The National Football League is the most parity-filled professional sports association in sports. Each year, a handful of teams, which were thought to be mediocre or worse, surprise even the smartest analysts.
This past year, the teams were the Minnesota Vikings, Indianapolis Colts, Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins. That said, there are also a fair share of juggernauts—the teams who will certainly return at least to the playoffs, if not the Super Bowl.
This article is about those teams—the ones whose regular-season success can be taken to the bank. Here are four teams from both the AFC and NFC which I would put money on to make the playoffs. Since I am currently a college student with loans, I don't take that last statement lightly. We'll start with the AFC. Without further ado...
Whether or not Matt Schaub is ready to take "the leap" and bring the Houston Texans to either a bye week in the playoffs or the AFC Championship Game is up for debate. What isn't is, barring an injury to a player like Arian Foster or J.J. Watt, they'll make the postseason.
Wide receiver De'Andre Hopkins of Clemson was a shrewd pickup by the Texans' brass late in the first round (any time you can get the second-best wideout in the draft with the 28th pick, it's a steal). Also, the Texans addressed their biggest deficiency, pass defense, by picking up 34-year-old future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed, fresh off a Super Bowl win with the Baltimore Ravens.
Also, the Texans have the best running back in the league not named Adrian Peterson in Foster. Foster has rushed for at least 1,200 yards in each of the past three seasons and has also caught at least 40 passes out of the backfield in that same timespan. He also led the league in both rushing touchdowns (15) and overall scores (17) in the 2012 regular season.
If the Texans can get a healthy season out of star wide receiver Andre Johnson, Houston will be tough to beat in the AFC, let alone the AFC South division.
Losing Elvis Dumervil hurt, but the pain was certainly alleviated when Denver acquired Tom Brady's favorite target. The AFC's best regular-season team last year somehow got even better by picking up Wes Welker, who's only caught an average of 120 (!) passes the past two seasons.
In addition, the Broncos picked up a pass-rusher in linebacker Shaun Phillips (formerly of the San Diego Chargers) who recorded 9.5 sacks last season. Denver also added secondary help in poaching Quentin Jammer from the division rival Chargers and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (a dynamic performer both as a cornerback and in the return game) from the overall disaster that was the Philadelphia Eagles offense.
Denver also added guard Louis Vazquez to help protect Peyton Manning, who just so happens to be one of the best quarterbacks of all time. Did I mention that the Broncos went 13-3 last season? There aren't many sure things in football, but the Broncos winning the AFC West this year is one of them.
New England Patriots
Suffice it to say, it has been a pretty bad offseason for the New England Patriots, especially their tight ends. Also, it doesn't help losing a wide receiver who caught 118 passes last season (see Welker, Wes).
However, signing one of the NFL's best pure slot receivers, Danny Amendola, certainly helps matters. Amendola caught 63 passes last season for 666 yards and should be a great boon for a receiving corps missing three of its biggest weapons from last year.
The emergence of Chandler Jones, last year's rookie defensive end who had six sacks, three forced fumbles and showed off some great dance moves, should make Vince Wilfork, Dont'a Hightower and company quite formidable once again. Resigning Aqib Talib, the team's best defensive back, should also help.
However, the Patriots are not on this list necessarily because they got better. Mainly, it's because of their divisional competition. The New York Jets are, once again, a train wreck, and will be counting on either a second-round rookie or Mark Sanchez to lead them to a playoff berth.
Meanwhile, the Buffalo Bills will be adjusting to a new coach (Greg Marrone) and a new signal-caller, whether it's Florida State rookie EJ Manuel or Arizona Cardinals castoff Kevin Kolb.
Finally, there's the Miami Dolphins' situation. The team will be counting on Ryan Tannehill and a running back group, which just lost last year's starter, Reggie Bush, to Detroit, and a wide receiver in Mike Wallace, who had a less-productive 2012 (64 catches, 836 yards) than 2011 (72 catches, 1,193 yards).
Sometimes, it's not about being the best in order to get to the playoffs. Sometimes, you just need to be good enough. With Tom Brady, the Pats are good enough in 2013.
Cincinnati has made the playoffs the last two seasons, behind the throwing-receiving combination of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green.
This year, with the Pittsburgh Steelers losing their best running back and receiver from last season (Rashard Mendenhall and Wallace, respectively), and the Baltimore Ravens losing, well, seemingly everybody from their Super Bowl-winning team, the Bengals look primed to do something they haven't yet accomplished in the Dalton era: win the AFC North.
