The four-and-a-half month NFL lockout did more than just suspend football operations, it handcuffed teams that brought in new head coaches, co-ordinators and key players.
The overwhelming thought heading into the 2011-12 season is teams like Green Bay, New England and San Diego, which kept those components intact for the most part, have the best shot at winning Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis.
Only the busy and free-spending Philadelphia Eagles — who made several free-agent signings — made this list of contenders.-
Here's a look at the teams that should be challenging for this season's Lombardi Trophy:
Green Bay Packers
There hasn’t been a repeat winner since the New England Patriots won Super Bowl XXXIX in 2005. The Packers are really the first team in six years that can seriously make another run. Remember, this is a squad that lost 15 players to the injured reserve list, including one of the best tight ends in Jermichael Finley, and several key components on defence. Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers will once again be firing footballs to the best quartet of receivers in the NFL. Defensively, the Packers boast a fierce group led by linebacker Clay Matthews, mammoth tackle B.J. Raji and the excellent cornerback tandem of Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams.
What could derail them: It all hinges on Rodgers. Last season, the gunslinger suffered a concussion and the Packers lost both games. Luckily, Rodgers came back in time for Green Bay to win its last two contests and squeak into the playoffs on the final week. Rodgers’s health is the only vulnerable part of the Packers’ march to a second straight title.
Ok, let’s get one this straight: this isn’t the "Dream Team" despite Vince Young’s misguided views. However, considering the amount of money spent on free agency this off-season, the Eagles are hell-bent on winning it all. Philadelphia significantly improved a shaky secondary from a year ago with the signing of high-prized free agent Nnamdi Asomugha and trading for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, while also adding pass rusher Jason Babin. Armed with a new six year, $100-million US deal following a breakthrough season, quarterback Michael Vick highlights an explosive offence that will return wide receiver DeSean Jackson and running back LeSean McCoy.
What could derail them: The right side of Philly’s offensive line suffered injuries and inadequate play last season. Unfortunately, that’s Vick’s blindside. This season coach Andy Reid will be starting two rookies, including Canadian Danny Watkins at right guard, with the hope that Vick gets better protection.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints became the latest team to fail in a bit for a repeat. Last season, New Orleans suffered a big drop off in the running game (from 4.5 yards in 2009 to 4.0 in 2010) and their pass defence was exposed in the wild playoff loss to Seattle. The Saints have shored up their back field with the drafting of Mark Ingram, and the signing of Darren Sproles in an effort to help out starter Pierre Thomas. This will only make Drew Brees and the passing game more lethal. As for the secondary, Malcolm Jenkins, one of the NFL’s best who missed the playoff game against Seattle, returns to help solidify the unit. Despite last season’s struggles, the Saints still finished 11-5.
What could derail them: Predictably, the defence wasn’t as opportunistic, which meant less big plays. It’s up to defensive co-ordinator Gregg Williams to get his unit playing the way it did two years ago.
The Falcons cruised to the best record in the NFC last season but got a rude awakening following a humiliating playoff defeat to Green Bay. Believing his team needed an upgrade to take pressure off No. 1 receiver Roddy White, GM Thomas Dimitroff traded five drafts picks, including two first-round picks, for Alabama star Julio Jones. This should give quarterback Matt Ryan a pair of top-flight targets. Injuries can partially be blamed for Atlanta’s 17th ranked defence last season but defensive tackle Peria Jerry and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon should make more of an impact now that they’re healthy.
What could derail them: Atlanta’s pass rush only generated 31 sacks last season, a total that ranked tied for 20th. The Falcons won’t get to their ultimate goal if QBs like Rodgers and Brees have time to pick apart any secondary in the NFL.
Don’t sleep on…
They possess one of the fiercest defensive lines in the league, and that doesn’t even take into account rookie DT Nick Fairley’s (broken foot) availability for Week 1. As a rookie in 2010, Ndamukong Suh took the league by storm like few before him over the last decade. The defensive tackle terrorized quarterbacks en route to 10 sacks and was named to the All-Pro team. But for the Lions to really take the next step, promising QB Matthew Stafford, who has suffered season-ending shoulder injuries the past two seasons, must be under centre for a full season.
