3 NFL Teams That Were Contenders in 2011, but Will Fade in 2012
Now more than ever, the winner of the Super Bowl is often the hottest team in football.
When it comes to the playoffs, if you're in it, you're really in it.
After winning two must-win games to end the 2010 regular season, sixth-seeded Green Bay defeated Pittsburgh and won Super Bowl XLV as a Wild Card. The New York Giants followed suit in 2011 by winning their final two regular season games, before rolling through the playoffs and defeating New England in Super Bowl XLVI.
In years past, all playoff teams weren't necessarily "contenders" to win the whole thing. However, in the current NFL, parody is at an all-time high.
Once the postseason field is set, teams cannot afford to overlook any opponent.
Fresh off their Super Bowl XLV victory, the Packers won their first 13 games last season and finished 15-1. Headed into the postseason full of confidence, Green Bay was upset at home by the 9-7 New York Giants.
While all 32 teams enter a new season with specific expectations, many will fail to get to where they want to be at season's end.
Let's take a look at three contenders from 2011 that will take a step back in 2012.
New Orleans Saints
Saints will be a different team without their head coach and leader.
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Head coaches in the NFL are too often blamed for their team's struggles and rarely appreciated for their accomplishments, but the impact of Saints' head coach Sean Payton is impossible to ignore.
After going just 3-13 in the 2005 season, the Saints hired Payton to turn the team in the right direction—and that he did. In just his first season as head coach, Payton guided New Orleans all the way to the NFC Championship Game and was named the 2006 NFL Coach of the Year.
Prior to Payton being named head coach, the Saints made the playoffs only once in the previous 13 seasons, but in Payton's six seasons as coach of the Saints, he's already led the team to four playoff appearances and brought New Orleans its first Super Bowl.
Last year was the second time in three seasons that the Saints won 13 games, and Payton was the architect behind the scheme that allowed Drew Brees to throw for more yards in one season than any player in NFL history. And despite losing a heart-breaker in the playoffs to the San Francisco 49ers, the Saints figured to enter 2012 as a favorite to win Super Bowl XLVII.
Or so they thought.
The "Bounty-gate" scandal has been a dark cloud hovering over the Saints' franchise, and the NFL, for the entirety of the 2012 offseason. About six months after Brees broke Dan Marino's record and the Saints marched toward the playoffs, the quarterback is without a contract and the head coach has been suspended for the entire 2012 season.
My, how things have changed.
As long as Brees and the Saints eventually come to an agreement on a new contract, New Orleans will remain competitive next season despite the absence of its leader on the sideline.
But playing in the NFC South, in which every other team figures to have improved, wins won't come easy for interim head coach Joe Vitt and the Saints.
Last season, Tampa Bay finished last in the division, but with a new head coach and a new-look offense, the Buccaneers should be better than their disappointing 4-12 record last season would indicate. Tampa stole elite offensive lineman Carl Nicks from the Saints, and the Bucs hope he, along with free agent acquisition Vincent Jackson, will improve the league's sixth-worst offense in 2011.
The up-and-coming Carolina Panthers are a popular pick to "break through" this season. Led by last year's Rookie of the Year Cam Newton, Carolina will confidently enter 2012 without any outside distractions. Although Newton will likely not walk on water at any point this season, as some seem to believe, the Panthers will sink or swim based on the play of their second-year leader.
Atlanta made the playoffs for the third team in four years last season, and despite yet another one-and-done postseason performance, the Falcons are a complete team and will enter this season as a popular pick to win the division. Armed with a plethora of explosive weapons on the perimeter, Matt Ryan and the offense are capable of winning a shootout, while the defense features one of the best secondaries in football after acquiring cornerback Asante Samuel from Philadelphia.
With their head coach and several key players suspended for much of next season, the 2012 schedule figures to challenge New Orleans.
The Saints one of 13 teams whose combined win-loss record among its 2012 opponents is over the .500 mark, and they'll play all four teams from the always-tough NFC East, as well as the AFC West. Also on their schedule, for the second straight year, the Saints will travel to Green Bay to play the Packers, before hosting the NFC runner-up San Francisco 49ers in New Orleans.
With a tough schedule for the upcoming season, and a cloud of distractions and uncertainty hanging above their head, the Saints could be in for a forgettable 2012 season.
(2011 Record: 13-3, 2012 Prediction: 8-8)
Cincinnati made the playoffs in 2011, but can they do it again?
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The 2011 NFL Draft was a goldmine for the Cincinnati Bengals. After grabbing potential superstar wide receiver A.J. Green in the first round, they found their quarterback for the future in Andy Dalton at the top of round two.
For an NFL team, it's hard to imagine a better draft than one that produces your franchise quarterback and his go-to receiver for years to come.
With the amount of uncertainty that surrounded the Carson Palmer situation at the time of the draft, Dalton and Green were expected to provide an identity to an offense without a clear direction; however, nobody foresaw the rookie duo powering the Bengals to a nine-win season and a playoff berth.
