Biggest Question Marks for Every NFL 2012-13 Playoff Contender
With mandatory minicamps winding down and training camps set to kick off in July, every team in the National Football League faces question marks this season, from how the Indianapolis Colts begin to dig out from under last season's 2-14 debacle to how the Packers rebound from seeing a 15-1 regular-season mark go for naught.
Those questions are amplified with teams that have serious aspirations of making a run deep into the postseason.
Here's a look at the biggest issues facing many of this season's playoff contenders.
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Biggest Question: pass rush
The Atlanta Falcons enjoyed a reasonably successful 2011 season, going 10-6 and earning a wild-card berth before seeing their season come to an unceremonious end with a 24-2 playoff drubbing at the hands of the New York Giants.
The Falcons addressed the offensive line in the 2012 draft with the addition of center Peter Konz. However, a pass rush that ranked 19th in the NFL last year remains a concern given that defensive end John Abraham is 34 years old and fellow end Ray Edwards slogged through a miserable 2011 season.
New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan may be pressed into blitzing with some regularity if the Falcons are going to generate consistent pressure on the quarterback.
Additional pressure will be placed on the back end of the Atlanta defense if Nolan is forced to blitz more, and how a revamped Atlanta secondary handles that pressure will be a large factor in how much noise the Falcons make in the NFC South this season.
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Biggest Question: replacing Terrell Suggs
The Baltimore Ravens came one game away from Super Bowl XLVI, falling to the New England Patriots 23-20 in a hard-fought AFC Championship game.
The offseason hasn't been overly kind to the Ravens however. To date, star running back Ray Rice has refused to sign his franchise tender, and reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs suffered an Achilles' injury that could potentially sideline the 10th-year veteran for the entire season.
Suggs has vowed to return to the playing field this year, but that's far from certain. Fourth-year pro Paul Kruger has been lining up in Suggs' "elephant" pass-rushing role in Baltimore minicamps and OTAs.
Kruger managed five-and-a-half sacks in part-time duty a season ago, but the loss of a player of Suggs' caliber will be a tough blow for the Ravens to recover from in the upcoming season.
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Biggest Question: Matt Forte and the running game
The Chicago Bears appeared to be well on their way to playoff contention last season. However, injuries ravaged the Bears' offensive skill positions late in the year, and the Bears finished the season 8-8 and missed the postseason.
The Bears made several offensive improvements in the offseason, adding running back Michael Bush, wide receiver Brandon Marshall and selecting fellow wideout Alshon Jeffery in the 2012 draft.
Chicago's most important offensive weapon in 2011 remains conspicuously absent, however, as running back Matt Forte has so far balked at signing his franchise tender while seeking a long-term extension.
With Bush in the fold and the team and Forte reportedly not close to agreeing on an extension, this situation has the makings of a potentially ugly holdout.
That holdout would not only cast a pall of distraction over the Bears' training camp, but given what a huge part of the Chicago offense Forte was a year ago, it also raises serious questions about the Bears offense in 2012 should the impasse drag on.
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Biggest Question: more difficult schedule
The Cincinnati Bengals were one of the pleasant surprises of the 2011 season.
Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton clicked immediately with fellow newcomer A.J. Green, and the Bengals went on to post a 9-7 mark and make the playoffs as a wild card.
The Bengals didn't suffer any major losses in free agency, but if the team is going to make the postseason again this year, they'll have to travel a much tougher road to do so.
Cincinnati's schedule is considerably more difficult this season, including a brutal December stretch that features matchups with the Chargers, Cowboys, Eagles, Steelers and Ravens.
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Biggest Question: defensive backfield
Expectations are always sky-high in Dallas, so a 2011 campaign that saw the Cowboys finish at 8-8 and miss the playoffs certainly didn't sit well with team owner Jerry Jones.
Still, the Cowboys had a chance to win the NFC East on the season's final weekend. The New York Giants and quarterback Eli Manning shredded a porous Dallas secondary in the regular-season finale, dashing those hopes.
To say that Jones and the Cowboys took steps to address that secondary in the offseason would be an understatement.
Not only did Dallas sign the best free-agent cornerback available in Brandon Carr, but the team also traded up in April's NFL draft to acquire All-American cornerback Morris Claiborne of LSU, making what was the soft spot of the Dallas defense now appear to be one of its strengths.
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Biggest Question: the arrival of Peyton Manning
No team in the NFL went through more of a roller coaster season last year than the Denver Broncos. Written off as done at the season's midway point, the team rallied behind quarterback Tim Tebow, winning six of their last nine games, capturing the AFC West and shocking the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of the playoffs.
