-As I make my debut at The Pigskin Report, I wanted to go with something different. I’m going to give you 5 surprise teams which I think not only have a shot at making the playoffs, but I believe can compete for the Super Bowl.
Last Season: (9-7, 3rd in AFC North) (1st Round Playoff loss @ HOU)
-The Cincinnati Bengals made the jump last season going from cellar to contenders in the AFC North. Thanks to Pro Bowl rookie seasons from QB Andy Dalton and WR A.J Green. The tandem connected throughout the year and showed why the Bengals selected them in the 1st (Green) and 2nd Round (Dalton). The Bengals defense also was stellar finishing 7th in the league in Yards Per Game (316). As Cincinnati prepares for the 2012 season, there are several indicators leaning in their favor. First, is the fact that Dalton and Green will now have the full summer of Training Camp to build chemistry, which they missed out on last year because of the lockout. Training Camp will also provide the Bengals more time to learn Jay Gruden’s system providing more practice reps to get their timing down, including new rookie WR Mohamed Sanu. Given time and repetitions, this could turn into one of the best offenses in the NFL. Secondly, they come into camp healthy, while their rival Pittsburgh Steelers will be without RB Rashard Mendenhall for most of the year, and the Baltimore Ravens lost 2011 Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs for most if not all of the regular season as well. This Bengals team has the opportunity to take advantage of their opportunities, and grab the AFC North crown. Once the Bengals reach the playoffs it will be anyone’s game, and the Bengals will have experience on their side this time.
Last Season: (6-10, 4th in AFC East)
The Bills got off to a blazing start last season starting 5-2, lifting the spirits of their fans. Their fast start led many NFL analysts to wonder if they were for real. It turns out they weren’t as they went 2-8 the rest of the season and QB Ryan Fitzpatrick couldn’t build on the success he had in their first 6 contests. Buffalo’s defense also had issues, and ranked in the bottom half in nearly every defensive category. General Manager Buddy Nix had enough of the mediocrity year after year, and made some big moves in the draft and in free agency that are sure to turn this team around. In the Draft, the Bills took South Carolina CB Stephen Gilmore with the 10th overall pick, and filled the void they had at the CB position all season. The acquisition will also allow Aaron Williams to stay at Safety. In the off season, Buffalo signed the top defensive free agent on the market, DE/OLB Mario Williams. Williams will bring the elite pass rusher this defense has needed, and along with fellow free agent signee Mark Anderson, should turn this into one of the better units in the NFL. The Bills now have a top 10 Defense, and a running duo of Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, but the main concern for the Bills remains QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick will have no excuses this year, the weapons are there to win a Wild Card spot, so the pressure to carry this team won’t be there. If Fitzpatrick can play smart, and not turn the ball over excessively, the Buffalo Bills will make the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
Last Season: (8-8, 1st in AFC West, 2nd Round Playoff loss @ NE)
Last year the Denver Broncos were led by fan favorite Tim Tebow all the way to the Divisional Round against the New England Patriots. A magical run of 4th Quarter comebacks captivated a season of memories for Broncos fans. Despite his success, Tebow is no longer in Denver, instead it is future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. The Broncos went all out to sign Maning in the offseason, and if Manning is indeed healthy after numerous neck surgeries, then the Broncos are immediate Super Bowl contenders. Denver has a solid defense that had its ups and downs last year as rookie Von Miller adjusted to the NFL. The Broncos also addressed their secondary in the off season by signing free agent DB’s Tracy Porter and Drayton Florence, which should give this secondary needed depth. The Broncos offense will look to shift from the run heavy team they were last year, to a more pass heavy team led by Peyton Manning. John Fox will likely use a running back by Committee with Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno, while McGahee will get a majority of the carries coming off a 1,100 yard season. Manning will look to turn Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker into great WR’s with his ability to put the ball right on the money, especially on deep passes. The biggest issue for this Broncos team will be how healthy will Peyton Manning play. If the Broncos get Manning at 100-90% they can compete in the AFC. Even if they get anything less than 80% of Manning they can still win the AFC West.
Last Season: (8-8 3rd in NFC East)
America’s Team always seems to be one of the favorites in the NFC year after year, but after numerous late season collapses, they fell out of the favorite pick. Whether it was due to locker room issues, injuries or Tony Romo, the Cowboys just couldn’t get over the hump. Even last year when Tony Romo played well, and everything seemed fine in the locker room, it was the defense that killed this team. Well Cowboys fans will suffer no longer, as I believe Jerry Jones has finally constructed a Super Bowl caliber team. I will start with the QB Tony Romo, who had his best season throwing for 4,184 yards 31 TD’s and a 102.5 QB rating last season. The Cowboys offense also got some great productivity from rookie RB DeMarco Murray, who in the final 11 games ran for 827 Yards. The Cowboys could have won the NFC East, as their offense was proficient enough. However, their defense and K David Buehler’s 2 missed game winning FGs cost the Cowboys the NFC East title. This will be a vastly improved Cowboys defense, after Jerry Jones traded up for the top CB in the Draft in Morris Claiborne, and signed CB Brandon Carr to a 5 year, $50.1 Million deal. Carr and Claiborne will provide a maximum upgrade for this Cowboys secondary, and will provide more time for Demarcus Ware to get after the QB. As for David Buehler, he was cut in March and Dan Bailey will now serve as the K of the Dallas Cowboys. Even with the reigning Super Bowl Champion New York Giants in the way, the Dallas Cowboys can win the NFC East, and can contend for the Lombardi Trophy this season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
Last Season: (4-12, 4th in NFC South)
Could the Buccaneers go from worst to first so quickly? I believe they have the talent to pull it off. Last season Josh Freeman was poised for a breakout year, but instead he led the league in Red Zone INT’s, and struggled all season with his accuracy. It wasn’t just Freeman who was inconsistent, it was the entire offense. RB LeGarrette Blount coughed the ball up 3 times for the 2nd season in a row. While the Buccaneers offense was ugly, their defense was grotesque, and allowed an NFL worst 30 PPG, and 394 YPG. Dramatic changes were made after the season with HC Raheem Morris being fired and replaced by Rutgers coach Greg Schiano. It didn’t stop there, as the team spent big money signing Pro Bowl WR Vincent Jackson, OG Carl Nicks and TE Dallas Clark. Tampa Bay had a strong draft as well with 2 picks in the 1st Round, and took S Mark Barron and RB Doug Martin. Both rookies are expected to make an immediate impact, and could start right away. This is a talented Buccaneers team, that went 10-6 in 2010. If Josh Freeman can have a bounce back season, and their big time off season acquisitions can step up, this will be one of the best teams in the NFC.
Editorial adjustment- This is the first post that Matt Johnson has added to TPR. He writes about football and covers the sport for other sites. We are hoping to keep his insight here for the coming season and give him some feedback.