For the most part, the NFL can be a pretty tricky league to try to figure out. Widespread parity and a competitive fiscal system instituted to subsidize the needy and underperforming tends to make for a product that can be unpredictable.
But, then again, a year ago the AFC playoff picture was almost identical to what we saw in 2011, save for the upstart Colts crashing the party. And this season, particularly in that conference again, I have a feeling it's more of the same. I just don't see too many new, true challengers arising despite some of the hype surrounding the Chiefs and Dolphins, for instance (they'll be featured here). In the NFC, however, I suspect things will be a little more wide open.
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Many of the rising star quarterbacks -- particularly the hyper-mobile ones -- are in the NFC and there isn't the same old guard of teams like New England, Baltimore and Houston with a stern grip on their respective divisions. So, with that in mind, here are three teams I believe will defy expectations, for better or worse:
St. Louis Rams: They don't get much love or attention and I get the sense most people think this is the same sad-sack franchise that was limping around the bottom of the standings for years before Jeff Fisher and Les Snead arrived. Well, it isn't, and, coming off a strong offseason and a draft I continue to rave about, this team is primed to make moves. Of course, they're overshadowed by the Seahawks and 49ers -- sexy Super Bowl picks -- and I get all of that. But we've seen three teams from one division reach the postseason before, and I would not be surprised at all to see three teams come from the West this year.
The defense is already legit, and will only get more brawny with another year of Fisher's mentoring. They have playmakers over there, they are well-equipped to deal with the read-option schemes they see, and they will turn teams over and get after the quarterback. The issues are on offense -- pass protection, developing quarterback Sam Bradford, all that stuff. But it says here that with some continuity in the staff and a revamped offensive line and with rookie receiver Tavon Austin in the fold, Bradford will take a major lead this season and begin to fulfill his first-overall promise. And if he does, look out for the Rams.
New Orleans Saints: The Bountygate debacle is over, finally, and no longer hanging over them (and excuse me if I am still completely hazy about what exactly allegedly went on there and why this franchise deserved the unprecedented penalties). That alone is a huge lift. Sean Payton is back, and thus standards will be raised and all of the uncertainty and distractions from 2012 are behind them (who will be suspended? Can Vilma play this week? What latest appeal was filed? Remember all of that crap?)
Payton's presence alone will get Drew Brees back to his MVP form and away from the interception-happy ways that helped doom New Orleans. Payton is the best playcaller in the game, and this team will be a monster on offense. And losing their left tackle won't be a big deal; Brees is so good and so quick getting rid of the ball that he can bolster the line.
The issues in this case are on defense, where the team was historically bad a year ago. Mere continuity will help here -- no more position coaches shuffling to head coach -- and while I am not a huge Rob Ryan guy, there is nowhere to go but up for this group. They'll manufacture a pass rush and scheme a few things up and this team is poised to be a factor again. Remember, they have Brees and Payton extended, long-term, which is massive.
Dallas Cowboys: In general, I'm skeptical of any Cowboys hype. I don't buy the chemistry there, wonder about leadership and a winning culture and don't think they've found the blueprint for long-term success. But teams pop up from time to time and while I can't see Dallas having any deep playoff run -- postseason hoopla will continue to elude them -- they have the talent and the schedule to make a little noise. They're due to be something besides .500, and I say they just might end up topping the NFC East.
If they can take care of business against the AFC West and NFC North -- and by and large I believe they will -- then Dallas will be poised to have their final two games, against Washington and Philadelphia, matter. Tony Romo got paid like a big boy quarterback, and while I am sure there will still be a crippling turnover or two along the way, I'm looking for the re-emergence of Miles Austin to give the attack a jolt and the return of linebacker Sean Lee will be huge, too. So while I'm not projecting huge things for this outfit, I do believe they will be better than many expect.
Miami Dolphins: No team has been flashier since the start of free agency in March, loading up on free agents, throwing cash around and then making a bold trade up to the third overall pick in draft to nab Dion Jordan. I'm just not sure how much better they're going to be. Questions remain at left tackle and in the secondary and in the running game, to name a few. Suddenly there is a buzz about this being a team on the rise and ready to enter the playoff equation.
I just don't see it right now.
Usually, when you bring in this much outside talent, it either doesn't take at all, or it takes more than a year to click. We'll see how Ryan Tannehill progresses in his second season as their quarterback and if there is a leadership void with guys like Karlos Dansby no longer around. I still don't see them being any real threat to the Patriots in the AFC East, and with teams like the Colts and Bengals still likely in the wild card scene, I don't see Miami unseating anyone being much more than an 8-8 team at best. Not sure there is enough bite on defense surrounding Cameron Wake, and not sure this team will be able to grind out wins down the stretch.
Minnesota Vikings: No one saw their run to the playoffs coming last season, but the larger the sample size the more difficult it is to sustain winning ways. Even with another MVP season from Adrian Peterson, who will only get better, it won't be enough to see this group back into the postseason in the very competitive NFC. Christian Ponder regressed, badly, through last season after a strong start, and losing Percy Harvin will hurt an already limited offense. GM Rick Spielman was heralded by some for his draft, but I thought he gave up way too much to trade back into the first round to take receiver Cordarelle Patterson, who might never pick up the pro game and likely could have been had in the second round. Losing Antoine Winfield is a big blow to that locker room, and that situation should have been handled much more adroitly. If you don't have a quarterback and you can't spread the field, you are in trouble in this era of football. And Matt Cassel as the back-up quarterback is a problem in and of itself.
Kansas City Chiefs: Every year it seems Kansas City is the hot pick to be that team that makes a huge leap up and shocks the league and finally makes good on all its talent. And every year I remain very skeptical and I am still decidedly in that camp. The arrival of Andy Reid is huge and should reap rewards over time, but I don't see that transition being entirely seamless and I don't see a major jump up in Year 1.
Alex Smith, to me, is not a dynamic quarterback or someone you can build your team around. And after giving up too much to land him from the 49ers, the pressure is on him and Reid to be very good right away. Yes, he has some weapons, and the offensive line should be better, but the Chiefs didn't really want Branden Albert at left tackle and that's where he is.
Reid, you would think, would feature running back Jamaal Charles more, even with his pass-happy tendencies, and there are playmakers on defense. So, sure, this team won't be the debacle it was a year ago, but I'm still not sure they won't continue to lose some games they should win and I anticipate the gains are more of a move to .500 than a surge to the postseason.
An easy early schedule will raise expectations even more, but I believe they will struggle after a late bye, facing Denver twice late, with three road division games in the final seven weeks as well as a trip to Washington. I don't think defenses will be fearing Smith, even with Reid behind him. I smell 8-8, which would actually be the worse case for the Chiefs, as they would then owe San Francisco another second-round pick for Smith, rather than a third.