NFL Playoffs: Falcons, Texans Among XLVII Contenders in 32-Team Preview

Lee BiermanContributor IJune 26, 2012

NFL Playoffs: Falcons, Texans Among XLVII Contenders in 32-Team Preview

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    Unlike the lockout-shortened 2011 offseason, fans are enjoying a full slate of summer activities around the NFL this year.

    While the lockout kept fans in the dark about their favorite teams last year, this season is a completely different story, with a new headline surfacing around the league each day.

    Whether it's the courtship of Peyton Manning or the resurrection of Randy Moss, just about every team has something to be excited about this offseason. How that excitement translates to on-the-field success is sometimes difficult to gauge, but with mini-camps ending and training camps set to get underway, now is the right time to take a deeper look at each team's chances heading into the upcoming season.

    How will the Saints rebound from Bounty Gate? Does Cam Newton suffer a sophomore slump? Will the Giants repeat, or is this the year Tom Brady gets his fourth ring? How do the rookie quarterbacks in Indianapolis and Washington fare in their first year?

     Questions abound across the league this offseason. It's time to answer a few of them.

AFC East: Buffalo Bills

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    While Mario Williams may have signed the richest defensive contract in league history this offseason, one player does not turn around a defense full of holes. Stephon Gilmore may start immediately as a rookie, but the pair of big additions won't be enough.

    Buffalo's situation will be further complicated by a transition to 4-3 this year and questions along the offensive side. Can Stevie Johnson become a more consistent threat? Will Ryan Fitzpatrick live up to his new contract? Does age finally catch up to Fred Jackson?

    What will help the Bills this year is an easy schedule outside of their division, as the AFC East has been paired with two of the weaker divisions in football, the NFC West and AFC South.

    Nevertheless, the schedule makers gave Buffalo back-to-back near-impossible games twice this season (Week 4, hosting the Patriots, followed by a Week 5 trip to San Francisco; Week 9 in Houston, followed by a Week 10 trip to Foxborough), which will likely be enough to keep the Bills out of the playoff picture for another year.


    Verdict: 7-8 Wins, Miss Playoffs

    Buffalo is bound to suffer some setbacks while transitioning to a new defense, and this might just be the year where Coe College product Fred Jackson finally begins to show signs of his age (31).

    Fear not, Buffalo fans, this team has a bright future.

AFC East: Miami Dolphins

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    Though Reggie Bush enjoyed a breakout season in 2011, I don't see his claims of winning the 2012 rushing title coming to fruition just yet.

    What he does have going for him is either a washed-up veteran or a talented-but-unready rookie under center, and no receiving depth outside of a man who changed his last name to his number. That is a recipe for carries if I ever saw one.

    Unfortunately for Reggie, those carries will be divvied up between three different Miami backs.

    While this year's Hard Knocks participants will have plenty of interesting storylines to follow, winning the AFC East will not be one of them.  

    Tannehill is a talented athlete with fantastic upside, but undoubtedly he'll be thrown to the wolves early this season, and might even struggle to survive to the finish line.

    There's some optimism in the middle third of the Miami schedule, with games against the Rams, Colts, Titans, Bills and Seahawks over a seven-week span, but don't expect Miami to come away with a winning record.


    Verdict: 3-4 Wins, Basement Dweller

    This team is just too young and too untalented to make a splash this season. Their defense has some bright spots, but don't expect the unit to make up for Tannehill's first-year mistakes, or Matt Moore/David Garrard's shortcomings.

    Unfortunately for Dolphins fans, it's going to be a long year.

AFC East: New York Jets

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    Ladies and gentlemen, Tebowmania has hit the Big Apple.

    In what was one of the most peculiar moves of the offseason, the Jets followed the signing of Mark Sanchez' lucrative extension by trading for former Denver Broncos starting quarterback Tim Tebow.

    While Rex Ryan has been adamant about Sanchez' grip on the starting job, I'm not buying it for one second. Unlike Sanchez, Tebow made the playoffs last year. If the Jets take a tumble early, expect plenty of competition for the starting role.

    Like the Buffalo Bills, the Jets are transitioning to a 4-3 this season. Unlike the Buffalo Bills, the Jets' defense has few glaring holes, and the transition will likely be a much smoother one.

    However, I'm not so sure how Ryan's aggressive, blitz-happy style will translate to a defense featuring four down linemen. Only time will tell.


    Verdict: 8-9 Wins, Wild Card Contender

    Even if Rex Ryan uses Tebow perfectly as an H Back, games against the Steelers, 49ers and Chargers will be tough for the Jets. Expect their defense to keep them competitive, but a lot this season depends upon Mark Sanchez limiting mistakes.