That roller coaster continued right into the offseason, as the team traded Tebow to the New York Jets for the equivalent of a six-pack of Corona and some pork rinds after landing free agency's biggest catch in quarterback Peyton Manning.
Manning's arrival in Denver motivated many pundits to elevate the Broncos to instant Super Bowl contenders in the AFC.
However, the fact remains that after missing all of the 2011 season recovering from multiple neck surgeries, there's no guarantee that the Peyton Manning the Broncos got is the same one who guided the Indianapolis Colts to a pair of Super Bowl appearances.
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Biggest Question: cornerback
For the first time in over a decade the Detroit Lions made a trip to the playoffs, riding phenomenal seasons from quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson to a 10-6 record and wild-card berth.
However, the Lions were carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey by Drew Brees in the playoffs, and in the Lions' last two games last year (both losses), the team allowed a whopping 946 passing yards.
The Lions lost cornerback Eric Wright in free agency, which may actually be a case of addition by subtraction given that Wright's nickname should be "Toast" since he gets burned so often.
On the other hand, the team did little to improve at the position other than add Dwight Bentley in the draft. It will be up to a group of players who are far from household names to keep the Lions in the hunt in a conference filled with quarterbacks capable of lighting up the scoreboard.
As Aaron Berry and Chris Houston go, so will go the Lions.
Green Bay Packers
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Biggest Question: defense
The Green Bay Packers were the NFL's most successful team in the regular season last year, rolling to a 15-1 regular-season mark that meant absolutely nothing when the Packers were dumped from the playoffs by the New York Giants in the divisional round.
As prolific as Green Bay's offense was last season, the defense was equally as putrid. The Green Bay defense ranked dead last in the league in total defense in 2011, allowed nearly 300 passing yards a game and ranking 27th in the NFL in sacks.
The team addressed the defense early and often in the 2012 draft, spending their first six draft picks on that side of the ball.
How newcomers such as outside linebacker Nick Perry and defensive end Jerel Worthy adjust to the professional game will have a significant impact on whether Green Bay will have the opportunity to redeem last year's postseason disappointment in 2012.
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Biggest Question: Matt Schaub
Despite losing both starting quarterback Matt Schaub and backup Matt Leinart to season-ending injuries in 2011, the Houston Texans still had the most successful season in the history of the franchise.
Rookie signal-caller T.J. Yates didn't make too many mistakes, and Houston rode a strong ground game and solid defense to the team's first ever division title and playoff game victory.
The 31-year-old Schaub, who is in the final year of his contract, has now missed at least five games in three of his five seasons with the team, and his recovery from the Lisfranc injury that ended his 2011 campaign is crucial to Houston's hopes in the upcoming season.
Yates performed admirably when pressed into action last year, but if the Texans are going to make a serious run in the AFC in 2012, they need their starting signal-caller healthy and on the field.
New England Patriots
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Biggest Question: pass defense
The New England Patriots made it all the way to Super Bowl XLVI in February, but the same leaky pass defense that plagued the Pats for much of the season let them down again, as Eli Manning led the game-winning drive that sent the Lombardi Trophy back to the Big Apple.
The Patriots ranked 31st in the National Football League against the pass a season ago, surrendering almost 294 yards a game through the air during the regular season.
The team added three defensive backs in the 2012 draft and will get cornerback Ras-I-Dowling back from injury this year, and how much improvement New England's revamped secondary shows will go a long way towards determining whether the Patriots make it back to football's biggest game.
New Orleans Saints
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Biggest Question: The fallout from "Bountygate"
Any success that the New Orleans Saints may have enjoyed last season didn't last long in the minds of many sports fans.
Coverage of the team this offseason has been dominated by the contract impasse between the Saints and star quarterback Drew Brees and the "player bounty" scandal that has engulfed the team.
I expect that the former situation will be resolved sooner rather than later. However, the fallout from "bountygate," which resulted in year-long suspensions for linebacker Jonathan Vilma and head coach Sean Payton, among others, doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell recently heard the appeals of the players suspended as as a result of the alleged player bounties—claims that have been vehemently denied by Vilma and others.
With Vilma walking out of the proceedings and calling them "unfair" and suspended interim coach Joe Vitt vowing to Sports Illustrated that "we're not gonna back down," the battle between the league and the embattled Saints appears far from over.
Whether that will serve as a rallying point that unifies the team or a distraction that derails it is easily the biggest question facing New Orleans this season, and it's one we may not know the answer to for some time.
