With the 2012 NFL season almost upon us it is worth considering who the top teams will be and why. Here are eight teams to watch this season:
Green Bay Packers
Last season Green Bay was assumed to be the team representing the NFC in the Super Bowl, an unexpected defeat by New York changed that expectation. The 2012 season will be another promising for Aaron Rogers and the Cheeseheads. Aaron Rogers is still, arguably, the best QB in the NFL and he has a supporting cast of skilled players that make plays. All of Green Bay’s valuable skill players will return to make this one of the most productive offences in the league. The Packers added some much needed help to their defensive front-seven over the off-season. Nick Perry (LB) was a first-round draft pick who specializes in chasing QBs. In the defensive secondary the Packers will do some shuffling to get Charles Woodson closer to the ball and the team will look to new stars at the corner positions.
The problem is Green Bay cannot afford to lose Rogers because last year’s backup Matt Flynn left the team making Graham Harrell, the third string QB, the new backup. Also, with all the shuffling on defense intended to shore up some weaknesses, the defense will have to gel fast if Green Bay will contend for another Super Bowl.
New England Patriots
The losing team in last year’s Super Bowl, the New England Patriots have a solid shot at returning to the Show in 2012. Like Green Bay, the Patriots’ QB Tom Brady has a host of receivers to choose from in the pass game. Don’t expect their run game to be great as the Patriots have had a high turnover on the O-line and changed running backs, but it will exist freeing the pass. New England has a relatively easy schedule compared to their conference peers. This will play well for a good but not great defense.
Bottom line is the Patriots always manage to be Super Bowl contenders. Week three will be a good test for the Pats when they face the Ravens on the road. Then the Broncos will be a must win game if they want to make a statement against Payton Manning.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers are probably the best defense in the league with all starters from last season returning to a defence that is nearly impossible to run against, or score on. The offense has added Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, plus rookie receiver A.J. Jenkins to make their passing game more potent and freeing up their offence. Alex Smith has something to prove this season if he wants to establish himself in the league.
If Smith is unable to generate a pass game the team doesn’t have a shot at the Super Bowl. A great test of things to come will be game one against the Packers. Green Bay is going to be great at getting to the QB, San Francisco’s o-line will also be tested along with Smith this season. That the offence will need the defence and vis-a-vis, means that as a team, the 49ers will have a tight bond come playoff time.
The Ravens’ offense will be powered by NFL stars Joe Flacco and Ray Rice which gives them a strong duo behind the ball. Rice was a Pro Bowler last year and Flacco showed up big in the AFC Championship game thus proving he is still the man for the job. On defense Ray Lewis will be asked to do more as the team has lost star outside linebacker Terrell Suggs for most of the season. However the Ravens are rich on talent and they picked up a potential replacement for Suggs in the draft with Courtney Upshaw. The team has a tough division but this will is nothing to new to the Ravens and should only serve to strengthen the team through the season.
The Ravens have two games against the Steelers this season and they are separated by a single week; these two games could determine the outcome of their season.
New Orleans Saints
The Bounty scandal of the off-season has cost the Saints a head coach but not their offensive talent. In 2011 Drew Brees broke the single season passing record set by Dan Mario and there is no reason to think Brees will fall off. In fact, the Saint’s passing game will likely be bolstered by a slightly better run game. The Saints went out and got Steve Spagnulo to run their defense. Spagnulo re-tooled the NY Giant’s defense before going to St. Louis as head coach. The Saints need a strong coach like Spagnulo to put the confidence and direction back in their defense.
Late last season the Saints defense broke down around playoff time but this year Spagnulo should be able to hold them together. Look for the Saints as the likely winner of the NFC South.
Everyone will be watching Payton Manning put himself back together as he takes over in Denver. The 4-time MVP winner will be vulnerable to a big hit but assuming that hit never happens, Manning will craft the offense towards perfection. Willis McGahee should not be counted out yet, he is aging but last season proved he still has lots left in him. The Bronco’s defense will be good this year and they move to the ball well.
The Broncos will have to watch their weakness at the defensive back position where they are not outstanding and likely weak against good passing teams. Fortunately they will not play many such teams and have a good shot of taking their division. One important game to watch is their game against Houston; it will be interesting to see what Payton can do against a former divisional rival.
New York Giants
The defending Super Bowl champs will be favored to win their division this year and more than a legitimate shot at returning to the Super Bowl. However they will not have an easy schedule. Likely the Cowboys and the Eagles will not put up a fight for the division with Michael Vick working through chest injury and the Cowboys who are generally average across the board. Important games to watch will be Week 6 against the 49ers and Week 12 against the Packers.
Eli Manning is a proven super star and he has the supporting cast to provide options. The Giants’ offensive line will have something to prove this year after a weaker year in 2011. Fortunately Manning is good at moving about in the pocket. Defensively the D-line has been as dominant on the field as they are on paper, giving the Giants a defence comparable to that of the 49ers. If they get a RB stepping up and making good yards the Giants will contend for another Super Bowl.
The Texans are an often overlooked gem in the AFC because they are young, but they are also pretty good. This is especially so on the defense which was the second rated defense last year, creating 33.5 sacks. With two good receivers in Johnson and Foster, and a decent running game, the Texans can score points to compliment their defense. Interestingly this is one of the few successful teams in the league right now whose strength is run first, pass second.
In the first two months of the regular season Houston will play Green Bay, Baltimore and Denver. These games will indicate how well the Texans are likely to do against better teams in the post season because they will likely breeze into a division win.