AFC East: New England Patriots

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    As long as the Patriots have Tom Brady under center and Bill Belichick under the hoodie, they'll be the favorites to win an AFC East that just can't catch up with them.

    After a stellar offseason that included drafting Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower, signing Brandon Lloyd and paying Rob Gronkowski handsomely for his services, the only remaining question mark for the reigning AFC champions lies in a contract dispute between the franchise and workhorse wide receiver Wes Welker.

    Chances are, Welker and the organization get their dispute sorted out before it becomes a detriment to the team. Even if Welker misses part of camp, he has been in this system, with this quarterback, for long enough that it's doubtful his empty locker causes the Patriots substantial grief.

    Expect the Patriots to steamroll the majority of their competition again this year, with their only real challenges coming against Baltimore, San Francisco and the Manning-led Broncos.


    Verdict: 12-14 Wins, Super Bowl Contender

    Complacency, luck or weather may cause the Patriots to lose a couple games this year, but they'll likely find themselves at the top of the AFC table come January once again.

AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

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    After a surprising turn-around in Cincinnati last season, Bengals fans are expecting big things from a talented, but young, Bengals squad.

    While Andy Dalton was serviceable at quarterback last season, the team's continued growth depends heavily on his improvement as a passer.

    Adding complementary receiving targets to keep defenses from doubling A.J. Green was a big priority for the Bengal front office. Drafting Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu gave Dalton the options he needs to have a successful 2012 campaign.

    Unfortunately for Cincinnati, they still play in the toughest division in football, and squaring off twice against the Ravens and Steelers is no easy task.

    Drawing another talented division to play against in the NFC East makes Cincinnati's goal of another playoff birth harder to obtain. Games against DallasPhiladelphia, New York and the Broncos could give the Bengals fits.


    Verdict: 8-9 Wins, Wild Card Contender

    Expect Cincinnati to both win and lose some games experts thought would go the other way. They'll be in the hunt until the end, as long as Dre Kirkpatrick is the answer at cornerback they hoped for when drafting him.

AFC North: Cleveland Browns

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    Things won't get much easier this year for the Cleveland Browns. While drafting an absolute stud in Trent Richardson certainly helps, having a 28-year-old rookie quarterback throwing to targets that would struggle to make other teams' practice squads is a recipe for disaster.

    Speaking of Brandon Weeden, Mike Holmgren has Weeden picked as the next failing face of the Cleveland franchise. While his arm is stronger and head smarter than Colt McCoy, he is too old to be more than a bandaid.

    Expect defenses to load the box against the Browns, and expect the Browns to be fighting for the rights to draft Matt Barkley all year long.

    Further complicating things for Cleveland is a brutal stretch of games to start the year. With games against the Eagles, Bills, Ravens, Giants and Bengals (2), it's very possible Cleveland starts the year in an 0-6 hole.


    Verdict: 2-3 Wins, Basement Dweller

    On the bright side, next season the Browns will have a 29-year-old to teach Matt Barkley the offense. Hopefully they can get him a couple receivers, too.

AFC North: Baltimore Ravens

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    Like last season, this year's Baltimore Ravens will rely heavily on a dominant defense and a dominant run game.

    However, with the loss of Terrell Suggs and the advancing age of defensive centerpieces Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, this year promises to be a tough challenge for the perennial AFC North contenders.

    Further complicating the Ravens' offseason is a lingering contract dispute between the team and star running back Ray Rice. While it is unexpected for Rice to miss any playing time, holdouts have been known to hurt ball-carriers in the past (see: Johnson, Chris).

    The Ravens play in a very tough AFC North, and two games against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati offer challenges for Baltimore. Circle early-season dates against the Eagles, Patriots and Texans as a way to gauge just how good Baltimore will be this season.

    If Courtney Upshaw plays well enough to make up for the loss of Suggs, this team will still be in the hunt for the best record in the AFC during crucial late-season games at home against the Broncos and Giants.


    Verdict: 11-12 Wins, Super Bowl Contender

    Look for a Week 17 clash in Cincinnati to determine the fate of the Ravens this season. The AFC North crown will likely be a race between Pittsburgh and Baltimore entering the season's final week.

AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Last season, the biggest question marks for Pittsburgh were along the offensive line. Roethlisberger showcased some legendary toughness in the way he handled leaky pass protection.

    The situation was further complicated by Rashard Mendenhall's inconsistent play out of the backfield. Pittsburgh went offensive guard/offensive tackle in the first two rounds of this year's draft, hoping to plug some serious holes along the line.

