Can Colin Kaepernick lead the San Francisco 49ers to a third straight NFC West title in 2013?
Best guess, please. In a league where getting to the playoffs on a consistent basis isn’t to be taken for granted, how do you really forecast which of the 32 teams in the National Football League have the brightest futures?
Now, do we expect teams like the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots to remain contenders over the next few seasons? There’s no reason to think otherwise, especially if both teams' defense-heavy 2012 draft classes emerge in a big way.
How about the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, who have been to the playoffs a league-high five times in the last five seasons? What does the future hold for a team that will be without legendary linebacker Ray Lewis and with other possible changes as well?
The following 10 choices are probably on the obvious side, given the 2012 postseason and the influx of young talent, most notably at the quarterback position. That was one factor to consider when making our choices, as well as some fresh faces in terms of coaching and the anticipation that the people supplying talent to these clubs will come up big over the next few months.
Still, it may appear that we went out on bit of a limb in regard to a few other clubs—and we are putting a lot of our stock in one division in particular.
Finally, the teams are listed in alphabetical order because we’re not playing favorites here.
Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera and quarterback Cam Newton are both hoping that the third year is the charm in 2013.
There was more expected this past season, and the team did improve by one game after finishing 6-10 in 2011. But the Panthers lost eight of their first 10 games before finishing 5-1 in their last six contests. That included victories in their last four outings—two of those over the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints.
Newton was particularly effective late in the season, throwing 11 touchdown passes (two interceptions) and running for four scores in his final seven games.
But it was the Carolina defense, which finished 10th in the league in yards allowed and gave up fewer points and touchdowns than the previous season, that could be the difference. Young players such as linebacker and 2012 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Luke Kuechly and defensive end Greg Hardy are a good mix with veterans such as Charles Johnson and James Anderson.
Since the NFC South has never been won by any team two years in a row, Carolina will certainly have a division title on its mind in 2013.
Yes, the Cincinnati Bengals are coming off back-to-back playoff appearances for only the second time in franchise history and have never gone to the postseason three consecutive years.
But Marvin Lewis’ team has been to the playoffs three of the last four seasons, capturing a division title in 2009 and taking the wild-card berth each of the last two years.
Although the club hasn’t tasted any success in the second season since way back in 1990, you get the sense it may be coming sooner rather than later.
Led by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins, the Cincinnati defense gave up the sixth-fewest total yards in the NFL in 2012. It’s also worth noting that Lewis’ club allowed 20 points or less in each of its final nine outings this past season, including the tough 19-13 playoff loss to the Houston Texans.
The Bengals' offense also showed plenty of balance, as quarterback Andy Dalton and A.J. Green had strong second seasons, while free-agent pickup BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran for 1,094 yards.
Being in the same division as perennial powers the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers has been a positive for the Bengals, who may be on the verge of some big things in a transitioning AFC.
When it comes to what the Browns have done for Cleveland, it’s been a rough return since a franchise resurfaced in 1999.
The team is a combined 73-151 the last 14 seasons and has currently lost 11 or more games each of the past five seasons since the club’s last winning season (10-6) in 2007.
So when does the bright future begin?
Actually, there were more than a few positive signs in 2012, as rookies such as Trent Richardson and Josh Gordon certainly made their presence felt. While the team did lose eight of its first 10 games, five of those setbacks were by seven points or less. The team did run off three straight wins before the wheels came off in the final three weeks.
Still, new head coach Rob Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner should do wonders for not only Richardson but second-year quarterback Brandon Weeden. And new defensive coordinator Ray Horton, late of the Arizona Cardinals, is very familiar with the AFC North.
Yes, moving up in the AFC North looks impossible since the Browns are the only team in the division to finish with a losing record each of the last two seasons. But a few early victories could change that mindset very quickly.
It’s too obvious of a choice. But it’s worth mentioning how far the new-look Indianapolis Colts came in one season.
When you finish 11-5 and reach the playoffs after a 2-14 season, there’s plenty of reason to be excited.
There’s even more reason for optimism when you consider the contributions of the team’s 2012 rookie class, most notably on the offensive side of the football. The Colts scored 40 touchdowns this past season, more than half of those (22) by six of the players that new general manager Ryan Grigson selected in the draft last April.
Eight of those came courtesy of third-round wideout T.Y. Hilton, while quarterback and first overall pick Andrew Luck ran for five scores to go along with his 23 touchdown passes. Tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener and running back Vick Ballard (team-high 814 rushing yards) also played big roles.
Defensively, there’s still work to be done. But with coordinator Greg Manusky back, as well as head coach Chuck Pagano, that group figures to make strides, especially if Grigson can strike the same kind of gold in the draft this spring.
Don’t bet against it.
The 2012 season for the Miami Dolphins began (30-10 loss to the Houston Texans) and ended (28-0 loss to the New England Patriots) with a thud.
In between, there were a few bangs of sorts, enough to make this a team to keep an eye on in the future.
First-year head coach Joe Philbin made the most of a roster many felt didn’t have the talent to keep up with the rest of the teams in the division, as well as the league. After the team dropped three of its first four games, that analysis appeared fairly accurate.
