In the days immediately following last year’s Super Bowl, there was widespread panic over a pending NFL work stoppage and a lost 2011 season. Draft pundits were insisting that Cam Newton’s game didn’t translate to the next level, and Peyton Manning was set to become the wealthiest quarterback in the league with an enormous long-term contract extension. The Jets were the Kings of New York, the Bucs and Rams were everybody’s hot, young teams to watch, and no one in America knew of Victor Cruz’s exemplary salsa dancing skills.
Now, “Peyton or Eli?” is a debate that won’t get you laughed out of a dinner party, “Coughlin or Parcells?” is an argument that won’t get you tossed out of a New York sports bar, and “Gisele or Yoko?” is a seemingly well-constructed inquiry.
As we look ahead to the 2012 season, here’s how I view the pecking order of the NFL’s 32 teams:
The Power Brokers
New York Giants: Sports betting website BovadaLV released its 2012 Super Bowl odds on Monday, mere hours after Eli Manning led the Giants to their second Super Bowl in five seasons, and eight teams were listed above Big Blue as favorites. Whatever.
Yes, the Giants have some player personnel decisions to make this offseason — specifically Osi Umenyiora, Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs. And sure, they have an incredibly difficult schedule, loaded with games against the Saints, Packers, Ravens and Steelers.
But they’re the champs, and they’re led by Eli “Easy E” Manning.
Green Bay Packers: The Packers went 15-1 in the regular season, only to fall to the Giants at home in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Aaron Rodgers, the league MVP, comes back in 2012 with most of the team’s key parts locked up. Expect some sort of purge of high-priced veteran talent (Donald Driver? Chad Clifton?), as that’s the Ted Thompson way.
Then expect an angry and motivated Packers squad to come out guns blazing next season.
New Orleans Saints: Had the Saints beaten a bad Rams or Bucs team earlier in the season, they would have had homefield versus the 49ers, and the outcome of the rest of the 2011 postseason could have been drastically different. Alas, they didn’t.
Mark Ingram is back and healthy next season, but both Marques Colston and Carl Nicks could leave via free agency (if one isn’t given the franchise tag).
Drew Brees happens to be a free agent, too, but he’s not going anywhere.
Worth noting: No team from the Super Bowl host city has ever won the game and the combined records of the last four Super Bowl host city teams (’08 Bucs, ’09 Dolphins, 2010 Cowboys, 2011 Colts) is 18-46.
San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers won’t be catching anybody by surprise next year and that’s fine.
They’re good enough to beat you whether you respect them or not. That front seven — all of whom appear to be under contract next season — is without a doubt the best group in the league. Alex Smith and Carlos Rogers need to be re-signed (or not re-signed), and playmakers at receiver need to be added.
But the Niners are real contenders in 2012.
Baltimore Ravens: Ray Rice, Joe Flacco and Ben Grubbs are technically free agents, but I’d be surprised if any of the three players ended up playing elsewhere next season.
When asked if he’d be playing in the Pro Bowl next year, Ray Lewis said, "no." Not because he wouldn’t be playing at that level at his age (39), but because there will be no Pro Bowl trips for any Ravens next year — they’ll be going to the Super Bowl.
Baltimore was just a few unfortunate plays away from representing the AFC in the Super Bowl in 2011. They’ll be right back in the thick of things in 2012.
New England Patriots: In the wake of another Sunday’s Super Bowl loss, it’s easy to forget just what a fine coaching job Bill Belichick did with his Patriots in 2012.
Back in August, Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth were considered the biggest additions to the Patriots roster. Instead, guys like Sterling Moore, Julian Edelman, Mark Anderson and Brandon Spikes played leading roles in New England’s AFC Championship season.
Assuming Rob Gronkowski’s ankle heals and the Patriots bring back the core of their squad, they’ll be in the mix come next January, too.
Detroit Lions: Matt Stafford threw for 5,000 yards and took the Lions to their first playoff appearance since 1999 last season. Stafford, Calvin Johnson and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh have some postseason experience under their belts, and running backs Mikel LeShoure and Jahvid Best return to the lineup after season-ending injuries a year ago.
Everyone was excited about the Lions heading into 2011. Expect that and a whole lot more in 2012.
Houston Texans: Outside of the Peyton Manning-Colts contract situation, Mario Williams’ future with the Texans is the most fascinating storyline of the 2012 offseason.
The Texans went to the divisional round of the playoffs without a healthy Williams in 2011; is the former top pick overall worthy of being franchised?
The Houston Texans will have a healthy Matt Schaub leading them next season and the confidence of knowing they’ve been there before in the playoffs in 2012. Tough not to love Gary Kubiak’s boys out of the AFC South next season.
Carolina Panthers: The Cam Newton Express will have plenty of bandwagon riders jump heading into next season and rightfully so.
