The 2012 NFL season is just right around the corner, which means that winter is over for a lot of bettors. The pigskin is back, people, and there’s no better way to kick-off the year than engaging in the usual pre-season talk on who’s going to be the contend for the Lombardi trophy and who’s going to contend for the first overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.
To be fair, there are probably at least six or seven teams that have a legitimate shot at winning the Super Bowl and if there’s anything that past seasons have told us, you don’t have to be dominant during the regular season to be considered as the favorites to win it all. The past two years, in fact, featured two teams – the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants – that backed their way into the playoffs, peaked at the right time, and went all the way to winning that precious hardware.
But since we’re engaging in an exercise in foresight, what we have going for us is nothing more than a look at who has the best chance to win come January and February with the rankings not reflecting the order of odds laid out for the teams to win the Big One. So without further ado, buckle up, get your NFL subscriptions ready, and bring out the disposable income. We’re bringing out a two-part installment of our pre-season power rankings by first ranking the Top 16 teams heading into the 2012 season.
Football is back, baby!
(1) New England Patriots (Odds To Win Super Bowl: 9/2)
Tom Brady and co. came within a dropped Wes Welker catch to win Super Bowl 46 so you can expect these guys to carry over motivation from that heartbreaking loss to the New York Giants into this year. Most of the key players return for another run at the title and they’ve shored up a defensive unit that gave up yards last year like they were free coupons at the mall. Add that with growing uncertainty from the other AFC contenders and the Pats road to New Orleans seem to be as paved as any team in the conference.
(2) Green Bay Packers (OTWSB: 6/1)
The Packers were the unquestioned best team in the league last year, but like we said earlier, the name of the game is all about peaking at the right time. They did it two years ago when they won Super Bowl 45 and the New York Giants did it to them last year. Aaron Rodgers is back as the captain of the ship and he’s got all his offensive toys back with him. The addition of Cedric Benson on the backfield should be an upgrade over their back committee last year and their defense, should be better given the number of playmakers they have on that side.
(3) San Francisco 49ers (OTWSB: 8/1)
Year 2 of the Harbaugh era kicks off with enormous expectations from a team that came within miffed special teams last year from making the Super Bowl. The entire starting offensive unit is back and Alex Smith gets a couple of new receivers to throw to in Mario Manningham and Randy Moss. The question is how much loose reign Harbaugh will give to his quarterback. The defense is expected to be dominant again, anchored by defensive ends Justin Smith and linebackers Patrick Willis and Alden Smith.
(4) New York Giants (OTWSB: 20/1)
We’re giving some love to the defending champs because nobody else seems to be doing so. Not when that other team in New York has been grabbing all the headlines. But Big Blue isn’t complaining. They don’t mind letting the Jets become the circus in New York; they’d much rather become the team that plays deeper in the post season. Eli Manning hasn’t received the respect he deserves despite winning two titles in the past five years, but that’s all right. Over here, we know a champ when we see one, and last we checked, it was the Giants that last raised the Lombardi trophy in the air.
(5) Houston Texans ( OTWSB: 12/1)
Losing Mario Williams was a big blow to one of the most unexpectedly great defensive teams last year, but if defensive coordinator Wade Philips is right about J.J. Watt, then they shouldn’t feel the sting of losing Williams to the Buffalo Bills that much. There’s still some QB questions in there, but the Texans do possess without question the best back duo in the league in Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Plus, they have maulers in the offensive line and let’s not forget about that dude named Andre Johnson. Houston’s also in a pretty subpar division so unless something catastrophic happens, they should repeat as AFC South winners pretty easily.
(6) Philadelphia Eagles (OTWSB: 10/1)
All that Dream Team talk last year certainly did the Philadelphia Eagles any good, didn’t it? A year removed from the abnormally high expectations they set for themselves, the Eagles are back to prove that all the talent they have on both sides can actually translate into actual wins. When healthy, Michael Vick is as dynamic a weapon as there is in the league. Same goes for Shady McCoy and DeSean Jackson. Their defense should be better, too, especially considering the defensive backs they have on their team. But as is the story for this team, their fortunes run on Vick’s health. If he goes down, he takes the whole ship with him.
(7) Baltimore Ravens (OTWSB: 14/1)
The Baltimore Ravens are always a dangerous team, but they suffered a huge blow in the offseason when reigning Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs went down with an achilles injury that could shelve him for huge chunks of the 2012 season. We’re holding out hope that T-Sizzle can return this year, but without him, that Ravens D won’t be as dominant as they have been in year’s past even if they still have Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Haloti Ngata on that side of the ball. On the other side, Ray Rice is still a beast and Joe Flacco has shown some flashes of brilliance in the past. But make no mistake, losing Suggs is a huge blow.
