It's the start of NFL training camps, and already the playoff picture is becoming clear. Okay, okay, this is one of those times I wish a special font for sarcasm existed.
The reality is, at this point, the playoffs are but a blurry picture hanging on a distant wall. But that never stops us—writers and fans alike—from making premature predictions.
That means the rest of the spots—eight of the 12 total, to be exact—are pretty much up for grabs, and each team will be reaching for the sky. You can expect the usual suspects to be in the race, but don't be totally shocked if a bottom-dweller rises to make a push.
Look no further than last season for proof that this transformation from pretender to contender is an annual event. The 49ers and Lions, fresh off 6-10 seasons in 2010, both made drastic—and quick—turnarounds to reach the postseason.
So who are the candidates this year?
Disastrous—terrible, awful and horrendous also come to mind—is the proper adjective to describe Tampa Bay's season. All that could've gone wrong, went wrong. And then some.
Josh Freeman, LeGarrette Blount and Mike Williams—supposed cornerstones of the offense—took major steps back in production, and the defense did very little to help. In fact, the defense surrendered 394.4 yards per game and a league-worst 30.9 points per game.
Not the type of season the Bucs were hoping for after finishing 10-6 and just missing out on the playoffs in 2010.
Key Losses: QB Josh Johnson, TE Kellen Winslow Jr., DT Albert Haynesworth
Key Additions: WR Vincent Jackson, G Carl Nicks, CB Eric Wright, TE Dallas Clark, QB Dan Orlovsky
Draft Picks: S Mark Barron, RB Doug Martin, LB Lavonte David, LB Najee Goode, CB Keith Tandy, RB Michael Smith, FB Drake Dunsmore
In a see-saw battle of talent, I'd take the offseason additions over the losses any day. The Bucs actively addressed both sides of the ball in preparation for another run at the playoffs.
Jackson instantly upgrades the receiving corps and gives Freeman a big-bodied, deep-ball target. That should stretch the field and open things up underneath for the run game and screens.
Martin—despite Blount's objections—will take over as the primary running back in Mike Sullivan's offense. Martin is compact and built to run inside and has the burst to bounce it outside. He can slip out of the backfield as a receiver or stay in there for pass protection.
Also, don't be surprised to see Smith, a rookie out of Utah State, get on the field in various roles as a back, receiver and return man.
The play of the defensive line—led by starters Michael Bennett, Gerald McCoy, Adrian Clayborn and Amobi Okoye—will likely determine the defense's success. If they can stop the run and pressure the quarterback, the Bucs may have a shot in the NFC South.
Projected record: 9-7
Don't let the 6-10 record fool you. This team was (is) good. The Bills opened the season 5-2—including a 34-31 win over the Patriots—and looked poised to return to the playoffs after a 12-year hiatus, the longest active drought in the NFL.
Then the injury epidemic of 2011 hit, and it all unraveled. Fred Jackson, Shawne Merriman, Eric Wood, Kyle Williams and Terrence McGee were all placed on injured reserve, and several others played through nagging injuries.
Injuries and a lack of quality depth proved to be a knockout blow as the Bills finished the season 1-8, again missing out on the postseason.
Key Losses: OT Demetress Bell, CB Drayton Florence
Key Additions: DE Mario Williams, DE Mark Anderson, QB Vince Young
Draft Picks: CB Stephon Gilmore, OT Cordy Glenn, WR T.J. Graham, OLB Nigel Bradham, CB Ron Brooks, OT Zebrie Sanders, ILB Tank Carder
Most of us know Super Mario as that short, goofy-looking Italian in red suspenders and a hat. He runs around, jumps high, collects a lot of coins and saves the princess from the bad guy.
Fans and the entire Bills franchise alike are counting on their own Super Mario, acquired in the offseason for lots and lots of coins, to save them from their own bad guy: dreaded mediocrity.
After all, Mario Williams runs pretty fast, jumps pretty high and just plain wreaks havoc on the football field. And he has much more than Luigi as a sidekick in Buffalo.
Using last season as a gauge to what this team needs—a pass rush and help in the secondary atop the list—the Bills signed Williams and Anderson and drafted Gilmore, an impressive rookie corner. That, along with a potent offense, has filled the proverbial glass to the brim with optimism.