The defense, led by defensive tackle Geno Atkins and All-Pro cornerback Leon Hall, are primed for another big season after finishing an unexpected eighth in total defense last season. Also, after 73 tackles as a rookie last year, fans would be smart to remember the name Vontaze Burfict. He's my pick for breakout defensive performer of the season.
Green Bay Packers
Last year, Aaron Rodgers threw for 4,295 yards, 39 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Those incredible statistics came without any real semblance of an offensive line (Rodgers was sacked a league-leading 51 times in 2012) or a running game. While the Packers signed a variety of little-known linemen to try to help Rodgers be more well-protected in the pocket, their solution at running back was slightly more high-profile.
The Pack signed Eddie Lacy, the running back from Alabama who was the first RB taken in the draft this year. Lacy rushed for 1,322 yards and 17 touchdowns for the NCAA FBS champion Alabama Crimson Tide in 2012, and is expected to step into a starting role for the Packers immediately. Team members are hoping that Lacy's debut season resembles that of his former teammate Trent Richardson, who rushed for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns last year for the Cleveland Browns.
Most importantly, the Pack resigned Rodgers and star linebacker Clay Matthews. That, plus the return of a healthy Jordy Nelson and breakout wideout Randall Cobb in the receiving corps.
All this points to the Packers possibly improving on their 11-5 record from last season.
Julio Jones had a breakthrough year at wide receiver last year for the Falcons, catching 79 passes for 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns. That, plus the emergence of Matt Ryan as an elite quarterback (2012 stats: 4,719 passing yards, good for fifth in the league, along with 32 touchdowns and a 68.6% completion percentage), makes Jones and Roddy White perhaps the best receiving duo in the league right now (the only other contenders are Nelson and Jennings in Green Bay).
The good news doesn't stop there for the Falcon faithful. The team defense, which had always been the Achilles' heel of a team with a great offense, finished fifth in total defense in 2012. They gave up a league-low 14 passing touchdowns, and finished tied for fifth in the league with 20 interceptions. They also gave up the fifth fewest points in the league (207).
In a division where the Saints (who still have a lot of work to do on their defense) are shaping up to be their biggest competitors, the Falcons will be looking to win their third straight NFC South divisional title. Chances are, they'll accomplish their goal.
People already knew that Marshawn Lynch could be a top-ten running back in the NFL when healthy. After all, this is the same guy capable of making plays like this and this. Last year, however, Lynch established himself as one of the top five backs in the entire NFL, rushing for the third-most yards of any back (1,590), trailing only Adrian Peterson and Washington's Alfred Morris.
Third-round draft pick Russell Wilson, a rookie in 2012, was also a revelation. Wilson finished fourth in the league in both passer rating (100.0) and yards per pass attempt (7.9), while placing second in passing touchdown percentage (the rate at which a pass attempt is completed for a touchdown).
With talented young receivers such as Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate having another year under their belts, the team should improve even more in the following season. The team also added the dynamic Percy Harvin, an electric athlete who could be a huge difference maker if he can remain healthy throughout the year.
That's without even mentioning the terrific Seahawk defense, led by All-Pro defensive back Richard Sherman (eight interceptions and three forced fumbles in just his second season as a pro). The Seahawks were the most effective overall defense in the league last season, letting up just 245 points in 16 regular season games and shutting down the likes of Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady throughout the season.
San Francisco 49ers
After losing to the Ravens in the Super Bowl last season, the Niners embraced the "if you can't beat them, sign them" strategy and picked up Anquan Boldin, Baltimore's best receiver. Boldin torched a San Fran defense which had been stout all year long (second in the league in points allowed, and just 19 passing touchdowns surrendered) with six catches for 104 yards, including the first touchdown of the game.
Boldin will join Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis to give the Niners the best receiving corps they've had in several years. The Niners will also be looking to last year's midseason breakout Colin Kaepernick, who replaced a concussed Alex Smith in Week 10 and proceeded to take San Francisco all the way to the Super Bowl.
With Kaepernick and young defensive standout Aldon Smith (19.5 sacks last year) once again patrolling the field with the fourth-best pass defense and run defense behind them, the Niners should be able to build on their back-to-back NFC Championship Game appearances.