    The Steelers play an astounding five primetime games this season, starting with a Week 1 matchup against Peyton Manning and the Broncos.

    While they will face problems from Cincinnati and Baltimore within their division, the rest of their schedule is quite winnable. Games against the NFC East's Cowboys, Giants and Eagles will likely determine whether or not Steel City wins the North.


    Verdict: 10-11 Wins, Division Contender

    Mendenhall's Week 17 injury last season further complicated an already shaky backfield situation, and while the two draft picks along the offensive line are promising additions, they're still going to be rookies in 2012.

    I expect Pittsburgh's defense to keep them in a lot of games, but how well they keep Roethlisberger standing will make all the difference.

AFC South: Indianapolis Colts

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    The Andrew Luck era begins in Indianapolis this season. Much like his predecessor, Peyton Manning, Luck will begin his career with high potential and low initial expectations. He's pretty much starting with an empty cupboard while the Colts transition their offense and defense simultaneously.

    In my opinion, the best move Indianapolis made this offseason was drafting Luck's Stanford teammate, Coby Fleener, in the second round. This gives their new franchise quarterback a familiar target to throw to from the get-go.

    It's true Luck-to-Fleener was a deadly combination at Stanford, combining for 1,100 yards and 17 touchdowns over the last two seasons, but that won't be enough for the Colts to win many games this year.

    Expect Luck to hit several road bumps, with games against the BearsPackers, Patriots, Lions and Texans (2) sure to be one-sided.


    Verdict: 3-4 Wins, Basement Dweller

    The Colts are in full rebuild mode. They'll win a few games this year, but their real goal will be to set themselves up for a successful future with Andrew Luck as the face of the franchise.

    Holes along their secondary will trouble them all season, setting them up for another early draft pick in 2013.

AFC South: Jacksonville Jaguars

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    When the Jacksonville Jaguars leapfrogged the St. Louis Rams for the right to draft Justin Blackmon, few thought it was a bad move.

    Since then, Blackmon has been arrested for aggravated DUI, his second such arrest in three years. These type of off-the-field issues will leave Jacksonville wondering whether or not he is a worthwhile investment for some time.

    While Blackmon has been making a name for himself for all the wrong reasons, the biggest issue in Jacksonville lies with Blaine Gabbert's horrendous rookie season. Though it is too early to label him a bust, surely the Jaguars expected more of an immediate impact when they selected him 10th overall in 2011.

    On the bright side, Andre Branch has been stealing the show on the other side of the ball, and looks to make a good Jaguars defense even better.


    Verdict: 4-6 Wins, Basement Dweller

    Expect the Jaguars to struggle again this year. Their defense is respectable, but Gabbert has shown very little promise during his one season in Jacksonville. Tough defenses and high-powered offenses all along Jacksonville's schedule will keep the Jaguars from winning many games.

AFC South: Houston Texans

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    The class of the AFC South is clearly the Houston Texans. While they may have suffered a war of attrition this offseason, they are still head-and-shoulders above their division rivals from a talent standpoint.

    Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans are two sets of big shoes to fill, but Wade Phillips is a talented defensive coordinator and the Houston offense is stacked from top to bottom.

    So stacked are the skill positions, in fact, that despite playing the final third of the season with a third-string rookie quarterback under center, Houston still won their division.

    If Matt Schaub stays healthy this season, Andre Johnson, Arian Foster and Ben Tate will make the reigning AFC South champions repeat winners for the first time in franchise history.


    Verdict: 12-13 Wins, Super Bowl Contender

    Houston will face some tough challenges at Chicago, at New England and in Denver. Additionally, they'll play back-to-back home games against the Packers and Ravens in Weeks 6 and 7.

    If they win even half of those matchups, they'll very likely receive a first-round bye in the playoffs.

AFC South: Tennessee Titans

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    The Tennessee Titans surprised a few people last season with the ageless Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback.

    However, the addition of first-round speedster Kendall Wright was meant to stretch the field and give Chris Johnson more room to operate in space. While the return of Kenny Britt makes the Kendall Wright pick a curious one, I have a feeling Jake Locker is who the franchise had in mind when making the selection.

    Locker is as deadly on the ground as he is as a passer, and with a year of tutelage under his belt, look for the keys to the future of the franchise to be turned over before the season ends.

    With Britt and company opening up underneath lanes with their deeper routes, Locker will have plenty of opportunity to make plays with his feet this season.