And I must say, it's infectious.
Projected record: 10-6
Another team decimated by injuries, the Chiefs failed to match or improve upon a 10-6 record in 2010. Tony Moeaki, Jamaal Charles and Eric Berry all suffered torn ACLs within the first two weeks of the season, and several others were shelved shortly after for various other injuries.
If that wasn't enough, head coach Todd Haley was fired—he is now the offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers—and replaced by Romeo Crennel.
The Chiefs still fought hard, and behind an improved pass rush—16 sacks in the final five games—and secondary, they were able to win a few games but ultimately fell short of the playoffs.
Key Losses: QB Kyle Orton, CB Brandon Carr, FB Le'Ron McClain, C Casey Wiegmann
Key Additions: QB Brady Quinn, RB Peyton Hillis, TE Kevin Boss, OT Eric Winston, CB Stanford Routt
Draft Picks: NT Dontari Poe, OT Jeff Allen, OT Donald Stephenson, WR Devon Wylie, CB DeQuan Menzie, RB Cyrus Gray, DT Jerome Long, WR Junior Hemingway
On paper, the Chiefs are arguably the most talented team in all of football. Up until the quarterback position.
Cassel has to do his best Alex Smith (circa 2011) impersonation for the Chiefs to succeed this season. Just hand the ball off a lot, limit mistakes and make the right throws when it counts. He is surrounded by weapons, so it's up to him to utilize them.
Carr is gone—replaced by Routt, a slight downgrade—but the secondary is lifted with the return of Berry, the fifth overall selection in 2010. Poe steps in at tackle and should be effective in both stuffing the run and crashing through the line.
If the Chiefs can survive an early onslaught of tough opponents, they should be smoothly sailing into the playoffs.
Projected record: 11-5
The recurring theme of this article—if you haven't caught on yet—is hopes dashed by injuries. In this case, it's one significant injury. It's never easy winning with a backup, especially at the quarterback position. Especially when Caleb Hanie is said backup. The Bears learned that lesson the hard way.
Chicago roared to a 7-3 start but hit a detour when quarterback Jay Cutler broke his finger and had to sit the remainder of the season. With Hanie under center, the offense sputtered, the defense carried a much-too-heavy burden, and the team lost five straight to quickly slide out of the playoff picture.
Key Losses: RB Marion Barber, S Brandon Meriweather, DT Anthony Adams
Key Additions: QB Jason Campbell, RB Michael Bush, WR Brandon Marshall, LB Geno Hayes
Draft Picks: DE Shea McClellin, WR Alshon Jeffery, S Brandon Hardin, FB Evan Rodriguez, CB Isaiah Frey, CB Greg McCoy
Few teams in the NFL can match the balance—from offense to defense to special teams—of these Bears.
The offense has the balance to keep defenses honest, on their toes and always guessing. Stack the box, and Cutler can air it out to Marshall—the pair connected for 2,590 yards and 13 touchdowns in two seasons together in Denver—or others.
Drop back in coverage, and the Bears can beat with you a healthy dosage of Forte, an elite all-purpose back, and Bush.
On defense, they stuff the run and get after the quarterback. Look for that to continue and for the special teams to consistently win the all-important battle for field position.
Now healthy and with solid offseason moves, the Bears look like real contenders.
Projected record: 10-6
Or honorable mention, if you must. The following teams failed to make the "list" and are forced to share a single slide, but they have the talent to make some noise in 2012.
Quarterback Matt Flynn, signed to a multi-year deal in the offseason, finds himself in a heated three-way competition to start. Who emerges as the starter and how he plays will determine the team's outcome.
New owner, new coach, new philosophy and plenty of talent—hey, it worked for the their Bay Area neighbor in 2011. If the Raiders can avoid the silly mistakes that have plagued them in recent seasons, they will be a dangerous bunch.
My dark, very dark, horse to reach the playoffs. The defense is stingy, and the offense can only go up from last season—ranked 29th in yards per game in 2011 (288.8). A lot of weight is to be placed on the shoulders of rookies Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson.
Think playoffs first, Ryan Kalil. I like the enthusiasm, but this team is at least a few years away from Super Bowl contender status. The journey continues, though.