Fans of the National Football League are in for quite a year in 2012. Both the divisional and wild card races will be hotly contested in each league.
The NFC wild card race in particular will conceivably include two teams from each division.
In the East, the Giants, Eagles and Cowboys are all playoff-worthy. The Seahawks and Cardinals are both capable of coming out of the West. Atlanta will surely qualify out of the South, but Carolina is rising quickly under the sensational Cam Newton and Tampa Bay is set to re-create its 2010 campaign.
Finally, the NFC North will be a veritable bloodbath between the Packers, Lions and revamped Bears.
If the Lions and Falcons filled the two wild card slots last season, which teams will qualify in 2012?
This might be the most challenging prediction I’ve attempted to make in quite some time.
The Eagles drafted incredibly well on the defensive side of the ball—adding to an already all-star (worthy) offensive roster—and are set to further their four-consecutive-win success at the end of 2011.
Dallas also chose a couple defensive studs in Morris Claiborne and Tyrone Crawford. Signing top free-agent CB Brandon Carr further affords coordinator Rob Ryan the personell he needs to complement a quality Cowboys offense.
Well, and we certainly cannot forget the Super Bowl champion Giants out of the East…
In the West, the Seahawks added free-agent quarterback Matt Flynn on offense, while acquiring pass rushers to a defense that already features a dominant secondary. The Cardinals, meanwhile, roll out a potentially great passing offense and up-and-coming defense that was ferocious down the stretch.
The Falcons are in position to earn a wild card spot after a 10-6 campaign in 2011. The Panthers and Buccaneers were sub-.500 teams last year, but are immensely talented on both sides of the ball to compete for the postseason in 2012. And, in case the Saints are adversely affected by the Bountygate scandal, they’re at the very least the best wild card team in the conference.
After the NFC North Lions posted a 10-6 campaign themselves, it reinforced its O-line with Riley Reiff and bolstered its horrid secondary with CB Dwight Bentley out of Louisiana-Lafayette. The Lion’s defense is still an issue, but 5,000-yard QB Matthew Stafford is locked and loaded to lead a dynamic offense once again.
The Bears reunited Jay Cuter with Brandon Marshall. If that tandem rejuvenates its former connection in Denver and Matt Forte comes to an amicable contract agreement, this offense will fully complement an always formidable defense.
Again, like the Saints, if the Packers somehow miraculously regress after losing just one game last season, they’ll be in the wild-card mix as well.
Now after recapping each teams’ strengths and prospects for postseason play via the wild card, who will actually advance in 2012?
Since I don’t see the Lions regressing this year, they’re in. They also have the 10th-easiest schedule.
I do see the Giants taking a step back with the underrated losses of Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs. They’ll also suffer from a Super Bowl hangover and increasingly more competitive NFC East. Speaking of which, the Cowboys, with their impressive overhaul on defense, will be close in 2012, but will falter late in the season against Pittsburgh and New Orleans.
That renders the G-Men and Big Blue out of the race and Eagles as division winners.
Let’s also eliminate the Panthers, Bucs and Cardinals. They’ll produce markedly improved campaigns, but will fall short.
That leaves us with the Bears, Seahawks and wild-card Falcons of last season for the final WC slot for this season.
Chicago will lose the final two games of the regular season on the road against Arizona and Detroit. Better luck next year.
The Falcons could very easily begin the season at 1-3 (after playing the AFC West and Carolina Panthers) and never fully recover. This slow slow start will doom them at the end of the day.
So, joining the Lions as the second of two wild card teams is the Seattle Seahawks.
The ‘Hawks will enter in the upper echelons of NFL defenses with an awesome secondary and a front seven that gets after the quarterback. It is true that their own QB situation is a bit tenuous with Flynn’s limited experience and less than stellar performance in offseason camps thus far.
Even so, the offense has weapons across the board to be sufficiently effective next to an outstanding defense and under-appreciated coaching staff. Seattle’s 12th-Man home field advantage cannot be oversimplified either.
The Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks—your two NFC wild card teams in 2012.