    Verdict: 6-7 Wins, Miss Playoffs

    Tennessee will take a small step back while transitioning to a new quarterback. But that doesn't mean they won't be competitive, or exciting to watch. A tough schedule will keep the Titans from reaching .500, but I think they'll surprise plenty of people, and even steal a victory or two that the experts will give them zero chances of winning.

AFC West: Denver Broncos

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    By most accounts, Denver over-achieved with Tebow at the helm last season. Despite a poor start to the season, Tim Tebow silenced many critics by rattling off seven wins in his first eight games in relief of Kyle Orton.

    Now both quarterbacks have left town in the wake of Denver landing the biggest prize in the free-agent pool: Peyton Manning.

    However, after three neck surgeries in less than two years caused the four-time MVP to sit out all of 2011, major questions about his health still cloud Denver's projected win total for this season.

    Making it even tougher on Manning will be an absolutely brutal schedule.

    The Broncos have a chance of beginning their season in a 1-5 hole, playing Pittsburgh, Houston and Oakland at home, with road trips to Atlanta, San Diego and Foxborough all in the first six weeks of the year.

    The tests get a little easier for the Broncos after the BYE, but they'll still be facing quality opponents in Baltimore, New Orleans and Tampa Bay.


    Verdict: 9-10 Wins, Division Contender

    The Broncos are still likely a season away from contending for anything outside a weak AFC West. The biggest question mark will be how Manning's neck holds up. If he stays healthy all year, look for the Broncos to be in the Super Bowl conversation next season.

AFC West: San Diego Chargers

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    Despite some gaudy passing statistics, every year the San Diego Chargers seem to underachieve.

    Last season those passing statistics weren't up to par, and San Diego failed to make the playoffs. Norv Turner has been on the hot seat repeatedly for the last several years, and it is likely he will have his whistle taken away if San Diego fails to make a deep playoff run in 2012.

    The Chargers rely heavily on Philip Rivers' arm, and defenses are beginning to catch up with the former North Carolina State signal-caller.

    Further complicating things, San Diego let Mike Tolbert leave for Carolina this offseason, creating a significant lack of depth at the running back position. If Ryan Mathews fails to deliver upon high expectations, or goes down with an injury, San Diego is in major trouble.


    Verdict: 8-10 Wins, Division Contender

    Philip Rivers will have to perform like the 2010 Philip Rivers for San Diego to be competitive. I fully expect him to do so.

    With a schedule that should keep a talented San Diego team in most games, a lot of people are predicting Norv Turner's team bouncing back in a big way in 2012. They'll win several games based on talent alone, but I don't buy them being in serious contention until they've ousted the serial underachiever, Coach Turner.

AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs

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    Every year, a couple of teams get bit pretty hard by the injury bug. Lose a playmaker here, a role player there, and soon enough your season is chalked up as a loss.

    Kansas City was not bitten by an injury bug last season. Kansas City was chewed up and spat out by a giant, blood-sucking injury dung beetle.

    With significant injuries to three of the team's top players (Eric Berry, Tony Moeaki and Jamaal Charles) it's no wonder KC struggled to produce on the field.

    The 2012 Chiefs are presumably back near full strength, and will look to improve on last year's disappointing 7-9 finish. Adding Peyton Hillis and Kevin Boss will help shore up the two positions worst affected by injuries last year, and replacing Todd Haley permanently with Romeo Crennel will likely pay off for the Chiefs.


    Verdict: 9-10 Wins, Division Contender

    Kansas City plays a pretty tough slate, with games against Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Atlanta and New Orleans to go along with their competitive divisional matchups.

    However, this is a talented Chiefs team that will be successful if Cassel limits his mistakes. Expect KC to rebound from a sub-.500 finish last season.

AFC West: Oakland Raiders

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    With the death of Raiders patriarch Al Davis last season, Oakland found itself a franchise in turmoil. Despite all that had plagued Raider Nation in years past, Davis had been the one constant.

    Now that the boss is gone, long-overdue changes have been made to a franchise which has struggled on and off the field. First, the Raiders brought in former Green Bay Director of Football Operations Reggie McKenzie as a no-nonsense general manager.

    After a single day on the job, McKenzie fired first-year head coach Hue Jackson and hired Broncos' defensive coordinator Dennis Allen to take over for the Silver and Black.

    Unfortunately for McKenzie, the Raiders organization he inherited was a mess.

    A team crippled by salary cap issues and devoid of both draft picks and talent, turning the Raiders around is a tall order. Lingering questions about star running back Darren McFadden's ability to stay healthy only further complicate what already promises to be a difficult season.


    Verdict: 6-7 Wins, Miss Playoffs

    The Raiders play a tough slate this year, with games against the Steelers, Falcons, Ravens, Bengals and Saints to couple with their ultra-competitive division.

