Every single NFL season there are teams that step up from the previous year and prove all the skeptics wrong. Some of these teams had been existing in mediocrity for quite some time, while others had not lived up to lofty expectations in previous seasons.
The 2011 season saw the San Francisco 49ers jump out of the gate, winning nine of their first 10 games en route to an NFC Championship appearance—this, after the 49ers had not made the playoffs in an entire decade prior.
They faced off against a nine-win New York Giants team that was picked to finish third in the NFC East behind the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys, by most media outlets.
We all know how that turned out.
This article is going to focus on a few different teams in the league that are going to surprise their fans heading into the 2012 season.
The Buffalo Bills started out last season extremely strong, winning four of their first five games and clicking a great deal on offense. During that span, they averaged 32.8 points with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Stevie Johnson and Fred Jackson acting as a dynamic trio.
Then it all came crashing down.
Jackson broke a bone in his right leg during a Week 11 game against the Miami Dolphins and was promptly put on injured reserve. Buffalo went on to lose five consecutive games and six of their last seven to end the season 6-10.
It now appears that Jackson is back at full health and is ready to regain the momentum he had prior to that injury. Johnson is also back in the fold after agreeing to a long-term extension earlier in the offseason.
In short, Buffalo should be able to rekindle its dynamic offensive play we saw early in the 2011 season.
That being said, defense was a larger issue for Buffalo last year. The Bills finished 30th in the league in scoring defense, giving up over 27 points per outing. Moreover, Buffalo struggled a great deal in the most important aspects of the game on defense. It ranked 26th in total yards and 28th in rush defense, while accumulating a total of just 29 sacks throughout the season.
Buffalo set out to fix those issues this offseason. It signed the top defensive free agent, Mario Williams, to a six-year deal worth potentially $100 million. He is going to add another dimension to a defense that lacked any type of a pass rush last season. The Bills also signed Mark Anderson away from the division rival New England Patriots.
By virtue of bringing in two players who are going to help find a consistent pass rush, the Bills actually improved their secondary a great deal. Give the quarterback less time to pass the ball, and it will be difficult for him to find seams down the field.
But this wasn't enough for Buffalo.
The Bills selected cornerback Stephon Gilmore from South Carolina in the first round of April's draft. The talented defender is already slated to start and should be an immediate impact rookie. He has the technique and physical ability to be very strong out of the gate.
Overall, Buffalo addressed most of the issues that caused it to fade down the stretch in 2011. The talent is there, the scheme seems to fit that talent and the players are ready to take their game to the next level.
While the Bills are not going to be in position to challenge the Patriots for the AFC East Championship, they will be right in the midst of a wild-card spot.
People seem to forget that the Seattle Seahawks won the NFC West and defeated the reigning Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints in the playoffs just two seasons ago. Some of this had to do with the fact that they were a 7-9 team and the "respect factor" wasn't there.
Then the San Francisco 49ers came on like gangbusters last season to the tune of a 13-3 record, practically clinching the division at the mid-point of the season.
Does this mean that Seattle doesn't have what it takes to contend for a playoff spot in 2012? No!
There were a lot of things that went wrong with this franchise last season. Above all else, they just couldn't stay healthy. Not one of the Seahawks' 11 regular starters on the offensive side of the ball played in all 16 games. Additionally, that unit missed a total of 33 games, including 19 along the offensive line alone.
In order to have success in the NFL, teams need to stay healthy. Seattle didn't last season. For comparison's sake, the division champion 49ers saw their regular starters on offense miss a total of six games.
This might not make up for the disparity between talent on the two teams, but it is an indication as to why Seattle was so far down in the standings.
Seattle boasts an extremely strong defense with the likes of Chris Clemons, Red Bryant and Earl Thomas leading the way. They signed defensive tackle Jason Jones—who is stout against the run—away from the Tennessee Titans in March, as well.
Up-and-coming youngsters such as Brandon Browner, Richard Sherman and K.J. Wright had great 2011 seasons and look ready to take their game to the next level this year.
