As meaningless preseason games wind down and teams start the unenviable process of cutting their rosters down to 53, it is becoming more and more evident that NFL football is on the horizon. The season is fast approaching, and the countless hours of speculation and projection will finally come to a halt once teams first step onto the field next week.
The NFL is chock-full of league-wide parity, which makes it all the more compelling. Seasons can turn in the blink of an eye based on injuries, underperforming stars, or breakout contributors. A single tipped ball can mean the difference between a playoff berth and going home empty-handed.
It’s no secret that the NFL is perhaps the most unpredictable of our four major sports; the 49ers went 6-10 in 2010, but skyrocketed to 13-3 with the same quarterback that had been the butt of “draft bust” jokes throughout his career, Alex Smith. Meanwhile, the Colts went from 10-6 division champions in 2010 to 2-14 thanks to a season in which they were struck by the injury bug, most notably to their franchise leader, Peyton Manning.
We know certain teams will emerge from the dregs of the league to clinch unexpected playoff berths, so who will they be in 2012?
Kansas City Chiefs
Although the Chiefs finished at 7-9 last season—just one game off the pace of the AFC South champion Denver Broncos—Kansas City will have a legitimate shot to improve mightily and contend for the division this season. The Chiefs will get a number of players back from injury this year after a 2011 season in which they were bit badly by the injury bug.
Quarterback Matt Cassel played just nine games last season, while key players Eric Berry and Tony Moeaki missed huge chunks of the year with torn ACLs. Getting these players back will be huge boosts to a team that wasn’t too far off to begin with.
Most notably, the Chiefs have lead back Jamaal Charles at full strength this season after a lost year in which he tore his ACL in Week 2. Charles is a dynamic back who can make defensive players miss and change games with his big-play ability.
The team also added Peyton Hillis, who will take the pressure off Charles with his pounding running style and ability to catch passes out of the backfield.
While the Chiefs’ prospects at least partially depend on Manning’s health for division foe Denver, the Chiefs appear poised to take a big step forward this upcoming season.
The Panthers are a popular pick to improve drastically this season after Cam Newton set the league on fire as a rookie last year. While Newton will be hard pressed to repeat his spectacular 2011 numbers, the franchise appears to be moving in the right direction after a 6-10 season which provided reason for optimism.
The duo of Newton and Steve Smith garners most of the attention for the Panthers, but the defense should be vastly improved this season. Perennial Pro Bowler Jon Beason will return after an Achilles injury limited him to just one game last season, and the team drafted Luke Kuechly in the first round to beef up a linebacking core that should lead the defense.
The team also added free safety Haruki Nakamura, who was buried as a special teamer in Baltimore but will have a chance to perform for a defense that could use some stability in the secondary.
Mike Tolbert was also brough in from the Chargers to add to an already deep offensive backfield. Tolbert will give Newton a nice safety outlet in the passing game and brings more experience to a young offensive squad.
An extra year of experience will do the Panthers well, and this hungry team will be ready to pounce if NFC North rivals New Orleans or Atlanta falter.
After going 9-7 in 2011, it’d be a stretch to call the Titans an under-the-radar team as this season begins. However, the team has a great opportunity to grow offensively under the leadership of second-year pro Jake Locker.
After starting Matthew Hasselbeck throughout last season, the Tennessee offense will be given the opportunity to open itself up with the more dynamic Locker under center. Locker has the ability to be mobile as a dual threat quarterback and has some new weapons to play with this season.
Rookie Kendall Wright is expected to perform well in the early going while replacing suspended lead wideout Kenny Britt, while tight end Jared Cook is an athletic talent who showed his pass-catching potential towards the end of last season.
The Titans’ defense should also be much improved under the leadership of Colin McCarthy, perhaps the best middle linebacker you’ve never heard of. Jason McCourty also established himself as a lockdown corner last season opposite Alterraun Verner, and the team added a solid pass rusher in Kamerion Wimbley in the offseason, who will wreak havoc in opposing backfields.
In a relatively weak conference and division, there’s no reason the Titans shouldn’t take a step forward and contend for at least a playoff spot.