    Health and discipline will be the two biggest factors determining the Raiders' playoff chances. The change in culture will likely take a season or two to manifest itself on the field, and Oakland will struggle making the adjustment this season.

NFC East: Dallas Cowboys

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    Last season, major issues arose across the Dallas secondary. Not only were they incapable of stopping teams on third downs, they struggled mightily against the pass-allowing big plays and one of the league's worst passer rating against averages.

    This offseason was spent attempting to shore up a weak cornerback unit, adding free agent Brandon Carr and moving up in the 2012 NFL draft to select LSU standout Morris Claiborne.

    The biggest concern to an explosive Cowboys offense is the injury bug. Signing former Broncos and Bears signal-caller Kyle Orton will alleviate some of the pressure to keep Tony Romo upright this coming season.

    Dallas is once again one of the most physically gifted teams in the league, but as has been the case in years past, talent doesn't always equate to wins on the field for America's Team.


    Verdict: 9-10 Wins, Wild Card Contender

    Dallas plays in a tough division, but things don't get much easier outside it. Games against the Ravens, Bears, Falcons, Saints, Bengals and Steelers all promise to be tough challenges for the 'Boys.

    With Jason Garrett inching toward the hot-seat, this is a big year for Dallas, who collapsed down the stretch last season to make way for the Giants' improbable Super Bowl run.

NFC East: Philadelphia Eagles

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    A year removed from the disastrous Dream Team, the Philadelphia Eagles are looking to make their way back to the top of the NFC East this season.

    After a myriad of on and off the field complications (from a contract dispute to an inability to stop the run) caused a talented Eagles team to struggle all year, Philadelphia did their best this offseason to address any lingering issues.

    DeSean Jackson received the payday he was looking for, and DeMeco Ryans was brought in to help stifle opposing running backs.

    After a disappointing 2011, the Eagles are poised for a breakout season in 2012.

    The biggest factor for the Eagles' success will be keeping Vick healthy and responsible with the football. While it is true that Philadelphia boasts a fantastic offensive line, Vick still has a tendency to leave himself unprotected, especially when he roams outside the pocket.

    After recent comments by the fleet-footed quarterback suggested the Eagles make a Super Bowl run in 2012, it is possible Vick places too much on his shoulders this season.


    Verdict: 10-11 Wins, Division Contender

    This is a big year for Philly. With a schedule that includes Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Atlanta, New Orleans and Cincinnati on top of two matchups with each of the NFC East rivals, It will be difficult for even a great Eagles squad to run away with the division.

NFC East: New York Giants

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    Your defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants are poised for another big year in 2012. Even though the Giants failed to retain all of the key pieces to their championship team from a year ago, they are loaded with enough talent that any loss was negligible.

    With a solid core still in place and the addition of talented playmakers Rueben Randle and Martellus Bennett via the draft and free agency, respectively, the Giants look to be prepared to defend their title.

    The biggest question mark for the G-Men this offseason is the health of star receiver Hakeem Nicks. While it is true Victor Cruz had a breakout year a season ago, Nicks is the wideout Manning looks to in the clutch.

    Without Nicks in the lineup to begin the season, Cruz will face more pressure to deliver than ever, and the Giants may struggle early.


    Verdict: 10-11 Wins, Division Contender

    The Giants face a Super Bowl champion's schedule, with games against the Niners, Packers, Saints, Falcons, Ravens and Steelers. However, they're talented enough to hang with any of the aforementioned teams, and will come away with more victories than losses.

    What they should really worry about are their pesky division opponents in the Eagles and Cowboys.

NFC East: Washington Redskins

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    I think it's time I admit my man-crush on Redskins' first-round draft pick, Robert Griffin III. Simply put, Griffin can do it all. A world-class track athlete, Griffin has no problems beating teams with his legs. But unlike Mike Vick and Cam Newton before him, Griffin also enters the league as an accomplished and polished drop-back passer, making him nearly impossible to defend.

    He is the true essence of a game-changer, and will be the face of the Redskins' franchise for many years.

    However, one player does not a team make, and the Redskins are a team still full of holes. Addressing concerns at the wideout position are the additions of Colts' former speedster Pierre Garcon and Niners' do-everything wideout Joshua Morgan.

    However, they still gave up way too many points, and salary cap issues kept the Redskins from addressing many of their defensive shortcomings.


    Verdict: 6-8 Wins, Miss Playoffs

    Things are definitely looking up for the Redskins. They will battle this year, like they did last year (even beating eventual champion New York twice), and win some games they shouldn't. But expect Griffin to hit the usual rookie speed bumps, such as adjusting to the speed and intelligence of the defense.