Just about everybody returns to the Panthers offense, while the defense gets a healthy Jon Beason back in the lineup and a Top 10 draft pick likely joining the front seven.
Newton was making the rounds at the Super Bowl, wisely saying he wasn’t satisfied with a 6-10 campaign and that he’d work hard this offseason on protecting the ball better.
Carolina could be very dangerous with a full offseason to train and prepare.
Philadelphia Eagles: The “Dream Team” took its hits during the 2011 season, but it ended the season with four straight wins and a lot of momentum heading into the offseason. DeSean Jackson likely won’t be back, and there are 11 other free agents to be decided on, but for the most part, the Eagles are trending upwards.
If the linebackers can improve and Philly can find a way to score in the red zone, Philadelphia’s a very scary team heading into next season.
Arizona Cardinals: Though completely ignored by the national media in the season’s second half, the Cardinals finished the season with wins in five of their last six games.
The defense — headed up by former Dick LeBeau assistant Ray Horton — finished the year ranked in the top half of the league with young studs Daryl Washington, Patrick Peterson and O’Brien Schofield playing major roles.
Defensive end Calais Campbell is a free agent and should be re-signed. Peyton Manning’s been linked to a lot of teams the past few weeks; Arizona makes a whole lot of sense.
Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals got to the playoffs with a rookie quarterback starting 16 games and a young defense.
I’m interested to see what Mike Brown does with running back Cedric Benson and No. 2 wideout, Jerome Simpson, who are both free agents.
With two first-round picks and a third-place schedule next year, Cincinnati could take a major leap in 2012.
Tennessee Titans: The Titans had a strong season in 2011 despite a non-existent pass rush and a spotty running attack.
Mike Muchak’s young team has bought into his philosophy. There’s a lot of good talent on the roster, and there’s plenty of reason for optimism with Jake Locker serving as the future face of the franchise. If Tennessee isn’t in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt come Week 17 next year, I’ll be very surprised.
Draft a pass rusher, Titans. Draft a pass rusher!
At the Crossroads
Denver Broncos: Of the eight teams that qualified for the divisional round of the 2011 playoffs, the Broncos are the only team that fans and pundits won’t be hot on heading into 2012.
The Tim Tebow Experiment — and yes, I still consider this an experiment — will be fascinating to watch unfold next season. With a full offseason to practice, learn an offense, and continue working on his throwing motion — perhaps Tebow becomes an even greater winner than he was in ’11.
Or, teams adapt to his shortcomings and exploit his flaws.
New York Jets: There are lots of offseason decisions to be made in Jetsville. I’m most interested in free agents Sione Pouha and Plaxico Burress.
But all eyes will be on the quarterback. Mark Sanchez took a notable step backwards in 2011.
With their franchise quarterback in his contract year, this is going to be a fascinating next 12 months for the future of the Jets.
Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys missed the playoffs for the second straight season in 2011, going 0-4 against the Eagles and Giants. The ‘Boys are at a crossroads, for sure, and if they fail to improve in 2012 — an all-out house cleaning could be in order.
Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons went to the playoffs for the third time in four years, but failed to win a playoff game, yet again.
Curtis Lofton, John Abraham and Brent Grimes are free agents, while the Saints, Panthers and Bucs are expected to improve in 2012.
Matt Ryan and Mike Smith have been given free passes by the media for a few years now. It’s time they win a playoff game.
San Diego Chargers: After starting the year 4-1, the Chargers failed to make the playoffs for the second straight season. Norv Turner and A.J. Smith are back, but you’ve got to think they’ll have targets on their backs if the Bolts don’t come out and play strong football next season.
Mike Tolbert is a free agent who should be re-signed.
Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks finished strong, but have a few decisions to make heading into the 2012 season.
First and foremost, is Tarvaris Jackson the long-term answer at quarterback, or do the ‘Hawks reach for a quarterback in the first round of the draft?
Second, do they empty their pockets and bring back Marshawn Lynch, their Pro Bowl running back from a year ago?
Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers finished with the third best record in the AFC in 2011 but showed their age.
James Farrior, Troy Polamalu and Hines Ward are clearly not the players they once were, the offensive line was a mess, and injuries to Ben Roethlisberger, Casey Hampton and Rashard Mendenhall hampered the team down the stretch.
The Steelers are only getting older, and outside of a few positions (wide receiver, linebacker), it’s about time to start looking to refresh and upgrade the depth chart across the board.
Todd Haley is an interesting hire as the new offensive coordinator, and we’ll see how he gels with Big Ben.
Indianapolis Colts: Whether Peyton’s back or not (I don’t see him ever wearing a Colts jersey again), there are so many other players that are hitting the free agent market that I just can’t see the Colts being close to what they were pre-2011 anytime soon.
Andrew Luck ensures the quarterback position will be in good hands, and I love the Chuck Pagano-Bruce Arians combo platter, but there’s a long climb ahead for Indy over the next couple of years.