New York Giants
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Biggest Question: the Super Bowl bull's-eye
The New York Giants are the reigning champions of the National Football League, embarking on a magical postseason run after barely making the playoffs that culminated in a victory over the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.
The team had a successful draft but suffered some significant losses in the offseason as well.
The team lost wide receiver Mario Manningham, cornerback Aaron Ross and running back Brandon Jacobs in free agency, and tight end Jake Ballard was released after failing a physical.
With that said, the biggest issue that will face the Giants this season is the price of being NFL champions.
That title places a bull's-eye squarely on the G-Men's backs, and Big Blue will have to play much more consistent football this season if they are to become to first team in eight years to repeat as Super Bowl champs.
New York Jets
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Biggest Question: quarterback
After advancing to the AFC Championship game in 2010, hopes were high for the New York Jets last year, but the team stumbled and grumbled its way to an 8-8 record that was more soap opera than sporting event.
That inconsistent play extended to fourth-year quarterback Mark Sanchez, who posted the best statistical season of his NFL career but looked flustered and out of sorts on the field at times.
The arrival of wildly popular quarterback Tim Tebow isn't going to help Sanchez's fragile ego one bit either. The team has stated emphatically that Sanchez remains the starting quarterback, but if Gang Green struggles early, the calls for Tebow to start will become deafening.
A quarterback controversy in New York could derail the Jets' chances of contending in the AFC East quickly, and in all honesty, it's more than likely just a matter of time before they have one on their hands.
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Biggest Question: short memories
After making several big splashes in the offseason last year, the Philadelphia Eagles were a trendy pick as the Super Bowl representative from the NFC before the season.
Those predictions turned out to be way off base, however, as the best secondary in the NFL on paper struggled on the field, the Eagles committed far too many turnovers, and the team needed a late surge just to finish the season at .500.
The team took steps to right the ship in 2012, as wide receiver DeSean Jackson got the extension he spent much of last season whining about and the Eagles upgraded the defense considerably with the additions of linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox.
If Philadelphia can put last year's disappointments behind them and quarterback Michael Vick can stay healthy and cut down on the turnovers, then the Eagles should be in the thick on an NFC East race that's shaping up to be a dogfight in 2012.
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Biggest Question: running back
The early part of 2012 was not kind at all to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Not only was the team on the wrong end of Tim Tebow's overtime touchdown pass in the Wild Card Round of the AFC playoffs, but starting running back Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in January, leaving his availability for at least the early part of the 2012 season very much in doubt.
The task of lead back in the Pittsburgh backfield will now fall to Isaac Redman. The fourth-year pro has shown some flashes of talent when afforded the opportunity and will be running behind an improved Steelers' offensive front.
However, Mendenhall's absence will likely place quite a bit more pressure on Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the team's talented wideout corps to move the ball through the air.
In a division where the weather can get dicey as the season wears on, that could become a problem, especially if Redman struggles.
San Diego Chargers
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Biggest Question: offensive continuity
There are a number of issues facing the San Diego Chargers after a disappointing 8-8 2011 season, including the pass rush and how head coach Norv Turner still has a job.
If you figure that second one out, let me know.
However, the biggest concern for the Chargers entering 2012 may well be the offense as a whole, which underwent a number of changes.
Gone are top wide receiver Vincent Jackson and running back Mike Tolbert, and while the newly acquired Robert Meachem hopes to fill Jackson's void, it will be up to running back Ryan Mathews to pick up Tolbert's slack and take on a much larger role in the San Diego offense.
How these players respond to these challenges, along with how ninth-year quarterback Philip Rivers rebounds from his 20-interception 2011 season, will be the key factors in determining whether the San Diego Chargers are a contender or pretender in the AFC West in 2012.
San Francisco 49ers
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Biggest Question: wide receiver
The San Francisco 49ers were probably the biggest surprise in the National Football League in 2011, as not only did the 49ers capture the NFC West, but the team rode a 13-3 record to overtime of the NFC Championship game.
However, poor wide receiver play let San Francisco down in that loss to the New York Giants, and the team addressed that need with a vengeance in the offseason, adding Mario Manningham and Randy Moss in free agency and using their first-round pick on A.J. Jenkins.
Moss has reportedly shined in minicamps, while Jenkins has struggled in his first few practices as a pro.
How these new faces mesh with quarterback Alex Smith and the San Francisco offense could easily turn the 49ers into Super Bowl favorites if the team's offense can come anywhere close to being as dominant as its defense.