NFL Cellar-Dwellars Ready to Make Postseason Noise
Just when a postseason lock thinks it's going to be a cakewalk season, a bottom-feeder comes up from the depths to wreak havoc.
If anything, chaos ensues from new teams vying for a postseason spot and the Carolina Panthers are more than capable.
With one of the NFL's most explosively balanced offenses, the Cats have improved defensively to make impressive noise in 2012. Looking at the Panthers on a broader scale, they're also not alone in regards to cellar-dwellers with realistic playoff odds.
Here, let's see which other teams join Carolina in the fight for making pro football's second season.
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Of any team with 10-plus losses in 2011, the Buffalo Bills lead the way as the team with the highest expectations.
Last season the Bills were 5-2 that included wins over New England and Philadelphia before getting hit with an injury plague. Then, Buffalo proceeded to lose seven straight games and fell completely off the playoff map.
Fortunately, a new season is just around the corner and Buffalo made impressive additions this offseason. Mario Williams and Mark Anderson significantly upgrade Buffalo's defensive front seven, and rookie cornerback Stephon Gilmore improves the secondary.
The offense has a great two-back tandem in Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, while receiver Steve Johnson and tight end Scott Chandler will be Ryan Fitzpatrick's best targets. Not to mention the versatile Brad Smith for basically any game situation.
As for the schedule, Buffalo has it rather tough against the improved NFC West and AFC South outside of the AFC East. San Francisco, New England and Houston will certainly be the Bills' best competition, but don't discount Arizona, Seattle, Jacksonville or Kansas City either.
With all its talent, Buffalo will be in the playoff mix though, as the Bills finish second in the AFC East.
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Everything in Jacksonville lies with the production of Maurice Jones-Drew.
We know the defense is going to be unreal because Mel Tucker is one of the game's best coordinators. The Jaguars may have gone 5-11 last year, but Tucker's defense ranked inside the top 10 against the run and pass.
With additions like cornerback Aaron Ross and rookie Andre Branch, Jacksonville's defense has top five potential regardless of the offense's production.
Speaking of the offense, Blaine Gabbert is now surrounded by better talent at receiver. Justin Blackmon, Lee Evans and Laurent Robinson will allow tight end Marcedes Lewis to produce more and keep opponents from stacking the box against MJD.
That is, as long as Jones-Drew gets aboard before Week 1. Without him, Jacksonville's playoff hopes take an immediate nosedive. The NFL's leading rusher in 2011, MJD is still the Jags' offense and new head coach Mike Mularkey will help Gabbert develop behind a strong ground game.
Jacksonville's schedule is by no means an easy one either. The entire NFC North will push the pace and the AFC East presents some tough defenses. That said, let's be optimistic about MJD suiting up so the Jaguars are relevant in 2012.
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Through 10 games of the 2011 season, the Carolina Panthers were sitting at a dismal 2-8.
Then, something clicked and the Cats went 4-2 during their final six games and have increased expectations for 2012. Cam Newton proved to be the right selection at No. 1 overall in the 2011 NFL draft, and the offense was exciting.
Ranking No. 13 in passing and No. 3 in rushing, Carolina also averaged 25.4 points per game (ranked No. 5). The defense was Carolina's biggest weakness, as linebacker Jon Beason missed the year and the unit gave up 26.8 points per game.
Fortunately, the Panthers made some nice improvements with rookies Luke Kuechly, Frank Alexander and cornerback Josh Norman. The offense will remain explosive.
As long as the defense can slow down opponents to around 20 points per contest, Carolina is a scary team this season.
With a dynamic running game to keep a balanced attack, expect the Panthers to mix up the pace and get defenses off balance early. This in turn will take pressure off the defense. Therefore Carolina can consistently control the game tempo.
Outside of the NFC South there are solid opponents in the NFC East, AFC West and Chicago Bears. As long as Carolina remains consistently balanced on offense, and Beason gets back to 100 percent while Charles Johnson continues his dominance from 2011, the Cats contend for the NFC Wild Card.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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Yes, another NFC South team and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are for real.
What's even more interesting about the Bucs is that they're in a similar position to Carolina. With a potentially explosive offense, Tampa's biggest weakness of 2011 was its defense.
With an offense ranking No. 16 in passing, the Buccaneers' defense ranked No. 21 against the pass and No. 32 against the run. Even worse off, Tampa allowed an average of 30.9 points per game which was ranked dead last in the NFL.
So, it was no surprise to see the Bucs close out on a 10-game losing streak. On the bright side, Tampa Bay made some great defensive upgrades via the draft with Mark Barron, Lavonte David and Keith Tandy.
As for the offense, Boise State's Doug Martin was taken in Round 1 to create a more dynamic ground game for Josh Freeman to work play-action from. Offseason additions like Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks improve the balance, thus allowing new head coach Greg Schiano to let his talent take over.
The schedule is virtually identical to Carolina's except a little easier since the Bucs took last place in the division. So, in having the same games from the NFC East, AFC West and obviously the NFC South, Tampa gets the Minnesota Vikings and St. Louis Rams.
Chalk up those two as wins while the Bucs fight with Carolina to challenge Atlanta in the division.
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