The AFC North has recently been one of the toughest divisions in football, so Cincinnati, along with Cleveland, begins every season as an afterthought to consistent powerhouses Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Last year, the AFC North produced three playoff teams with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh as the AFC Wild Cards, and Baltimore as the division champion.
Led by a stout defense and a steady, consistent offense, the Bengals won nine games and earned a trip to Houston for a Wild Card matchup with the Texans. Even though Houston was starting its third-string quarterback T.J. Yates, the Bengals were one-and-done in the playoffs, giving the Texans their first ever postseason win, 31-10.
The last time Cincinnati won a playoff game was January 6th, 1991, when receiver A.J. Green was just two years old. Since then, the Bengals are 0-4 in postseason games, and their 21-year drought trumps the Detroit Lions' 20-year drought as the longest postseason winless streak in the NFL.
Making the playoffs is certainly a terrific accomplishment for a young team, but the Bengals made the postseason by a dangerously slim margin. Five of Cincinnati's nine wins came in games decided by one possession, and whereas playoff-caliber teams typically separate themselves from the rest of the league, the Bengals only outscored their opponents by 21 points over the course of the regular season.
Green and Dalton have given hope to the city of Cincinnati, but for the Bengals to take the next step as a franchise, they must put together back-to-back playoff appearances -- something they haven't done in 30 years.
Looking ahead to 2012, the Bengals will play the NFC East and AFC West, two divisions that have realistic hopes of producing multiple playoff teams. The NFC East is home to the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, as well as the championship-hungry Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys, while the AFC West figures to be a vastly improved division with Peyton Manning leading the Denver Broncos, and the talented, yet always unpredictable San Diego Chargers gearing up for a return to the playoffs.
Cincinnati has a bright future even if it falls short of last season's accomplishments, but the combination of a challenging schedule and a 30-year drought since they last made the playoffs in consecutive seasons could spell "trouble" for the Bengals in 2012.
(2011 Record: 9-7, 2012 Prediction: 7-9)
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers went 13-3 last year, but are they really an elite team?
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Every year in the NFL, there is a "surprise team" that surpasses expectations and makes a run into the playoffs.
Last season, that "surprise team" was the San Francisco 49ers.
In Jim Harbaugh's first season as 49ers head coach, he was named the 2011 NFL Coach of the Year and led San Francisco to the NFC Championship Game. The former NFL quarterback seemed like a perfect fit for the 49ers, a team with rich history at the position, but the heart and soul of last year's team was not their offense—it was their stout defense.
Allowing just 14.3 points per game, the league's second-best scoring defense overcame San Francisco's offensive shortcomings.
Led by Patrick Willis, likely the league's best linebacker, and Justin Smith, perhaps the best defensive lineman in football last season, the 49ers boasted an elite front seven and made it very difficult for opposing offenses to move the ball.
San Fransisco had the best run defense in the NFL last season, allowing just 77.3 yards per game on the ground—more than 15 yards fewer than Baltimore, the league's No. 2 run defense last season. Without being able to run the ball, opposing teams were forced to try their luck with the passing game, which resulted in outside linebacker Aldon Smith recording 14 sacks in his rookie season.
If it weren't for a couple offensive miscues and a muffed punt in the NFC Championship, it would have been the 49ers, instead of the New York Giants, playing in Super Bowl XLVI against the New England Patriots.
Headed into this offseason, the 49ers clearly identified deficiencies on offense. By signing veteran wide receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, and spending their first round pick on Illinois wide receiver A.J. Jenkins, San Fransisco will hope for a more explosive offense in 2012.
However, despite being the NFC's runner-up last season and addressing their biggest needs, the 49ers have their work cut out for them if they want to make another deep playoff run this season.
Among the most consistent teams in the NFL, a common theme is having an elite quarterback under center. Although Alex Smith did a great job taking care of the ball in 2011, he threw just 17 touchdowns and San Francisco's success last season had more to do with their stellar defense and strong running game.
Playing in the NFC West, San Francisco could potentially win the division with a nine-win season, but the playoffs so often come down to which team has the edge at quarterback, and the 49ers will often lose that matchup.
When Peyton Manning was released by the Indianapolis Colts, Harbaugh showed interest in the four-time MVP. If the 49ers had been successful in their pursuit of Manning, they'd be a clear-cut favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Without him, San Francisco's offense could really struggle if their running game isn't as strong in 2012 as it was in 2011.
Despite winning 13 games in the regular season, six of those wins came in one-possession games decided by seven points or less. The 49ers will play the NFC North, perhaps the deepest division in football, and the AFC East, home to the defending AFC Champion Patriots.
After narrowly escaping with a one-point win over the Eagles and a two-point victory over the Seahawks last year, San Francisco will have its hands full against stiff competition this season.
One year after being the "pleasant surprise" of 2011, the 49ers could again be this year's "surprise team," but it may be for very different reasons.
(2011 Record: 13-3, 2012 Prediction: 9-7)