Seattle did receive a great deal of criticism by reaching for former West Virginia pass-rusher Bruce Irvin in the first round of this year's draft. I am not going to support that selection because it does seem like a reach. At the very least, the Seahawks could have traded down more and still gotten their man.
That being said, he should be able to provide a pass-rush threat when in the game as a rookie in 2012. There is no doubting the talent that Irvin possesses; he just needs to put it all together on the football field.
As with most teams around the league, it comes down to the quarterback position. Seattle added former Green Bay Packers backup quarterback Matt Flynn to the mix at this position and selected former Wisconsin standout Russell Wilson in the third round, both to compete with incumbent Tarvaris Jackson for the starting job.
According to Pro Football Weekly, Flynn "did the best job, by far, of the three in terms of withstanding pressure and avoiding turnovers." This is an extremely important area to look at. Seattle allowed a whopping 50 sacks last season. Although this might change with a healthier line, they need a quarterback who can avoid that pressure, get rid of the ball in a timely manner and avoid mistakes.
Flynn appears to be that guy.
If Seattle gets consistent play from the quarterback position, it will definitely challenge for a wild-card spot in 2012, closing the gap between itself and the 49ers.
The Philadelphia Eagles would have never made a list like this last season. They were, by all accounts, the "favorites" of the media to grab the Lombardi Trophy in 2011.
That was obviously presumptive of everyone, Vince Young included.
Now the Eagles are looking to rebound after a disastrous performance last year. Physical and mental mistakes cost Philadelphia an opportunity at a postseason berth in 2011.
Their linebackers were among the worst in the entire league in terms of tackling and coverage. Michael Vick made a ton of mistakes at the least-opportunistic times, and the result was a .500 record.
Fast forward a few months, and the Eagles are once again on the brink of contention for the Super Bowl. No, this is not media-created propaganda to boost page views and site visits. Rather, it is an indication that Philadelphia recognized these shortcomings and fixed them in the offseason.
General manager Howie Roseman and the front office didn't go out and spend a great deal of money like what we saw prior to the 2011 season. Instead, they focused on finding veterans to fit their scheme and adding a cast of young players via the draft.
In doing so, Philadelphia aced the NFL draft in April by collecting top-of-the-line players in nearly every round. The Eagles addressed key weaknesses, recognized who was going to fit their scheme, saw players drop into their laps and made a rather impressive trade.
Fletcher Cox, who Philadelphia selected in the first round, was one of the most talented defensive players in the draft. He is going to help the Eagles a great deal as a force both at defensive tackle and defensive end.
They also received tremendous value at a need position in the form of second-round pick Mychal Kendricks. The Cal product is already slated to be the Eagles' starting strong-side linebacker after impressive showings throughout the offseason. He can go sideline to sideline in a heartbeat, understands how to draw out plays and is solid at the line of scrimmage against the run.
It is the next two picks, Vinny Curry and Brandon Boykin, that put Philadelphia over the top in regards to the draft. Curry, a Marshall product, will provide Philadelphia with immediate pass-rush ability off the edge in the 4-3 defense. He is going to be a fine rotational player as a rookie and could surprise some people. Boykin, a third-rounder from Georgia, is considered a strong challenger for the nickel corner job as a rookie in 2012.
Philadelphia also went out and picked up DeMeco Ryans in a trade with the Houston Texans. The veteran linebacker will immediately be plugged in up the middle and represents a major upgrade over what the Eagles had last season.
Talent isn't everything. This was proven throughout the 2011 season as it relates to the Eagles. They boasted one of the most "talented" rosters in the league, but just couldn't get out of their own way on game day.
Now that Philadelphia has gotten more talented, critics will raise alarm to their performance last season, and for good reason.
That being said, this is an entirely new season. If the Eagles can play up to their level on Sundays, there is no reason to believe they can't knock off the New York Giants in the NFC East and contend for a conference championship.
