2. New England Patriots: Last season, New England came within a reception of the Super Bowl, but fell short to Eli and the New York Giants. However, the Patriots have been busy this off-season, eagerly signing Brandon Lloyd, Joseph Addai, along with rookies Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones. Tom Brady passed for 5235 yards and 39 touchdowns in 2011; with wide receivers like Lloyd, Gronkowski and Welker, he has a chance at duplicating these fabulous numbers. Entering the 2012 season, anything short of a Super Bowl victory would be considered a disappointment for this north-eastern powerhouse.
3. New York Giants: The defending champions had a quiet off-season, which only makes them more lethal. Though they do not top out at number one on this list, the Giants posses a great passing game as well as a spectacular pass rush. Breakout stars Victor Cruz and Jason Pierre Paul will only be more valuable in 2012. New York spent their 32nd overall pick on running back David Wilson in an attempt to replace Brandon Jacobs. A 9-7 record will likely improve by next season, and the Giants will look to become the 8th team in NFL history to win back-to-back Super Bowls.
4. San Francisco 49ers: Coach of the Year Jim Harbaugh went to work last spring, adding Mario Manningham and Randy Moss to a struggling offense. Now that Alex Smith has a lethal receiving corp, this 49ers offense could be dangerous. The offense may have been improved slightly, but everyone knows the best part of this team is their shut-down defense. San Francisco drastically turned their game around after the firing of Mike Singletary. In fact, the 49ers defense did not allow a rushing touchdown last season until Week 16. The NFC West is one of the most uncompetitive divisions in football, and San Francisco has enhanced an already stellar roster.
5. Detroit Lions: For the first time in his three-year career, quarterback Matthew Stafford managed to stay healthy throughout the duration of the season, playing all 16 games. This past first, run second team was spectacular last season, largely in part due to Stafford's 5,038 passing yards and 41 touchdowns. Superstar Calvin Johnson is undisputedly the best wide receiver in the game today, and as he enters his prime, Johnson's best days are still to come. Detroit bulked up their O-line by drafting Riley Reiff with the 23rd overall pick. Even with big names like Ndamukong Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril, the defense struggled last season, sinking below the line of mediocrity. I doubt Stafford can up last years performance, but assuming he can stay healthy, Detroit will give the Green Bay Packers a run for their money.
6. Houston Texans: The Houston Texans, a new team to the NFL, finally showed fans how competitive they can be. For the first time since the franchises creation in 2002, Houston beat out a struggling Indianapolis and won the AFC South. However, the loss of Mario Williams, a leader on the field, creates a hole that desperately needs to be filled. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips helped the Texans go from worst-to-first defensively. DE Whitney Mercilus was a great pick in the draft, and is one of the most underrated rookies entering 2012. Andre Johnson and Arian Foster are both superstars, but it will be absolutely essential that Matt Schuab stays healthy if they wish to improve their 10-6 record.
7. Baltimore Ravens: Last season, the Baltimore Ravens proved they deserved the number one spot in the AFC North over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Ravens did not do much to improve their roster in the off-season, but drafting Courtney Upshaw was quite the steal. Joe Flacco has yet to prove he is an elite quarterback, and until then, the Ravens offense will struggle to consistently put points on the board. Obviosuly, it is not the offense that Baltimore is known for, but instead their defense. Sadly, this defense is slowly crumbling. Ed Reed and Ray Lewis aren't getting any younger, and Terrell Suggs will not play next year due to injuries. Overall, this team will not be quite the same as 2011, but if Joe Flacco improves, Baltimore can make a deep playoff run.
8. Cincinnati Bengals: This young, inexperienced team has turned into one of the most competitive franchises in the NFL. Second year players like AJ Green and Andy Dalton need to lead Cincinnati back to the playoffs. The Bengals had yet another spectacular draft last April, selecting cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, defensive tackle Devon Still, and guard Kevin Zeitler. The defense improved dramatically in 2011, and should only get better. The offense needs more experience before a Super Bowl win, and signing a veteran wide receiver this off-season will only help. No longer is the AFC north dominated by Pittsburgh and Baltimore. In fact, the Bengals' speed, youth, and drive will help them top Pittsburgh in the standings.
9. Chicago Bears: No team was more of a disappointment then the Chicago Bears. In the 2010 playoffs, Chicago earned the second seed thanks to a 12-4 record, and started 2011 at 7-3. However, after Jay Cutler suffered a season ending injury in Week 11, the Bears went 1-5, ending finishing the year 8-8. The Bears wasted no time in signing Brandon Marshall, a wide receiver with great hands. The Bears defense had trouble defending the pass, but was stellar in stopping the run. Chicago chose to draft defensive end Shea McClellin, a decent all around pass rusher. If Jay Cutler can avoid injury, the 2012 Bears team will be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Otherwise, it will be just another disappointing season.
10. Atlanta Falcons: The 2011 Atlanta Falcons finished 2011 with a 10-6 record, somewhat of a disappointment after a 13-3 record back in 2010. However, it is difficult to explain their sudden dip in production; Matt Ryan had the best season of his career, Michael Turner looked stayed healthy, Julio Jones played nicely opposite Roddy White, and even the defense managed to improve in several areas. Besides a slight increase in points allowed, the main thing that hindered Atlanta's success was arch nemesis New Orleans. Now that the Saints organization is in shambles, Atlanta should try and take advantage. Atlanta strengthened their pass protection when drafting center Peter Konz and offensive tackle Lamar Holmes. Atlanta's biggest signings were linebacker Lofa Tatupu and cornerback Asante Samuel. With New Orleans struggling, Atlanta should pounce on the opportunity for the number one spot in the AFC South.