Who Are the 2012 NFL Season's Most Legitimate Sleeper Teams?
Every year, numerous NFL teams manage to sneak up on the rest of the league.
Sure, if the 2012 season were played on paper, teams like the San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers and New York Giants would run away with their divisions. Instead, games are played on a football field where injuries happen, mistakes are made and nothing is settled until the clock reaches zero.
According to the national NFL media, football starts in New York with Tim Tebow, heads up toward Gillette Stadium in New England and ends in Mr. Rodgers' neighborhood in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Real NFL fans know that there are 32 teams in the league, however, and this is the time of the year when every team—even the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Cleveland Browns—has a chance to shock the world.
So, which teams are the most legitimate sleepers for the 2012 NFL season?
When it comes to sleeper teams, the Bengals have been forgotten so often, they are nearing narcoleptic status.
It's easy to get overlooked when the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens take up the top two spots in the AFC North every year. This year, the Steelers and the Ravens both have serious question marks entering the season and could open the door for Andy Dalton and the Bengals to barge in.
Take a look at the Bengals' early schedule, and the door opens even wider. Before their bye in Week 8, Cincinnati has a game at Baltimore and hosts the Steelers, but the other games include two contests with Cleveland and out-of-division matchups against the Jaguars, Miami Dolphins and Washington Redskins—seven games and an almost certain chance of going 5-2.
If the Bengals can steal a game from either the Ravens or the Steelers before the bye, they'll be in the catbird's seat for the divisional title.
In terms of talent, the Bengals are ready for prime time.
Andy Dalton, 24, was a breath of fresh air in the post-Carson Palmer era. The Bengals coaches put a lot of pressure on the rookie quarterback in 2011, but he answered the call. This year, he'll have a full offseason to gain chemistry with A.J. Green, Jermaine Gresham and the underrated Armon Binns.
Cincinnati also added to its offensive talent in 2012, as Mohamed Sanu, Kevin Zeitler and Travelle Wharton all expect to see serious time in their first year as Bengals. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, too, should be an upgrade over the aged Cedric Benson. With better protection and more options, Dalton should take the next step as a passer, and the Bengals offense should be that much better.
The Bengals already had a solid defense (10th in my preseason defense rankings), but the upside is there for the unit to be even better. It's a quantity-over-quality approach after Leon Hall in the defensive backfield, but Marvin Lewis has struck gold with reclamation projects before. The front seven is truly talented, and not enough football fans realize how dominant Geno Atkins has been.
In all, there's no reason the Bengals shouldn't return to the playoffs in 2012, and it shouldn't surprise anyone when they're in serious contention for the AFC North title late in the season.
The Seahawks are currently holding a three-man camp battle at the quarterback position. Any time Tarvaris Jackson is listed among a team's possible starters, it's hard to get truly excited about that team's upcoming season.
The old saying is, "If you have two quarterbacks, you don't really have one," so what does that mean for a team with three legitimate options? I was never a math scholar, but the situation just doesn't seem positive for Pete Carroll's squad.
Whoever does start at quarterback isn't going to have a ton of help, especially if Roger Goodell's threats to get tough on NFL miscreants impact Marshawn Lynch's season. The Seahawks will be hoping for good things from guys like Sidney Rice, Doug Baldwin, Ben Obomanu and Kellen Winslow Jr., but "hope" is the only fair word to use, because that unit offers no sure things.
The real story for the 2012 Seattle Seahawks (and the reason they're on this list) is the defensive side of the ball, where the unit was ranked seventh last year in points allowed. Seattle returns a tremendous (if overlooked) defensive backfield of Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman. There isn't much receiving talent in the NFC West, and the Seahawks should be able to lock down everyone not named Fitzgerald.
Up front, the Seahawks brought back Chris Clemons and have added Jason Jones, who will improve the pass rush up the middle. Bruce Irvin was drafted as a pass-rushing specialist in the first round; he'll come off the bench, but will get every opportunity to harass opponents.
