The 2013 NFL season is looming, as veterans have begun reporting to training camp and the regular season is just over one month away. With each and every team preparing for the 17-week grind, expectations are mounting and reputations are being earned before the opening kickoff has even transpired.
The question is, which teams that disappointed in 2012 will make the playoffs in 2013?
Certain squads have elite pieces, but lacked the consistency in 2012 to piece together a postseason run. Whether they were unable to produce offensively or they struggled to step up on defense, there was no shortage of stunning collapses.
Other teams weren't expected to make the playoffs, but enter the 2013 season with their fair share of momentum. Regardless of what the case may be, multiple franchises will be in a position to break through after struggling in the previous season.
Here's who they are.
The Carolina Panthers aren't the most high-profile franchise in football, nor are they the most dominant. Just as we see in every passing season, however, a young team opens eyes by making the leap to the postseason, which is exactly what Carolina will do.
If you doubt that, try this on for size—in 2012, the Panthers lost seven games by six points or less.
One year later, Cam Newton is more experienced, Jon Beason projects to be healthy and Star Lotulelei provides a big body on an already potent defensive line. With DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert joined by Kenjon Barner, as well as Ted Ginn Jr. entering the return game, Carolina has every tool to break through.
Something tells me they'll fare better than their mark of 2-7 in 2012 during games decided by six points or less, now that they've got a more seasoned quarterback and a head coach more experienced.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Panthers' postseason pursuit is the fact that they are 9-3 after Week 12 over the past two seasons. That includes a four-game winning streak to close out their 2012 campaign.
As long as Domenik Hixon and Brandon LaFell can alleviate pressure from Steve Smith, all signs point towards Newton breaking through and the Panthers stealing a wildcard spot.
The Washington Redskins are looking to repeat as NFC East champions. With the return of injured superstar Brian Orakpo and Robert Griffin III making progress, they're the rational front-runners to do so.
Just don't sell the Dallas Cowboys short.
The New York Giants have lost their running game and did very little to improve their underwhelming defense. The Philadelphia Eagles are an organization in transition mode, bringing on a new head coach and parting ways with some of their top talent.
If the Cowboys are ever going to break through with Tony Romo, 2013 is the year to do so.
The Redskins won seven games in a row to win the division in 2012, while the Cowboys were in control of their own destiny entering Week 17. Unfortunately, Dallas failed to step up when it mattered most, losing to Washington in the final game of the season with a postseason berth on the line.
As long as DeMarco Murray can remain healthy, the Cowboys will be legitimate contenders for the division crown, once again.
The Pittsburgh Steelers missed the playoffs in 2012, falling victim to injuries and the rise of the Cincinnati Bengals. While the Bengals may be getting stronger, the Steelers are in prime position to break through and return to the postseason in 2013.
Keep in mind, Pittsburgh hasn't missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons since 2000.
The Steelers began the 2012 season at 6-3, but when Ben Roethlisberger went down with a shoulder injury, they fell apart. Pittsburgh lost five of their final seven games, as Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu and Brett Keisel all missing time due to ailments.
With an infusion of youth on defense and a full offseason for their veterans to rest, expect Pittsburgh to remind the world of the fact that they've won two Super Bowl titles during the Roethlisberger era.
Mike Wallace's departure hurts, but Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders broke out at wide receiver in 2012. With the addition of Plaxico Burress and rookie Markus Wheaton, as well as the ever-productive Heath Miller, Roethlisberger should have no trouble throwing the football.
Toss in the addition of rookies Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas on defense, as well as the presence of elite head coach Mike Tomlin, and Pittsburgh should be just fine in 2013.
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