despite retaining Alex Smith as their starting quarterback. While they did lose the captain of their spectacular special teams unit, Blake Costanzo, they added Brandon Jacobs, Mario Manningham, LaMichael James and Randy Moss, giving them a formidable offense to go along with their potent defense.
Behind Harbaugh, with solid units in all three phases of the game as well as speed, strength, and athleticism, this team is poised to make a run in 2012 and beyond, especially if Alex Smith can become more than just a quarterback who simply manages the offense. Having Frank Gore in front of Jacobs and James doesn't hurt either.
The Steelers faithful were anxious throughout the 2011 season, especially with two losses to their biggest rival, the Baltimore Ravens. Despite a strong record, there seemed to be a feeling that this Steelers team wasn't as strong as they had been in the past.
However, going into 2012 there should be a confidence in the Steelers locker room and amongst their fans.
The Steelers ran into the media hype machine that was Tim Tebow and sort of crumbled underneath the weight of it all in the playoffs, but showed no signs of slowing down during the course of the 2011 season.
Their primary flaw was an offense that proved to be stagnant, ranking just 21st in the league. However, in the offseason they fixed that by adding Todd Haley.
Ben Roethlisberger will have to adjust to a new defense for the first time in his career, but Haley is great offensively and will almost certainly turn the offensive woes around. If he can do that, the Steelers have a very good shot at returning to the Super Bowl behind a defense that is still strong.
We all know what the Patriots bring to the table year after year. With that said, they were a few inches away from becoming Super Bowl champs had that tipped Hail Mary gone another way.
With the moves they made this offseason, it is hard not to imagine the Patriots back in the Super Bowl.
Not only did they lock up Rob Gronkowski long-term; they also added a receiving threat in Brandon Lloyd and retained Wes Welker, although Welker may have wanted a long-term deal.
Those offensive assurances, to go along with the defensive talent of Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower, assure us that we will see New England deep in the playoffs yet again.
Despite losing to the Giants in the playoffs, the Packers are still the best team in the NFL. They were dominant to the fullest extent in the regular season, and still have the league's best quarterback as well as all weapons.
By signing Jermichael Finley long-term and retaining most of the roster that has proved so effective in the last two seasons, the Packers made sure that they would be back.
With the heightened talent of the Bears, Lions, and even the Vikings, it is tough to see them going 15-1 again. But with a motivated Aaron Rodgers and a roster full of talent everywhere, this team will surely contend for the title again.