But the Dolphins would split their final 12 games of the season and along the way knocked off the playoff-bound Cincinnati Bengals and Seattle Seahawks. While the team finished five games behind the Patriots in the AFC East, this latest 7-9 campaign (the team’s third such finish in the last four years) seemed to have hope attached to it.
Rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill took his lumps but looks like a player to watch in the team’s evolving offense, while the Dolphins finished seventh-best in the league in points allowed. Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake totaled 15 of the team’s 42 sacks.
Leapfrogging the Patriots is a tall task. Reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2008 is a distinct possibility.
As of late, the artists once known as the “Greatest Show on Turf,” aka the St. Louis Rams, haven’t been worth the watch.
But the times are a-changing in the Gateway City, where the recent blues for this franchise may soon be only reserved for their uniforms.
No, the Rams were not a playoff team in 2012 and haven’t been since 2004 (when they finished 8-8). But they were a physical football team last season, a year that had its ups and downs, and the Rams were usually up when it came to facing their divisional brethren.
It’s hard to ignore the team’s 4-1-1 record within the NFC West this past season, the only loss within the division coming on the final Sunday of the season at Seattle.
It’s also hard to overlook the presence of head coach Jeff Fisher, who added old friend Cortland Finnegan to a defense loaded with former first-round picks up front and opportunistic rookie Janoris Jenkins at cornerback.
Offensively, quarterback Sam Bradford enjoyed a solid bounce-back season, but what does the future hold for free agents Steven Jackson and Danny Amendola? In any case, physical football usually prevails and will here once again.
Like his older brother John Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh hasn’t missed the playoffs since becoming an NFL head coach.
OK, so it’s only been two seasons compared to five for John. Why quibble over details?
However, when you consider that the Niners had gone eight consecutive years without a winning season prior to Harbaugh’s arrival, it makes the feat pretty impressive indeed. With two NFC title game appearances and a Super Bowl showing under his belt, the next step appears obvious.
Also impressive is some of the young talent at the skill positions, as well as numerous defensive players either right smack in their prime or close to it.
With second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick at the controls and rookie running back LaMichael James spelling veteran Frank Gore late in the season, the two youngsters appear primed for bigger things sooner rather than later.
And with sack specialist Aldon Smith and inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman setting the tone on defense, look for Vic Fangio’s unit to get back on track after some late-season issues. Finally, getting free-agent free safety Dashon Goldson re-signed would be a good idea.
Of course, repeating in the NFC West will be no easy task, as the Niners are once again the hunted.
For the first time in his brief tenure in the Pacific Northwest, Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll saw his quarterback start all 16 games during the regular season.
That continuity behind center is probably one big reason that rookie quarterback Russell Wilson started two more games in the playoffs.
After showing they could blow your doors off at home while continuously blowing opportunities to win on the road, the Seahawks grew into a team that was winning everywhere.
The progress of Wilson was no coincidence. Including the playoffs, Wilson threw 21 touchdown passes compared to only four interceptions in his last 11 outings (8-3), this after throwing for eight scores while being picked off seven times during the club’s 4-3 start.
Combine that kind of productivity with the pounding runs of Marshawn Lynch and a team that allowed the fewest points in the league, and the future in Seattle means you’re going to need shades.
Speaking of that defense, keep in mind the star-studded secondary is still very young, and rookie middle linebacker Bobby Wagner had a superb debut season.
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the 2012 highlight film might be titled “What Could Have Been.”
Could 2013’s production be called “What Will Be”?
One season after losing their final 10 games, new head coach Greg Schiano led his new-look team with a new attitude to six wins in its first 10 games.
However, it all came apart down the stretch, as only a mini-surprise against the Atlanta Falcons in the season finale put the brakes on a five-game losing streak.
Still, there was a lot to get excited about, and here’s saying that a lot of the Buccaneers’ young defensive players take a big step forward this upcoming season.
A late slump cost quarterback Josh Freeman and his team dearly, but he has plenty of weapons, as rookie running back Doug Martin was stellar and the receiving tandem of Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams emerged as one of the better duos in the league.
Schiano took his share of teams to bowl games while at Rutgers University. He hopes to make that a habit in the NFL as well.
It took the Washington Redskins 13 seasons to win another NFC East title. You can be sure Mike Shanahan and the franchise do not plan on being that unlucky for that long again.
Of course, 2012 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Robert Griffin III may not be ready for the start of the 2013 season (although it’s hard to bet against quick recoveries these days).
In any case, fellow rookie Kirk Cousins could get the call if necessary. And that’s the beauty of these new-look Redskins.
During the past two offseasons, the franchise has stressed the draft rather than attempting to break the bank on veteran free agents—an approach that drew mixed reviews for more than a decade in D.C. When you are able to add players such as running back Alfred Morris in the sixth round, the future bodes well.
Still, Griffin is a big key, and his effective play last season was a major reason the ‘Skins committed a league-low 14 turnovers.
Defensively, it’s a solid mix of youth and veterans that must build on last season’s strong finish. This unit will get Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker back in 2013. As long as Griffin and Morris are doing their thing, they will remain the defense’s best friend.
Every team in the NFC East has taken a turn winning the division the last four years. Don’t be surprised if the ‘Skins make plans to stay at the top for another year or two.