The road to the NFL playoffs is much more exciting when a few unexpected teams are in the mix toward season's end.
We know teams like the New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers will be setting the pace. So, we have to diverge from the norm and check out those with postseason potential despite the lack of anticipation.
A prime example are the Carolina Panthers, who fielded a top-10 offense in 2011 and made some nice defensive improvements for 2012.
We'll try and tackle Cam Newton later, but first let's see who joins the Cats as surprise contenders leading into January.
The NFC East, much like 2011, remains a wide-open division.
For as much star power as resides in Dallas, Philadelphia and New York, the Washington Redskins are quite the sleeper team.
With Rex Grossman last year, the Redskins began 3-1 but dropped six straight. However, Washington did managed to sweep the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants.
As for 2012, Robert Griffin III is a much better signal-caller, and Washington's spruced up receiving corps certainly helps. Include the NFC East being a division overrun by dominant pass-rushers like DeMarcus Ware, Trent Cole and anyone on the Giants, and RG3's mobility will pay dividends.
Not to mention the Redskins have some stellar pass-rushers of their own in Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo.
The schedule is rough, as the 'Skins get the entire AFC North and NFC South outside the division. Fortunately, Washington's other two NFC games are against St. Louis and Minnesota. As long as running back Tim Hightower can remain healthy, RG3 will develop nicely because the defense can lock it down.
Everything regarding the Jacksonville Jaguars' 2012 success revolves around running back Maurice Jones-Drew.
With MJD, the Jaguars offense has so much more potential. He's among the top five running backs in the game and coming off a leading-rusher season of 1,606 yards. The upgraded receiving corps will only benefit him even more.
Rashad Jennings, though, has proven to be a reliable ball-carrier through two preseason games after missing all of 2011. If he can stay healthy, Jacksonville's offense still has potential, but Jennings is no MJD.
The defense is what will allow the Jaguars to stay in games. Last year, Mel Tucker's defense ranked No. 8 against the pass, No. 9 against the rush and No. 6 overall. They allowed just 20.6 points per game while backed by one of the league's worst offenses, which is extremely impressive.
This season, we can reasonably expect more from the Jags, as new guys like rookie Andre Branch and veteran corner Aaron Ross help immensely. The schedule also isn't overly difficult.
Houston remains the lone threat within the division, and the Pats, Bills and Bengals will be tough elsewhere in the AFC. Facing the entire NFC North won't be easy either, but Tucker's defense is one of the few capable of shutting down explosive opponents.
As long as the ground game remains effective enough to take pressure off of Blaine Gabbert, the defense will take over contests and Jacksonville will be alive down the stretch.
Cut out the first half of the 2011 NFL season and only look at the second half, and the Arizona Cardinals were on fire.
Finishing on a 7-2 run, the Cardinals nearly made the postseason at 8-8. Looking at 2012, there's much momentum to build upon.
Beanie Wells topped a grand on the ground, and if he becomes more consistent, Arizona's play-action gets significantly enhanced. Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd have the potential to be the league's best one-two receiving duo just from their skill set alone.
No one can cover Fitz one-on-one, and Floyd has the potential to draw his own double coverage. Regardless of who starts the regular season, John Skelton and Kevin Kolb will have the luxury of playing in a more balanced offense.
The defense is where the Cardinals can really do some damage, however.
Arizona fields one of the NFL's best and most complete secondaries with Patrick Peterson, Adrian Wilson, William Gay and Kerry Rhodes. The front seven, on the other hand, presents a nice pass rush and ability to slow any ground game with Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett and Sam Acho.
Peterson on punt returns is also a big edge regarding special teams. With a schedule that's not insanely challenging, Arizona still needs a good start in order to finishing strong.
Carolina's defense is the only concern heading into the 2012 season, because the offense made a surprisingly great impression in 2011.
Cam Newton put on a show virtually every week and tossed for over 4,000 yards as a rookie. Undoubtedly exceeding expectations, the Panthers offense has just as much, if not more potential this fall.
The slew of running backs, consisting of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert, creates more dynamics for Newton's own ability and opens up the playbook even more.
Provided that Brandon LaFell continues his nice development as a No. 2 receiver, the Cats are set.
The defensive side is where we need to see Carolina improve.
Jon Beason's absence last season certainly hurt, so he's a player to watch for in 2012. Rookie Luke Kuechly is a great complement at linebacker for talent and depth purposes, while another big season from defensive end Charles Johnson is needed.
Having recorded 20.5 sacks and 102 tackles the past two seasons, Johnson is a force off the edge in Carolina. Now the secondary must feed off this better front seven than in 2011; otherwise, explosive offensive opponents like the Giants, Cowboys and divisional rivals will capitalize.
That said, Carolina's overall schedule is rather favorable, and after closing out last season 4-2, the confidence and momentum are present for opening kickoff in 2012.
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