    If the Redskins can straighten out their salary cap issues, they will quickly regain relevancy in the difficult NFC East.

NFC North: Chicago Bears

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    Jay Cutler finally has his No. 1 wide receiver. This offseason, the Bears addressed one of Cutler's biggest concerns by trading for perennial Pro Bowler Brandon Marshall, and drafting future sensation Alshon Jeffery in the second round.

    New GM Phil Emery has been busy in his first year with the Bears, also adding depth to a quarterback and running back unit decimated by injuries a year ago.

    However, the Bears haven't been unaffected by the slew of running backs with contract holdouts this year, as Matt Forte demands a new deal in Chicago. With Forte still unsigned, and questions along the offensive line remaining unanswered, there is as much doubt going into this season as there is optimism.


    Verdict: 10-11 Wins, Wild Card Contender

    Now that all this new firepower has landed in Chicago, the only way teams will stop the Bears will be through harassing Cutler.

    The offensive line will need to gel in order to stop some dangerous pass-rushes they'll face this season: Detroit (2), Green Bay (2), San Francisco and Houston. But the Bears also face a very easy schedule, and will likely be in the thick of the NFC North race until the very end.

NFC North: Detroit Lions

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    The Detroit Lions appear to have completely turned around an organization that was in turmoil a few short years ago. Calvin Johnson is easily the best receiver on the planet, and Matthew Stafford has been a popular pick for the 2012 MVP this offseason.

    However, with the new additions to Chicago's passing attack, it may be difficult for Detroit's mediocre pass defense to keep up with all of the horses within their division.

    Repeating their success from last season will have a lot to do with Detroit winning the shootouts they will inevitably get into in 2012. Matthew Stafford is a great pick for the MVP, simply because he'll need to throw for 400 a game to keep Detroit competitive a lot of weeks.

    Adding Riley Reiff to keep Stafford upright was a huge move for the Lions, but not addressing their secondary issues may be their downfall.


    Verdict: 10-11 Wins, Wild Card Contender

    The Lions play a winnable schedule in 2012 if they keep everyone healthy. They will face tough challenges against San Francisco, Philadelphia, Houston and Atlanta, along with divisional matchups against Chicago (2) and Green Bay (2).

    Expect Detroit to put up a lot of points this season, but give up a lot as well.

NFC North: Green Bay Packers

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    Green Bay learned a valuable lesson in the 2011 NFC Divisional playoffs: their playing style was not entirely conducive to Lambeau Field in January.

    If Green Bay expects to get back to the Super Bowl in 2012, they will need to balance their attack significantly. A lot of the onus will land on the shoulders of third-year back James Starks, who has shown flashes of brilliance in the past but struggles with consistency issues.

    The Packers are still the most talented offensive team in football. Their receiving corps is so deep and so deadly, few teams will be able to keep up with them when they are clicking.

    But, as we learned in their divisional round loss to the Giants, if those wideouts struggle to hold onto the football, there is only so much Aaron Rodgers can do to keep the team afloat.


    Verdict: 12-14 Wins, Super Bowl Contender

    The Packers had an excellent draft. The addition of Nick Perry should help keep teams honest with star pass-rusher Clay Matthews, and addressing their defensive line with the additions of Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels will keep teams from running all over Green Bay next season.

    A schedule that includes San Francisco, Houston and New Orleans shouldn't scare the Packers too much, especially if they develop any sort of run game.

NFC North: Minnesota Vikings

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    I almost feel bad for the Minnesota Vikings. The team has been in a complete tailspin since losing the NFC championship game to the New Orleans Saints a few seasons ago.

    Their pass defense is bad, and their pass offense worse. Their star running back can't stay healthy and they play in the worst arena in all of professional sports.

    To make matters worse, it isn't exactly a great offseason when the brightest spot is tricking another team into trading up one pick so you can select a player you were going to select anyway.

    While Minnesota has some great players (Chad Greenway, Jared Allen and a healthy Adrian Peterson), they're still behind the majority of the league collectively.

    Christian Ponder struggled mightily in his first year as the Vikings' quarterback, and while the team added some receiver depth to make him more competitive in 2012, I don't think his statistics will improve too much until Adrian Peterson proves he is 100 percent.


    Verdict: 2-3 Wins, Basement Dweller

    It sounds harsh, but I really don't think the Vikings do any better than last season this year. However, it might be the best thing for this team to tank, as winning Matt Barkley could be the boost this franchise needs to return to respectability.

NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made two of the biggest splashes in free agency this offseason, adding Pro-Bowlers Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks to an offense that struggled mightily in 2011.

    Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman saw a significant regression of his statistics last season, and Jackson hopes to be the consistent threat Mike Williams failed to be a year ago.

    Tampa Bay also made significant additions in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft, selecting Alabama standout Mark Barron to anchor the secondary, and Boise State workhorse Doug Martin to stabilize the running back position. An underrated move in trading Kellen Winslow for Dallas Clark may also pay off big dividends.

    These additions could put Tampa Bay in a position to contend for the NFC South this season. Not many teams go from respectable to falling off the map quite like Tampa Bay did last season. Such a regression is more of an abnormality than anything for a club that wasn't entirely without talent.

    Look for them to regain the form they lost last year.


    Verdict: 8-9 Wins, Wild Card Contender

    The Buccaneers have an easy schedule this season, and are leaps and bounds ahead of where they were a year ago from a talent standpoint.

    This appears to be a make-or-break year for quarterback Josh Freeman, who needs to rebound now that he has the offensive weapons to keep Tampa Bay competitive. If the defensive line lives up to their talent level, this could be a great Tampa Bay unit.

NFC South: Atlanta Falcons

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    Speaking of make-or-break years, the Atlanta Falcons have yet to win a playoff game with Matt Ryan at quarterback. Despite all the talent in Atlanta, the Falcons have failed to get over the playoff hump in three attempts.

    This might be their last season with the opportunity, as age will soon catch key pieces Tony Gonzalez, John Abraham and Michael Turner.

    What Atlanta does have going for them, however, is one of the best one-two punches a quarterback could ask for: Roddy White and Julio Jones.

    Easily overlooked in an offseason full of player movement, Atlanta finally acquired a third cornerback to slow down the New Orleans passing offense, trading with Philadelphia for ball hawk Asante Samuel. Look for the defense to improve under his leadership, and the offense to improve as Julio Jones gets a full offseason to learn the playbook.


    Verdict: 12-14 Wins, Super Bowl Contender

    The Bounty Gate scandal could be the perfect platform for the Falcons to walk away with the NFC South. With New Orleans looking vulnerable, and Tampa Bay still a year away from challenging, it could be the Falcons' year to shine.

    An easier schedule could even afford Atlanta a first-round bye.

NFC South: Carolina Panthers

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    Year two of the Cam Newton Show promises Carolina fans plenty of excitement in 2012. But what they should really be excited about is the return of Jon Beason to a defensive unit that was outmatched last season.

    The addition of Luke Kuechly only helps Beason, as he transitions back into football after a torn Achilles tendon a year ago.

    The big question in Carolina will be how defenses have adjusted to Cam Newton this offseason.

    The big, athletic, versatile playmaker lit defenses up last season, setting a rookie record for passing yards and total touchdowns in the process. Defenses looked completely bewildered whenever Newton had the football in his hands last year. How they adjust with an offseason to prepare will factor hugely into Carolina's success this year.


    Verdict: 7-8 Wins, Miss Playoffs

    Scheming to stop Cam Newton won't be easy for opposing defenses. But they will do a better job of it this year, and Newton will have a little bit of a "sophomore slump."

    However, the defense will be much improved, and the three-headed rushing attack Carolina employs will cause fits for a lot of teams. I still think they might be a year away from contending, though.

NFC South: New Orleans Saints

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    New Orleans had a pretty successful offseason this year: adding Curtis Lofton, Brodrick Bunkley and Ben Grubbs makes up for the losses of Tracy Porter, Robert Meachem and Carl Nicks.

    But what about the suspension of Sean Payton, Jonathan Vilma and Drew Breesunresolved contract situation? With Bounty Gate crippling the infrastructure of the Saints, Brees' presence is much needed in New Orleans.

    While I don't anticipate Brees will miss any camp time sorting out his contract issues, I do think the longer this plays out, the more adversely it will affect the Saints' chances this season.

    While Brees is the field general for the Saints, he may have to play the coaching role on the sidelines this season, as well. Sean Payton and Joe Vitt's suspensions make New Orleans desperately in need of leadership.


    Verdict: 8-9 Wins, Wild Card Contender

    The Saints' distractions this offseason are going to cost them on the field. While they are still undoubtedly a talented team, they will struggle in 2012 without Sean Payton at the helm. Look for them to rebound once the dust settles, and contend again next season.

NFC West: Arizona Cardinals

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    The Arizona Cardinals had a relatively quiet offseason this year, focusing more on tweaking their lineup than overhauling it. Whether or not that decision pays off will depend on how Arizona solves its current quarterback conundrum.

