5 NFL Teams That Could Make the Playoffs After Missing out in 2012
More than in any other league, the NFL is driven by parity. Each year brings a handful of new contenders, teams who bounce back from bad seasons to make big runs. Last year's Indianapolis Colts, who were 2-14 in 2011 before making the playoffs in '12, come to mind. That is the impetus behind this list: a collection of teams who have a great shot at making the playoffs this season after missing out in 2012.
Some of these teams are perennial contenders who merely experienced a down year last season. Others are organizations who made big moves in the offseason with playoff aspirations in mind.
All of them are poised to do big things in the coming months.
These teams are listed in no particular order, though each of them can reasonably expect to be in the playoff hunt as cold fronts move in and December holidays approach. Fans of these five clubs can expect good tidings in the coming season.
On with the list...
New York Giants
One of the biggest shockers of the 2012 season was the defending champion Giants missing out on the postseason. The same thing happened after Big Blue's first Super Bowl win in the Eli Manning era, though.
Re-signing franchise wide receiver Victor Cruz was a huge move for the Giants. At running back, the team is transitioning into the David Wilson era. The rookie out of Virginia Tech finished fifth in the NFL in all-purpose yards last season, making big plays out of the backfield and on special teams.
In the last four games of the season, when given double-digit rushing attempts, the lowest yards-per-carry average posted by Wilson was 4.6 (against the Falcons, only the best team in the NFC in 2012). Rueben Randle also looks ready to take over at starting wide receiver should Hakeem Nicks struggle with injury again.
A healthy Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck combination up front spells trouble for opposing O-lines, and Corey Webster and Antrel Rolle anchor what looks to be the best secondary in the NFC East heading into this season. The unit got 21 interceptions last season, led by cornerback Stevie Brown, who had a team-leading eight picks.
After a letdown last season, the Giants look to once again take charge of a division which is constantly in fluctuation. Having one of the NFL's best quarterbacks making throws from behind center doesn't hurt, either.
The Dolphins, after seeing the success the Elway-led Broncos and last year's Seahawks enjoyed after uniform changes, made some adjustments to their duds this season.
The cloth likely won't help them win any games, but adding Mike Wallace to their receiving corps probably will. Wallace, the leading receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers for the last three seasons, gives second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill a deep-ball target he didn't have last year.
The team is also loaded with new talent at other positions. There's Super-Bowl winning linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who went from a loaded Ravens unit to being one of the standouts on a Dolphins defense which wasn't too shabby to begin with (seventh in points allowed in 2012, sixth in passing yardage).
Cornerback Brent Grimes has taken his talents to South Beach from Atlanta, and former Jet Dustin Keller is the team's new starting tight end.
Perhaps most importantly, the team hasn't lost the standouts it already had.
The defensive line will be led by Cameron Wake, who broke out last season with 15 sacks. Center Mike Pouncey and guard Richie Incognito still anchor the offensive line, and wide receiver Brian Hartline, who caught a career-high 74 passes last season and had his first single-season 1,000-yard output, is set to be a dependable second wide receiver.
If running back Lamar Miller can settle into his new role as an everyday starter following Reggie Bush's departure to Detroit, the Patriots' stranglehold on the AFC East (they've already lost Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and possibly Rob Gronkowski for at least a few weeks) may come to an end sooner than most people think.
The Bears, for the first time since 2004, have a new coach. Gone is Lovie Smith, here is former CFL Grey Cup winner Marc Trestman, known around the league as an offensive guru.
Brandon Marshall is a top-flight wideout, finishing with a career-high 118 receptions, as well as 11 touchdowns, in 2012. That was his first year with the team, and Marshall will only continue to get more comfortable with quarterback Jay Cutler, with whom he played in Denver to begin his career.
Matt Forte has developed into (when healthy) one of the very best running backs in the game. The former Tulane star finished last season with 1,094 rushing yards, the third time in his five pro seasons that he's reached the 1,000-yard mark on the ground.
The fact that he's an adept pass-catcher out of the backfield (his 44 catches last year were actually a career-low) also help an offense which is constantly trying to match its perennially elite defense.
That unit was, once again, a top-five outfit last season, finishing third in points allowed and allowing just six rushing touchdowns all season. Even with the unexpected retirement of surefire Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher in the offseason, the Bears defense looks to have a very strong 2013.
Led by linebacker Lance Briggs and safety Charles "Peanut" Tillman (whose ability to create turnovers is detailed here), the squad also features eight-time Pro Bowler Julius Peppers (who posted 11.5 sacks last season) and Tim Jennings, who led the NFL in interceptions in '12 with nine.
After a 7-1 start last season, the Bears missed out on the playoffs in an NFC North which saw two of its other teams (Packers and Vikings) reach the postseason. Green Bay still may be a tough obstacle to overcome, but the Bears' D and a healthy Cutler should be enough to overcome the Vikings and Lions in 2013.
Sure, the Steelers lost Mike Wallace and starting running back Rashard Mendenhall. Still, the offense is in good hands.
First of all, the differential in points between the Steelers and their opponents last season was just 22, meaning that a lot of games which the Steel Curtain lost could have easily gone the other way.
Last year's leading rusher, Jonathan Dwyer, and pass-catcher, Heath Miller, are still on the team. So is franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown (who caught 66 passes for five touchdowns last season).
The Pittsburgh defense is still one of the best in the NFL, finishing sixth in the league in points allowed. The Steelers also allowed the fewest yards of any defense in the league, besting their next-closest competitor (the Broncos) by over 200 yards. The unit has retained standout players like linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Lamarr Woodley, and safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark.
Linebacker Jason Worilds also enjoyed his best year yet as a pass-rusher in 2012, compiling five sacks. With James Harrison now in Cincinnati, look for Worilds to have a big year in '13 in his first season as full-time starter.
Any football expert will tell you that defense wins championships. Pittsburgh has that in spades, and it also likely will surpass a Baltimore team that has been decimated by departures following their Super Bowl victory (especially on defense).
New Orleans Saints
The Saints defense endured a historically bad season last year, giving up 454 points and an NFL-record 7,042 yards in 2012.
That season, however, was a particularly miserable one for the Who Dats after the suspensions handed down to several key players on the defense, including linebacker and defensive captain Jonathan Vilma. There was also a full-season ban for team head coach and offensive guru Sean Payton.
With former Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan now running the Saints' defense, New Orleans hopes for improvement while leaning on its pass-happy offense. Record-setting quarterback Drew Brees returns, as do most of his key targets, including Marques Colston, Lance Moore and tight end Jimmy Graham.
Brees' most versatile target, Darren Sproles, is the best running-receiving dual threat in the NFL, catching 75 passes for 667 yards and seven touchdowns last season. The Saints also have straight-forward runners Mark Ingram and Chris Ivory coming out of the backfield.
The Saints should be able to take advantage of a weak NFC South aside from the Falcons and their proper head coach to make another run at the postseason.