There are a lot of really good NFL teams (Giants, Patriots, Packers, Bears, Lions, Texans, Ravens, Steelers, 49ers) however, there are also several teams that I think could be sleeper teams and make a run for the playoffs in 2012.
The Carolina Panthers went 6-10 last year and were ahead of both the Packers and Lions at halftime before eventually falling. The Panthers have one of the best offense’s in the league which includes Quarterback Cam Newton, Running Backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, Wide Receiver Steve Smith, Tight End Greg Olsen, to go along with a solid offensive line highlighted by Ryan Kalil and Jordan Gross.
As good as the offense played last year, the defensive side of the ball was the exact opposite as they ranked in the mid-high 20's in all of the key defensive categories last year. The 2011 Panthers weren’t ever healthy, however, they still feature a few good players on that side of the ball in Charles Johnson, Chris Gamble, and James Anderson but still need a lot more defensive help if they want to take the next step and be a serious contender in 2012. With the defensive playmakers lacking on that side of the ball, the Panthers need to address their defense with their first two draft picks and become an average defense to combine with a great young offense. If coach Ron Rivera can have this defense improve and become a reliable defense, the 2012 Panthers will be a sleeper team to make the playoffs in 2012.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
Yes, I’m choosing the two teams from the NFL South that didn’t made the playoffs last year (unlike the Falcons and Saints who made the playoffs the past 3 years) as the sleeper teams from this division. If new coach Greg Schiano can prove that he can make an easy transition from the college game (coached at Rutgers) to the pro game, then I feel the Buccaneers can be a really good team next year. I’m still willing to give Quarterback Josh Freeman another chance (great 2010, horrible 2011) as he and his receivers weren’t ever healthy. In the offseason, the Bucs greatly improved their offense by signing wide receiver Vincent Jackson along with star offensive lineman (and former Saints guard) Carl Nicks.
The Buccaneers already have a solid running back (LeGarretteBlont), good receivers and tight ends (Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn, Kellen Winslow) and a solid offensive line (Nicks, Jeremy Trueblood, Davin Joseph, and Donald Penn). At the same time, outside of the Buccaneers defensive line (Michael Bennett, Da’Quan Bowers, Adrian Clayborn, and Gerald McCoy), the rest of the Bucs defense needs to be upgraded via the NFL draft. If the Buccaneers can upgrade their running game (and make LeGarretteBlont a number 2 back) along with adding more linebacker and secondary depth (which has veteran Ronde Barber along with AqibTalib), then they’ll have a chance to overtake the Panthers, Falcons, and Saints.
Quietly the Titans finished the year with a respectable 9-7 record last year while Matt Hasselbeck was hurt, Chris Johnson didn’t look nearly 100%, and Kenny Britt tore his ACL in the second game of the season. With all of the injuries and distractions Tennessee went through last year, its impressive to think that the Titans finished with a record over .500; how did the Titans finish do this? Two reasons: first, they played in one of the worst divisions in the NFL in 2011 and two they had an underrated defense that includes cornerback Jason McCourty (who had 103 tackles last year), Safety Michael Griffin, and Defensive Tackle Karl Klug (who had 7 sacks). In the offseason, the Titans tried to sign Peyton Manning, but in the end Manning decided to sign with the Denver Broncos.
Tennessee also lost star Cornerback Cortland Finnegan via free agency to the St. Louis Rams but in response they signed guard Steve Hutchinson and defensive end KamerionWimbley (and might trade for Cornerback Asante Samuel). The Titans will be a playoff if: Matt Hasselbeck can stay healthy, Chris Johnson can show that he can bounce back from last year, Kenny Britt can come back from his injury he suffered through, and Nate Washington can prove to a legitimate number 2 wide receiver. With the Jaguars and Colts in a rebuilding stage and the Texans loosing a few key players, I feel the Titans can either win the AFC South Division Title or claim Wild Card spot in 2012.
Kansas City Chiefs:
All of the attention in the AFC West went to the Denver Broncos (who signed Peyton Manning), Oakland Raiders (who hired a new GM and Head Coach), and San Diego Chargers (who didn’t fire their GM or Head Coach) in the offseason; however, I feel it’s the team that didn’t receive any attention this offseason (the Kansas City Chiefs) that will be a good sleeper team in 2012. The Chiefs suffered 4 huge injuries (Matt Cassel, Jamaal Charles, Tony Moeaki, Eric Berry) throughout the 2011 season which destroyed the Chiefs season. The highlight of the Chiefs season came during week 15 when Kansas City defeated the Green Bay Packers 19-14, ending the Packers perfect season.
While many people feel the Broncos will be the team to beat in 2012; I feel people should start to look at the Chiefs roster which includes good offensive playmakers (Jamaal Charles, Peyton Hillis, Dwyane Bowe, and Tony Moeaki), a solid offensive line (Branden Albert and Jon Asamoah along with the newly signed Eric Winston), a good defensive line (Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey) and a quality secondary (Brandon Flowers, Standord Routt, and Eric Berry). If Matt Cassel can take the next step, Jamaal Charles and Eric Berry can recover from last year’s injuries, and the Chiefs can upgrade their linebacker core, then I think the 2012 Chiefs will be the team to beat in the AFC West.
St. Louis Rams:
Am I saying the 2-14 Rams are going to go from the second worst record in the NFL to a playoff team…no. However, under new head coach (Jeff Fisher), I believe the Rams win total will increase by at least 4 wins in 2012. The 2011 Rams offense looked lost and confused as quarterback Sam Bradford suffered through the dreaded “sophomore slump” last year. The Rams 3rd year QB should be a much more productive player this year as he’ll have a full offseason to work with a combination of both young and old offensive linemen to go along with a great running back (Jackson) and young wide receivers. As for their defense, they added a few veterans to their roster (Kendall Langford and Cortland Finnegan) to go along with a few key players returning to the Rams (James Laurinaitis and Chris Long).
Along with the players currently on their roster, St. Louis has 4 picks in the first 3 rounds of this years NFL Draft to go along with 2 additional first round picks in the next two drafts. If the Rams are able to draft Justin Blackmon with the 6th overall pick, St. Louis would have the capability to use the rest of their draft picks on additional offensive line help and upgrading their defense. Once again, I’m not saying the Rams will win the division or make the playoffs in 2012, what I’m saying is the Rams will show their a team on the raise and will become a serious contender (with the draft picks they acquired in the trade with the Redskins) in the future.
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