New England Patriots
Regardless of whether Chad Ochocinco picks up the offence or struggles, this unit will still rank among the game’s best. That’s because quarterback Tom Brady, last year’s regular-season MVP, guides an offence that doesn’t rely on just one player. Wes Welker is a receptions machine, Deion Branch was reborn in 2010, while second-year TEs Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski stretch the middle of the field as well as any duo in the NFL. Once again the hope for a Super Bowl appearance rest with the defence. The Patriots are switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 base, adding Albert Haynesworth, Shaun Ellis and Andre Carter to a line that already has All-Pro Vince Wilfork.
What could derail them: Including the last drive of Super Bowl XLII, the Patriots’ defence has not made a signature stop. It’ll all comes down to whether this unit finally gets consistent pressure on opposing QBs.
San Diego Chargers
First off, special teams won’t kill the Chargers like they did last year. This team is also loaded on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Philip Rivers gets his No. 1 target Vincent Jackson back for a full season and Malcolm Floyd has developed into a top-notch receiver. San Diego beefed up the No. 1-ranked defence from a year ago by signing S Bob Sanders, linebacker Takeo Spikes and the drafting of defensive lineman Corey Liuget.
What could derail them: The Chargers always get off to a slow start before rallying with a late-season surge. It cost them last season as they failed to make playoffs. With a good start, San Diego can make a push for home field advantage through the playoffs. But that’s a big if.
Tired of playing bridesmaids to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens made some upgrades on offence to complement quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice. Though he isn’t the threat of past years, getting receiver Lee Evans from Buffalo, and rookie Torrey Smith, should take the pressure off No. 1 wide out Anquan Boldin. The key, however, lies with Flacco’s ability to take his game to the next level. There is good news for Baltimore’s maligned secondary as the drafting of corner Jimmy Smith should help booster a unit that already has S Ed Reed and corners Domonique Foxworth and Cary Williams.
What could derail them: The Ravens gave up 40 sacks last season and won’t get a sniff of the post-season, much less the AFC North crown, if Flacco is hurt because of a leaky offensive line.
Don’t expect much to change in Pittsburgh. The Steelers will still have a tough, hard-nose defence that will make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks. Locking up linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Lamarr Woodley to long-term deals will ensure that the Steelers’s devastating pass rush won’t take a step back. With his off-field problems now a year removed, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can concentrate on playing football, and he should like what he sees. Rashard Mendenhall is a rock in the backfield, but Mike Wallace, Hines Ward, Jerricho Cotchery, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders also bring a big-play element to the offence.
What could derail them: The Steelers didn’t address their need for a cornerback in the off-season and are thin behind the shaky duo of Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden. As great as he is, S Troy Polamalu’s has been injury-prone during the last couple of years.
New York Jets
Head coach Rex Ryan says he wouldn’t trade his defence for any other in the NFL. And who could blame him? Rex will see 10 returning starters and all-world corner Darrelle Revis will be healthy from Week 1. Once again New York will rely heavily on the running attack, with Shonn Grenne expected to carry a bigger load. It’s also time for Mark Sanchez to catapult himself into the upper echelon of quarterbacks. To do that, receivers Plaxico Burress, who spent the last two years in prison, and Santonio Holmes must be impact players for Sanchez.
What could derail them: The maturation of Sanchez must continue or there is no chance of the Jets leapfrogging New England in the AFC East. Even with Holmes and Burress in the fold, losing Braylon Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery and Brad Smith in the off-season won’t be easy to overcome.
Don’t sleep on…
This should be head coach Gary Kubiak’s last kick at the can. Owner Bob McNair can’t justify keeping him around another year if the Texans fail to make the playoffs. Everyone knows how explosive the Houston offence is. The job rests with new defensive co-ordinator Wade Phillips and his 3-4 scheme. Phillips’s first priority is to fix one of the worst secondaries in the league. The signings of free-agent CB Johnathan Joseph and S Danieal Manning should help. It’s also worth mentioning that if Colts quarterback Peyton Manning can’t fully recover from off-season neck surgery, the Texans should supplant Indy in the AFC South.
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