Minnesota Vikings: The Vikes had an awful 2011 campaign, capped off with a devastating Adrian Peterson season-ending injury in late December.
Worst of all, Christian Ponder regressed down the stretch, losing snaps to Joe Webb in crunch time of the team’s final games.
The defense has holes all over it, and the offense stumbled out of the gates and never recovered. They’ll have the third overall pick, but there’s not much reason for optimism in 2012.
Chicago Bears: The Bears were sitting pretty at 7-3 and atop the NFC wild card hunt when Jay Cutler went down with a season-ending injury in Week 11.
They promptly lost five straight games and were eliminated from the postseason chase. Mike Martz is gone, Jerry Angelo is gone, and Matt Forte could be gone, too.
The defense is getting older, the offensive line is bad, and the Lions and Packers are only getting better.
I’ve been wrong plenty of times before, but I think there’s a rocky road ahead in Chicago.
New Blood, New Beginnings
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Seemingly every year, whether it be Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco (2011), Pete Carroll in Seattle (2010), or Rex Ryan in New York (2009) — first-year coaches have come in, shaken up the culture of a franchise and led them back to relevance.
New Bucs coach Greg Schiano is a complete 180 degree change from Raheem Morris. He has the youngest team in the league, but I’d expect an improvement in 2012.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Mike Mularkey replaces Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville and there’s great hope he’ll be able to turn Blaine Gabbert into the Top 10 quarterback he wasn’t in 2011.
Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs players love Romeo Crennel, but now he’ll have to deliver. Is Matt Cassel the QB of the future or is Kyle Orton? What do the Chiefs do with talented cornerback Brandon Carr? The AFC West will be wide open—it always is— and Kansas City has as good a chance of stealing it as its four division rivals.
St. Louis Rams: I wasn’t doing the same flips and jumping jacks over the Jeff Fisher hire as some of my fellow NFL media brethren, but compared to some of the alternatives, it’s a homerun.
The Rams still need a general manager and a gameplan for their draft. Brandon Lloyd is a free agent, too.
Steven Jackson has run for 1,000 yards in seven straight seasons. In those seven years, the Rams went a combined 31-81. He deserves better.
Oakland Raiders: A new general manager, a head coaching staff and a new era in Oakland begins in 2012. With a defense-first head coach in Dennis Allen and the best special teams in the league, the Raiders hope to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
Darren McFadden staying healthy for a full season would obviously help. Michael Bush is a free agent this offseason.
Miami Dolphins: Joe Philbin takes over in Miami and with the eighth or ninth pick in the NFL Draft, all eyes will be on the quarterback position.
Then again, that can be resolved in March if Philbin brings Matt Flynn, his backup quarterback in Green Bay, in during free agency.
Put Up or Shut Up Time
Buffalo Bills: Chan Gailey enters his third season as head coach of the Bills, and there will be expectations to meet.
After giving Ryan Fitzpatrick franchise money in Week 7, the Bills quarterback finished the season with two wins in the team’s final nine games. Buffalo gets a healthy Kyle Williams back and has the 10th pick in April’s draft.
They should go defense, defense and some more defense this offseason. Stevie Johnson’s a free agent, too.
Washington Redskins: Mike Shanahan, like Gailey in Buffalo, is entering his third year with the Redskins, and the fans are getting restless.
Though Rex Grossman is a serviceable backup quarterback, he’s not a franchise guy. Matt Flynn, RGIII, or even Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill are all considerable options to be the next franchise guy in D.C.
Safety LaRon Landry is a free agent.
Cleveland Browns: Mike Holmgren came in two years ago and there was hope for a football resurgence in Cleveland. Alas, it’s been the same old same old.
In two seasons with Holmgren running the show, the Browns have missed the playoffs under both Eric Mangini and Pat Shurmur.
Colt McCoy’s likely not the long-term answer at quarterback and there aren’t any skill players that you’d draft on a fantasy team on the roster. Brad Childress joins the staff, and that’s supposed to be a reason for optimism. I’m skeptical.
Five Questions for the Next Month
1. What happens to Peyton Manning?
2. Which draft pundit is going to push the very wrong “Robert Griffin III is the better NFL prospect than Andrew Luck” angle first?
3. Who will the Rams hire as their new general manager, and what will he do with the team’s second overall pick?
4. Where does Matt Flynn end up in free agency?
5. What do the Jets do to repair the Sanchez-Holmes mess?
Five Free Agents Who’ll Get More Money Than You Might Expect
1. Carl Nicks, G, New Orleans
2. Ben Grubbs, G, Baltimore
3. Curtis Lofton, LB, Atlanta
4. Paul Soliai, DT, Miami
5. Sione Pouha, DT, New York Jets
Way, Way, Way, Way Too Early Super Bowl XLVII Prediction