The Packers, Patriots and 49ers are considered the biggest favorites to win their respective divisions entering 2012. And why not? All three won their divisions by five games last season and have lost very little in the offseason.
But keep an eye on three teams behind them, maybe not even that far, in those divisions. The Bears, Bills and Seahawks are ready to make a move this season. As PFW handicapping sage Mike Wilkening recently wrote, at least in the case of the Bears and Bills, Vegas is taking notice, too.
With rumors flying Friday morning that the Bears and RB Matt Forté are nearing a contract extension, it would remove a big question mark from the table. Remember, before Forté and QB Jay Cutler went down last season, this was a very dangerous team, one many thought capable of beating the Packers head up. The Bears were 7-3 at that point, having thumped the Falcons and Lions at home by a combined 42 points.
There are a few positions to be uneasy about for the Bears heading into this season. The offensive line still faces questions despite a system that should be more favorable and less demanding in terms of pass blocking. Brandon Marshall should be a star in Chicago, but there is a lack of explosion with the rest of the pass catchers; really, none scare you if Alshon Jeffery doesn’t make an impact right away. Safety, which has been a revolving door, also needs to be settled, and the DT crop looks quite thin.
Are they good enough to beat the Packers? To me, that’s not even the question yet. It’s whether the Bears can get ahead of the Lions. Right now, the pressure is on in Detroit. They have a loaded, talented team but one with some worries, and the Bears showed in 2011 they can hang quite well with them.
The schedule sets up for some pretty good drama: The Bears are home after two straight road games and their bye to face the Lions in Week Seven and don’t get them again until Week 17 in Detroit. Four of the final six games for the Bears are in the NFC North, so they’ll have to stay healthy and leave plenty in reserves. For an older team, it’s a worry, but the Bears have enough to have one more big season with this veteran corps on defense.
The pressure is building steadily for the Bills, who made splashes in free agency and scored some prêt-à-porter players near the top of their draft class — CB Stephon Gilmore, OLT Cordy Glenn and perhaps WR T.J. Graham are ready to contribute. Have they closed the ground with the Patriots after signing DEs Mario Williams and Mark Anderson (he of the Patriots last season) and beating them once in dramatic fashion in 2011? Maybe not. The Patriots are still loaded, coming off a close loss in the Super Bowl and having reloaded on defense.
But that doesn’t mean the Bills can’t make a run in the AFC, where, frankly, they might be able to get by with Ryan Fitzpatrick as their quarterback. There’s no light treading with this one: He was magnificent in the first seven games last season, fairly miserable the final nine. Not shockingly, the Bills’ record followed suit with a 5-2 start followed by a 1-8 finish.
Perhaps noted QB coach David Lee can help. By the end of the season, the cerebral Fitzpatrick’s mechanics were a hot mess. Cleaning those up will be paramount for the Bills to take the next step. Fitzpatrick isn’t blessed with an abundance of skill-position talent around him, but there’s enough there to score points consistently
This season, interestingly, the schedule softens quite a bit after a tricky start. They face four games against 2011 division winners (49ers, Texans and twice vs. Patriots) in the first nine games, but after that follows mostly non-playoff teams and four of their five December games are at home. That alone should help flip the hot-start, cold-finish pattern of a year ago.
Naturally, that’s if they stay healthy. Last season was devastating on the injury front, losing key cogs such as RB Fred Jackson, DT Kyle Williams and criminally underrated C Eric Wood, plus others, and the Bills’ lack of quality depth showed through. But that has been built up some, especially on defense, and a Williams-Williams-Anderson-Marcel Dareus line should be a big help to a pass rush that was scalding one game (10 sacks vs. the John Beck-led Redskins, congrats on that) and anemic (19 sacks) in the other 15 games.
The Seahawks are fascinating. They have a young, ballhawking defense, some real talent at receiver and a confident head coach in Pete Carroll with a chip on his shoulder. All they need now is to settle on a quarterback. It should be easy, right? They signed Matt Flynn in the offseason, gave him $10 million guaranteed. That should be our sign he’s the starter. But an interesting thing is happening here, with Tarvaris Jackson getting the first-team reps to start training camp and white-hot (and intriguing) rookie Russell Wilson throwing bolts and determined to win the job from Day One.
Before the Seahawks pick a starter, it’s tough to forecast their season. Flynn is a heady leader who has medium arm strength and good touch. He picks his spots well and can throw the fade beautifully. But there’s something about Wilson that makes you think Carroll just might be too smitten not to play the kid at some point. It might take an injury. The Seahawks might feel that, all things being equal, they’ll go with Flynn off the bat. But don’t rule out a training-camp shocker or a midseason bullpen call. Wilson will start in the NFL at some point, and it could be early on.
Past that, there’s a lot to like. The secondary featured three Pro Bowl players and a fourth — CB Richard Sherman — who deserved to make it. The defensive line will be bolstered by the additions of Jason Jones inside and situational pass rusher Bruce Irvin. Re-signing DT Red Bryant at value was a coup. DE Chris Clemons, assuming he’s cool with his contract and reports on time, is one of the NFL’s most underrated players.
The linebackers need a little sorting out, but there is talent there with emerging players K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner and re-established performer Leroy Hill. Coordinator Gus Bradley is a rising star in coaching circles and could emerge as a head-coaching candidate if he makes this defense a top-five unit this season. It very well could happen.
The offensive line fell apart down the stretch, but there is a lot of ability up front, assuming injuries don’t decimate the group again. The run game appears self-sustaining if a backup to Marshawn Lynch arises. They have a lot of big, talented pass catchers at receiver and tight end. The Seahawks should be much better on third downs than they were a year ago, both on offense (ranked 24th) and defense (23rd in sacks). They’d do themselves big favors by cutting back on penalties; accomplish that, and we are talking about a double-digit win team.
All three clubs — the Bears, Bills and Seahawks — have that potential. They could go from missing the playoffs a year ago to winning 10 or more games this season. Winning their divisions would be nice, sure, but a tall order. Even if they don’t surpass the Packers, Patriots and 49ers in the victory column, there is plenty of reason to think they could join those teams as postseason entrants this season.