By: Geoff Lowe, sportsnet.ca
Regardless of pre-season predictions and power rankings, there are always teams in the NFL that surprise all of the experts. Whether it’s a team with low expectations pushing to win a division title or a team with Super Bowl aspirations who find themselves at the bottom of the standings come playoff time, surprise teams are part of the NFL dynamic year in and year out.
Here’s a look at five teams that could surprise the NFL in 2012, the good and the bad:
1) Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City’s struggles in 2011 were a result of a lengthy list of injuries. This season could see the Chiefs return to the form that led the team to a 10-6 record and an AFC West title in 2010. Other than a proven starting quarterback, the Chiefs have all the pieces on offence to surprise a lot of people in 2012.
The Chiefs have an array of weapons in the passing game in Dwayne Bowe, joined last year’s first-round pick Jonathan Baldwin, former Cardinal Steve Breaston, who caught 61 passes 785 yards last season, and tight ends Tony Moeaki and Kevin Boss.
Running backs Jamaal Charles and Peyton Hillis both suffered from injury last season, but the tandem combined for 2,644 yards in 2010. Behind a revamped offensive line, the Chiefs rushing game could one of the league’s top units.
Kansas City’s defence ranked 12th in the league last season and under head coach Romeo Crennel, the group should be as good or better in 2012. The return of safety Eric Berry will have an immediate impact on the Chiefs secondary, along with elite cornerback Brandon Flowers.
Kansas City has the capability to surprise and take the AFC West division title.
2) Tennessee Titans
Like the Chiefs, the Titans have a lot of upside on offence. Second-year quarterback Jake Locker has been named Tennessee’s starter and in five appearances last season, he threw for 542 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
In addition to their promising young quarterback, the Titans boast an exciting young receiving corps. Kenny Britt is one of the NFL’s young, bright talents at his position, when healthy, while rookie receiver Kendall Wright, RG3′s top target at Baylor, has the tools to be a game breaking weapon.
Most important to the success of the Titans will be running back Chris Johnson. Fresh off a full off-season of preparation with the team, Johnson will be looking to return to elite runner status in the NFL. Tennessee has made improvements on its offensive line, particularly the addition of veteran guard Steve Hutchinson, with the hopes that CJ2K will make his triumphant return.
Throw in the additions of pass rusher Kamerion Wimbley and rookie Mark Martin on a defence that already ranked eighth in the league last year in points allowed, and the Titans look poised to contend with Houston Texans for the AFC South title.
3) Seattle Seahawks
Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, drafted in the third round out of Wisconsin, beat out free agent signing Matt Flynn for the starting job in Seattle, leading a team that could surprise in the NFC West.
Behind Wilson in the Seahawks backfield is power runner Marshawn Lynch. Despite run-ins with the law, Lynch has emerged as one of the top runners in the NFL. When in “beast mode” Lynch is virtually unstoppable, just ask the New Orleans Saints or the Philadelphia Eagles.
Robert Turbin, drafted in the fourth round in April, has impressed Pete Carroll and his staff in the pre-season and training camp, and has emerged as a solid backup for Lynch. Turbin had more than 1,500 yards, good for 10th among Division I running backs last season.
While the Terrell Owens experiment didn’t work out in Seattle, Wilson’s receiving options have shown promise. Newly signed cast-off Braylon Edwards was Wilson’s favourite target this pre-season and could see a reemergence in 2012. Doug Baldwin, the Seahawks leading receiver last season, should be a great option for Wilson in the slot while Sidney Rice will be looking to overcome an injury-plagued 2012.
In addition to a young, exciting offence, Seattle boasted a top-10 defence last season despite any sort of legitimate pass rush. The Seahawks added interior rusher Jason Jones in free agency and end Bruce Irvin in the draft to help improve the pass rush in front of an already stellar secondary led by safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.
If the Seahawks play to their full potential, they have a shot of upsetting the reigning division champion 49ers.
1) Detroit Lions
Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and company had a breakout year in 2011, leading the Detroit Lions to the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade.
While Stafford had an outstanding campaign, it was the first time he had played a full season in his three years in the NFL. With only one 16-game season under his belt, it’s too early to say Stafford is no longer an injury risk.
Needless to say, the Lions will have a passing game to be feared in 2012, but it’s Detroit’s running game that could prove to be a problem. Injuries have devastated the Lions’ backfield with Jahvid Best’s history of concussions and Mikel LeShoure still nursing a hamstring injury. The team’s starter, Kevin Smith, is still recovering from a pre-season ankle injury. Even returner man running back Stefan Logan is dealing with an ankle injury. Without a legitimate running game, defences will focus primarily on getting in Matthew Stafford’s face and stopping the Lions vaunted pass game.
The Lions’ other key weakness is the pass defence, an area the team failed to address in the off-season. With safety Louis Delmas out with a knee injury and cornerback Aaron Berry released due to numerous off-season arrests, to say Detroit is thin in the secondary would be an understatement.
In the last two games of the Lions’ season, the defence allowed 928 yards through the air. Granted it was against the Packers and the Saints, but the Lions will have to keep up with these teams to contend in the NFC.
2) Cincinnati Bengals
Rookies Andy Dalton and A.J. Green put on a display of their talents last season, taking a team with low expectations into the playoffs.
Don’t expect the same from the Bengals in 2012.
Firstly, Dalton’s options at receiver are slim after Green. With Brandon Tate and Andrew Hawkins listed as the next options behind Green on the depth chart, tight end Jermaine Gresham is Dalton’s only legitimate weapon behind Green.
Secondly, the Bengals running game has taken a definite step backwards. Three-time 1,000 yard rusher Cedric Benson was not brought back by the Bengals and signed with Green Bay last month. To replace Benson, the Bengals signed former New England Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Green-Ellis rushed for only 667 yards last season, not surprising in Bill Belichick’s offence. However, Green-Ellis will be expected to carry a significant load this season, but only averaged 3.7 yards a carry in New England last season.
Cincinnati’s running game will suffer even more due to the fact the Bengals have lost newly signed left guard Travelle Wharton for the season and centre Kyle Cook could miss significant time with a foot injury.
While the Bengals defence ranked in the top10 last season in points and yards allowed, it was the revamped offence that propelled them into the playoffs. Expect the offence to suffer from the sophomore slump of Dalton, and the Bengals to miss the playoffs with an 8-8 record in a best case scenario.