    Last year the Cardinals paid big to get Philadelphia backup Kevin Kolb, but Kolb struggled to grasp Coach Whisenhunt's complicated passing schemes and went down with an injury before the season was over.

    Enter John Skelton, the underdog of underdogs (given Kolb's contract), who brought Arizona out of the basement down the stretch.

    With a full year to learn the offense, and an expensive contract in tow, I fully expect Kevin Kolb to get every chance imaginable to be the Cardinals' starter this season. Furthermore, Kolb's year will be more successful now that Michael Floyd has filled the void left by Anquan Boldin.

    Look for Kolb to secure his position before the preseason ends.


    Verdict: 6-8 Wins, Miss Playoffs

    Arizona still has a long way to go to catch their division rivals in San Francisco. Luckily for them, they are talented and hungry, despite major concerns across the offensive line. What holds this team back will be a difficult schedule, with games against the Patriots, Eagles, Packers, Lions, Bears, Falcons and 49ers (2).

NFC West: San Francisco 49ers

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    The San Francisco 49ers were far and away the biggest surprise of the 2011 season. Basement dwellers since 2002, the 49ers expected little more than a change in culture under first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh.

    Instead, Harbaugh's offensive creativity meshed with the defensive dominance of Patrick Willis and company, and the wins began to pile up. This offseason, GM Trent Baalke made two things a priority: keeping the defensive unit together, and adding firepower to the offense.

    The additions of Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, AJ Jenkins and LaMichael James are sure to help a 49ers offense that struggled during stretches last season. All reports out of San Francisco have Randy Moss pegged as a potential difference-maker, as well as mentor for a finally healthy Michael Crabtree.


    Verdict: 12-14 Wins, Super Bowl Contender

    The 49ers are quite handily the best team in the NFC West, and will challenge the Packers as the best team in the NFC all season. Barring significant injuries, look for them to steamroll the majority of their competition.

    Tough games against Green Bay, Detroit, New England and New Orleans will determine the 49ers' chances of obtaining a first-round bye for the second straight year.

NFC West: St Louis Rams

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    Former No. 1 draft pick Sam Bradford was in the very definition of a sophomore slump last season. He struggled to stay on the field, and when he was there, he was inefficient and turnover-prone.

    The Rams' lack of quality targets for Bradford only made matters worse. In order to help Bradford this year, the Rams signed veteran Giants wideout Steve Smith (affectionately known as "the other Steve Smith"), and drafted Brian Quick and Chris Givens.

    Furthermore, the Rams defense was overhauled, bringing in defensive guru Jeff Fisher as head coach. Fisher brought one of his favorite players from the Titans with him, in free-agent signee Cortland Finnegan.

    The Rams then drafted former Florida standout Janoris Jenkins to play opposite Finnegan, and Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford to solve concerns about a weak 2011 rush defense.


    Verdict: 4-5 Wins, Basement Dweller

    Sam Bradford hasn't shown enough for me to believe he can be a consistent threat from the quarterback position. Also, losing newly-signed defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to the bounty scandal won't help Fisher acclimate all the new faces to his defense.

    I expect the Rams to struggle in their first year with Fisher at the helm.

NFC West: Seattle Seahawks

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    When Seattle signed Green Bay backup quarterback Matt Flynn to a multi-year deal this offseason, most in Seattle were praising the team for finally solving the quarterback problems that have been haunting Seattle the last couple seasons.

    Flynn looked unstoppable in a Week 17 matchup against Detroit, and Seattle won the battle for his services in the following months.

    Since then, Pete Carroll has opened up the floodgates for rumors surrounding the young quarterback, as a three-way battle for the starting position intensified during offseason OTAs. While undersized rookie Russell Wilson has a great arm and incumbent Tarvaris Jackson knows the playbook best, the Seahawks brought Flynn in to win games now.

    Although Seattle has some weapons, they'll need Sidney Rice (shoulder) to stay healthy and newly acquired tight end Kellen Winslow to be productive if they expect the offense to win them any ballgames.


    Verdict: 7-9 Wins, Miss Playoffs

    It's true that their defense is criminally underrated, but there are still too many offensive question marks for the Seahawks to challenge the 49ers for division supremacy. Particularly troubling are reports that Tarvaris Jackson is currently ahead of Flynn on the depth chart. That could spell trouble for Seattle.

    With the 49ers (2), Patriots, Packers, Lions, Bears and Cowboys all on Seattle's schedule, a .500 season should be considered a victory for them.

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