It all comes down to execution.
Think about this for a second: How many teams in the NFL would contend for a playoff berth if they lost their best player on both sides of the ball after just one regular season game?
How would the San Francisco 49ers fare if both Frank Gore and Patrick Willis, God forbid, went down to season-ending injuries in September?
What about Ray Rice and either Ed Reed or Ray Lewis in Baltimore? Would the Ravens contend if they were to go down early in 2012?
This is the situation that the Kansas City Chiefs found themselves in last season when both Jamaal Charles and Eric Berry were lost before the team even played their third regular season game.
Berry and Charles weren't just core players during the Chiefs' division championship run in 2010—they were primary reasons for that success. Charles gained nearly 2,000 total yards while averaging an absurd 6.4 yards per rush. All Berry did as a rookie was become a leader in the Chiefs secondary as a standout safety, earning a Pro Bowl nod while accumulating nearly 90 tackles, four interceptions and 10 passes defended.
As I mentioned with the Seattle Seahawks earlier, injuries can derail a season before it even gets started. This happened in Arrowhead last year.
This doesn't even take into account the fact that Matt Cassel missed seven games and starting tight end Tony Moeaki saw action in just one game.
Now that all appear to be healthy, the Chiefs can look forward to a season with their core relatively intact. They also added a ton of solid veterans through free agency.
Former Houston Texans right tackle Eric Winston was signed in order to solidify the right side of the line. He is, by my estimation, the best run-blocking tackle in the entire league. That was a coup of epic proportions.
Peyton Hillis, despite having a disastrous 2011 campaign for the Cleveland Browns, should provide thunder to Charles' lightning as well. Expect a strong run game between this combination in 2012.
While Kansas City couldn't afford to retain Brandon Carr in free agency, it was able to pick up Stanford Routt from the division rival Oakland Raiders. This might not be a lateral move for Kansas City's defense, but it did decrease the blow of losing Carr.
The media spotlight in the AFC West during training camp is going to go to the Denver Broncos and their new quarterback, Peyton Manning. I don't think the Chiefs or any other team in that division mind a great deal.
Fly under the radar and do your talking on the football field. This is what made a number of teams contend for a championship last season, and I have to believe this is the way Kansas City plans on going about business.
While there is no clear-cut favorite in the AFC West, it wouldn't surprise me to see the Chiefs win the division after a year hiatus.
It is all about getting more production from Cassel and staying healthy.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had an extremely disappointing 2011 season after surprising many people with 10 wins the prior season.
There were a few different reasons for this. The 2010 version of this team might not have been as good as its record indicated. You also have to take into account the fact that this was, and still is, an extremely young but flawed football team on both sides of the ball.
Gerald McCoy never stepped it up at defensive tackle last season, missing all but six games. This was one of the primary reasons that Tampa Bay allowed 150-plus rushing yards, 10 times last season. It also caused their defense to fall flat as the season progressed.
While there is no telling if McCoy will ever be a strong force along the interior of Tampa Bay's defensive line, he was still missed a great deal. After all, it is never a good sign when Albert Haynesworth is asked to produce.
That being said, it was the offense that struggled. Josh Freeman, coming off a strong 2010 campaign, just couldn't get into rhythm all season long. He made horrible reads down the field and forced the ball way too much, which led to a whopping 22 interceptions, 16 more than in 2010.
Tampa Bay set out to address these issues and more in the offseason. This is a franchise that is going to live and die by the arm of Freeman, so it went out and got him a shiny new weapon in the form of Vincent Jackson. The former San Diego Chargers receiver immediately gives Tampa Bay a consistent receiving threat on the outside after Mike Williams regressed in his second season.
Instead of having to force the ball into tight windows, Freeman will have the luxury of looking Jackson's way and finding some separation down the field. This is also going to help Williams because he won't be going up against opposing No. 1 cornerbacks.