(8) Pittsburgh Steelers (OTWSB: 14/1)
The Pittsburgh Steelers are practically in the same boat as the Baltimore Ravens. They lost James Harrison to an offseason injury and while there’s a good chance that he can actually play this year, there’s no telling how fully healed that knee is in time for the start of the season. At this point in his career, Ben Roethlesberger is also an injury waiting to happen. Add that to the extended holdout of Mike Wallace, their uncertain running back issues, and their questionable – at best – offensive line and you see why we have the Ravens ranked a spot higher in this rankings.
(9) New Orleans Saints (OTWSB: 20/1)
If we’re ranking these teams based on tumultuous off-seasons, the New Orleans Saints are, without question, on top of that list. From BountyGate that resulted in the year-long suspension of coach Sean Peyton to the extended contract holdout of quarterback Drew Brees, there are a lot of questions as to how the Saints can move past all of those distractions to remain a contender this year. Their offense does run about as smoothly as any team we’ve seen since the St. Louis Rams of the “Greatest Show on Turf” lore, and they have arguably one of the three best quarterbacks in the league in Drew Brees. But the question remains: how much will Peyton’s absence affect the team as a whole?
(10) Chicago Bears (OTWSB: 20/1)
The Bears were poised to make a serious run last year, but injuries to both Jay Cutler and Matt Forte derailed their year. They’re hoping for a bounce back season and the team has reloaded their offense with the addition of wide receiver Brandon Marshall. The defense remains a strong suit for the team, although injury concerns to linebacker Brian Urlacher is something that should be paid careful attention to. The team also has to deal with arguably one of the toughest divisions in the league in the NFC North. But if they can avoid the injury bug, look for Da Bears to make some real noise this year.
(11) Detroit Lions (OTWSB: 25/1)
Anytime you have a team that features a man named MegaTron, you have to be taken seriously. But Calvin Johnson is far from the only star on this team. Quarterback Matthew Stafford is coming off a 5,000-yard season and their defense remains stout with Ndamukong Suh anchoring the defensive line. The biggest question surrounding this team is the seemingly overabundant number of knuckleheads they have. If they can keep their heads on straight and stay out of trouble, the Lions could be one of those young teams that make the leap this year.
(12) Dallas Cowboys (OTWSB: 25/1)
The Dallas Cowboys have the pieces, but the question about this team has always been how they can combine their talents to become the kind of team that lives up to all the pre-season hype surrounding them. QB Tony Romo has the pieces in the offense, but injury concerns have already been attached to Miles Austin and Jason Witten. Running back DeMarco Murray appears to be the first running back threat they’ve had since Emmit Smith so at the very least, Romo has that going for him. Expectations are always high for America’s Team. How long before they can actually live up to all of it?
(13) Denver Broncos (OTWSB: 14/1)
Tim Tebow is gone. Peyton Manning is here. That replacement alone should make the Broncos much better, right? Not quite. The biggest question for the team, and possibly the entire league, is how Manning can handle the full schedule of an NFL season after four serious neck surgeries. The Indianapolis Colts certainly weren’t confident that No. 18 can return to his old form, but the Broncos more than rolled the dice on the four-time MVP, signing him to a massive, albeit incentive-laden five-year $96 million deal. If there’s one team that relies on one man for their overall team success, it’s the Denver Broncos. For the sake of everyone concerned, here’s to hoping that Peyton Manning returns to the Peyton Manning of old.
(14) Atlanta Falcons (OTWSB: 25/1)
Quarterback Matt Ryan is entering his fourth year in the league, which means that if we’re going to see a leap from Matty Ice, it has to be this year. The Falcons have given some playmakers on offense to play with, including receivers Roddy White, Julio Jones, and tailback Michael Turner. The defense remains underrated, too, and there seems to be growing sentiment in the ATL that if the Falcons are really the kind of team that shows its worthy of becoming a Super Bowl contender, it has to be this year.
(15) Cincinnati Bengals (OTWSB: 50/1)
Basing on trajectory, the Cincinnati Bengals are one of the rising teams in the NFL. They have one of the top, young QB-receiver combos in Andy Dalton and AJ Green. Add a pretty good defense to the mix and there’s a lot of promise in the Queen City that’s far removed from the underachieving teams of past years. Will they be able to contend with the Ravens and Steelers in the AFC North? With all the injury concerns surrounding both those teams, we’re not putting it out of the question that the Bengals can surpass one or even both of those teams this year.
(16) San Diego Chargers (OTWSB: 30/1)
The San Diego Chargers had a terrible year last year by their standards, finishing with a pedestrian 8-8 record. But what many people forget now is that they actually came within a Philip Rivers botched snap of winning their division. This year, they lost wideout Vincent Jackson and injury concerns surrounding running back Ryan Matthews has already put a negative light on the Bolts. Nevertheless, they still have a healthy Rivers under center and he’s still one of the most productive quarterbacks in the league, brain farts notwithstanding. The division is certainly there’s for the taking, especially if Peyton Manning goes down with an injury.