So, while the Seahawks have huge questions on offense this year, they need so little out of it that almost anything could be considered a bonus. The San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos both got into the playoffs last year with a run-heavy/defense-focused mentality, and the Baltimore Ravens have lived on that blueprint for years.
The best teams often have the quarterbacks and the best offenses, but the Seattle Seahawks are strong enough on defense to make some serious waves in 2012.
While the Panthers were only 6-10 last year, Cam Newton looked to be on the verge of greatness the entire time. Newton will have a chance to evolve as a passer in the upcoming training camp and gain even more chemistry with stud receiver Steve Smith.
Mike Tolbert and Louis Murphy arrive from the West Coast to help improve the depth on offense. Tolbert, in particular, is a tantalizing addition, as coaches have said he is, essentially, a replacement for Jeremy Shockey—an all-around short-yardage/red-zone threat.
Tolbert also joins a running back stable that already includes DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Add in Newton's running ability, and all of a sudden the Panthers' running attack looks awfully diverse and incredibly potent. Not surprisingly, the Panthers have already experimented with a wishbone look and could increase the number of option looks from last year.
Defensively, the Panthers have to be better than they were in year one under Ron Rivera. A guru on that side of the ball, Rivera brought in linebacker Luke Kuechly to reinforce an already solid linebacking corps and clean up any plays that may have leaked into the defensive backfield in 2011.
On the defensive line, Ron Edwards should provide bulk, if nothing else, to a team that wasn't able to keep its pass-rushers clean last year. Terrell McClain improved last year and will be expected to provide some semblance of rush up the middle. The storyline here, though, is the defensive ends, as Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy both have the ability to make life very difficult for passers.
A lot of "what ifs" stand between the Panthers and a winning record in 2012, but no team is looking forward to playing against Carolina. As Newton ascends to true NFL stardom and the defense begins to gel, the Panthers are probably a year away, but don't be surprised if they show up to the playoff party a little early.
With Peyton Manning in Denver, it's almost hard to remember that the AFC West was a wide open playing field in 2011. The Broncos went to the playoffs at 8-8, but the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers had the same record. The Chiefs, fourth in the division, were only a win away, at 7-9.
It's also easy to forget the injury woes the Chiefs had to deal with en route to 7-9.
Starting quarterback Matt Cassel only played nine games. Jamaal Charles—one of the NFL's best running backs—was only able to last two plays into the second game. Starting tight end Tony Moeaki didn't even get to play in the regular season. On defense, the Chiefs were out Pro Bowler Eric Berry and still managed a top-15 squad in respect to both yardage and points allowed.
The additions this team has made for 2012 have been underrated as well. Kevin Boss, a failed experiment in Oakland, will add experience while sharing the starting role with Moeaki. Eric Winston, the top right tackle in the B/R 1000, will be the final piece to the offensive line puzzle. Peyton Hillis looks to be the thunder to Charles' lightning, and Steve Breaston rounds out a talented receiving unit. Dontari Poe and Stanford Routt step onto a defense that hardly needed much of a boost.
Which Team Will Surprise Most in 2012?
So much is made of Cassel's failure to be the quarterback Scott Pioli thought he was bringing over from New England, but that's really a non sequitur in this discussion. The Chiefs got nothing out of the quarterback position in 2011 and still managed to be a game out of the divisional race.
Cassel certainly has the weapons. Charles can be a stud in the passing game. Moeaki and Boss are both good safety valves who can move the chains down the field. Dwayne Bowe is a headcase, but at least he's a talented one. Jonathan Baldwin looks like an emerging superstar. Add in gadget players like Dexter McCluster, and you have a solid group.
If Cassel returns to even what he considers average, the Chiefs are a near lock for the playoffs.
It won't be easy. Manning is never an easy out. San Diego looks to return to form with a host of new weapons for Philip Rivers to play with, and Oakland is always a tough matchup, especially at home.
Because of Manning's past successes and Cassel's past mediocrity, no one is talking about the Chiefs this year. But Kansas City, along with the other teams on this list, know that offseason chatter is just that.
Games are decided on the field, and these teams can't wait to show the rest of the NFL what they can do.
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."
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