The biggest addition for Tampa Bay this offseason was Carl Nicks, the No. 1 left guard in the NFL, according to Bleacher Report's very own Matt Miller. Nicks is going to solidify an already strong unit by improving the run game as well as pass protection.
Then Tampa Bay made the "decision" to absolutely own the first round of the 2012 NFL draft. After picking up the consensus top safety in the class, Mark Barron from Alabama, the Buccaneers traded back into the first round to acquire Doug Martin. I had the Boise State product as the second-best running back in the class behind Trent Richardson. He is a dynamic playmaker who has the ability to be an elite back in the NFL.
Look for Martin to take over the starting role from LeGarrette Blount in relatively quick fashion and run with it, pun very much intended. The mere presence of a consistent run game is also going to benefit Freeman. The onus isn't going to be put on the young quarterback as much as it was last season, which will limit his mistakes in the long run.
While Tampa Bay may still struggle on the defensive side of the ball, its offense has a chance to be truly dynamic in 2012. This immediately puts them in contention for a wild-card spot or even a division championship, following a disappointing 4-12 campaign last year.
I can hear my readers right now, especially from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. How can a team that continues to disappoint be on a list of teams that are going to surprise their fans?
Well, the answer here is pretty simple and prefaced in question form. How many of you have faith in Tony Romo to lead the Cowboys deep into the postseason? OK, I see a couple of you raising your hands right about now, and the rest are shuddering at even the slightest hint of confidence in Romo.
That being said, Romo was not the major reason Dallas failed to meet expectations in 2011. In fact, he had arguably the best season of his career. The talented quarterback completed over 65 percent of his passes, threw for nearly 4,200 yards and had three times more touchdowns than interceptions.
The blame for a disappointing 2011 seasons sits on the doorsteps of the rest of the roster, most of which just didn't step up when it counted the most.
Dez Bryant was absolutely nowhere to be found in the second half of games last season and failed to record a single 100-yard performance. He is going to need to step up in order for Dallas to contend for a division championship.
According to a report by the Dallas Morning News, Bryant is getting a lot more comfortable with his quarterback, as the two appear to be in the midst of becoming a solid duo in the passing game. Romo had the following to say about Bryant, among others, earlier this week:
He just keeps improving and improving. He’s a kid that I enjoy playing with because he wants to get better [...]. He’s always asking, ‘Hey Tony, what can I do to be better?’ I love playing with guys like him, Miles (Austin) and these guys. They want to be better themselves and they’re trying to do anything they can to get better.
That's pretty darn good news for Dallas fans right there.
Another major concern in Dallas last season was injuries. DeMarco Murray, who had one of the greatest stretches for a rookie running back in modern NFL history, missed the final three games with an ankle injury. Miles Austin wasn't his normal self after suffering through an injury-riddled season that saw him miss six games.
With those two in the fold, Dallas has an opportunity to field one of the the best offenses in the entire NFL this upcoming season.
One of the Cowboys' major issues over the course of the last couple seasons was pass defense. They have ranked in the bottom third of the league in that category in each of the last two years, allowing an average of 244 passing yards per game. Moreover, they just weren't able to get off the field on third down in 2012. Dallas allowed offenses to acquire first downs in these situations a whopping 40 percent of the time.
It didn't take long for Jerry Jones and Co. to fix this issue. They signed the top corner on the free-agent market in the form of Brandon Carr. Not too long after, Dallas traded up for the consensus No. 1 defensive player in the entire 2012 NFL draft, Morris Claiborne, to start opposite the aforementioned Carr.
What was a major weakness in 2011 (pass defense) could actually turn out to be one of their strengths this year. You have to give the Cowboys' braintrust credit for that.
In the end, there is no telling whether the Cowboys are going to win the NFC East or even make the playoffs. But what they did during the offseason did ensure that they will be in a better situation to succeed on a consistent basis come September.
The division is going to be extremely difficult, but Dallas possesses the talent and ability to compete with the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles throughout the entire season.
That's all you can ask at this point.