The San Francisco 49ers only missed the Super Bowl because Eli Manning is unflappable, the Seattle Seahawks had an offensive upheaval, the St. Louis Rams are struggling with new systems and the Arizona Cardinals need to at least pretend that they believe.
San Francisco 49ers
Coach of the Year Jim Harbaugh is determined to take the next step.
1. Literally, the only weakness on this team in 2011 was the passing game. Former first-round WR Michael Crabtree improved, but disappeared in January. TE Vernon Davis remained the real threat.
2. The running game was stupendous.
3. The defense is a justifiably proud group that ranked second in the NFL in points and first downs allowed.
4. QB Alex Smith, working in his 200th new offense, had his best season. He completed almost 62 percent of his passes and scored 17 TDs to five interceptions. This guy has more mental toughness than your average bear and might become a decent quarterback yet.
5. The defense and special teams were responsible for gaining 38 turnovers. (Lindy's Draft Guide, 2012)
6. 37-year-old David Akers nailed 44-of-52 FGs. While that's wonderful, the team might wish to actually put the rock into the end zone.
1. Randy Moss is now catching passes from Alex Smith and still commands plenty of attention. At one point this preseason, he was beating three CBs deep. Three.
2. The team will carry 10 DBs into the year. Think they're loading up for Green Bay?
3. RB Frank Gore will now share rushing duties with former Giant Brandon Jacobs and rookie LaMichael James. Kendall Hunter continues to provide a good scatback option. The goal is to keep Gore fresh.
4. 2011's draft netted five players who are either starters or successful special teamers, plus one improving backup QB in Colin Kaepernick. Of 2012 rookies, WR A.J. Jenkins remains an uncertain quantity. Garrett Celek (brother of Eagles TE Brent) has been one of those happy surprises thus far.
1. Super Bowl standout WR Mario Manningham is now a Niner. Will he look as good with Smith throwing the balls?
2. Every starting member of the defense returns.
3. Anthony Dixon played fullback, H-back and special teams all preseason. Demarcus Dobbs plays TE -- and defensive line. FB Bruce Miller played defense in college. Captain Comeback wants some Iron Men on his team. What a shock.
4. Alex Boone is the starting RG, but he's also the only backup tackle. Uh-oh. Smith was sacked more than any other NFL QB in 2011. See? Tough.
The Niners are back! The bad news is that the other 31 teams in the NFL now know it.
Pete Carroll struck a blow for everyone who wants to believe that "the best man" wins. In spite of former Packer Matt Flynn's hefty contract, Carroll bestowed the franchise quarterback position on rookie Russell Wilson.
1. Flynn and Wilson arrived in the Emerald City because Tarvaris Jackson is not a franchise quarterback. One wonders who thought he was.
2. The offensive line allowed 50 sacks last season. Um, Russell Wilson is 5'11."
3. The Seahawks finished 2011 with a 5-3 string and might have turned the corner.
4. Marshawn Lynch has finally become the back that we all thought he could be (13 touchdowns). However, he's not quite there off the field, facing a potential suspension after a DUI arrest.
5. This defense is on its way to excellence. Built largely through the draft and featuring some unusually large and physical DBs, they finished the 2011 campaign ranked seventh in scoring. Safety Kim Chancellor would scare anyone and end Red Bryant is on his way to stardom. Chris Clemons is already there, with two seasons featuring 11 sacks each.
1. Rookies Bruce Irvin and Jaye Howard seem like winners on defense. Irvin's first-round selection was viewed as a reach, but he has played well and is extraordinarily fast. Second-round MLB Bobby Wagner is a starter and leads a young LBing squad.
2. Robert Turbin. Who? Learn this name, Seahawks fans. He's a fourth-round rookie running back with really impressive biceps. Oh, and he can run, too. He tallied 93 yards while playing with the starters versus Kansas City. He's 5'10" and 222 lbs. That makes Russell Wilson taller than someone in the huddle!
3. Seattle signed WR Braylon Edwards who, if he could ever manage some consistency, has outrageous athletic gifts.
1. Move over, Doug Flutie, there's a new short sheriff in town! Wilson has exactly the same kind of electric magic and seems in complete command of second-year OC Darrell Bevell's offense.
2. The Seahawks have what appears to be a dominant defense. They allowed 17 total points throughout the preseason.
3. The team now has four capable RBs. Versatile Leon Washington still dazzles on returns and Kregg Lumpkin brings his good hands over from the Buccaneers. That should keep Lynch's quake-making legs fresh.
4. Talented WR Sidney Rice is back from multiple injuries. Golden Tate doesn't excite analysts, but still managed 35 receptions with three touchdowns last year. That's almost a TD every third catch. Undrafted free agent sophomore Doug Baldwin had 54 catches for four scores in 2011.
5. Several TEs are on the roster. Zach Miller, Evan Moore and Anthony McCoy need to find some chemistry with Wilson.
6. Can this secondary continue to play at the level that made them sixth in the NFL in defending the pass? Probably, although watching them against Randy Moss should be fun.
The 'Hawks have a difficult schedule. Success in 2012 will depend upon how quickly Wilson and the O-line can function like a high-level passing unit.
The Arizona Cardinals have lukewarmly anointed John Skelton as their starting quarterback. That doesn't exactly inspire confidence in this team's chances to win a division with some excellent defenses.
1. Like Carroll in Seattle, Ken Whisenhunt's willingness to award the starting QB position to the fifth-round pick over the expensive free agent should result at least in continued competitive effort throughout the team. Skelton's best attribute is toughness, which may have tipped the scales in his favor.
2. Rusher Beanie Wells gained 1,000 yards and 10 TDs while fighting injury all year. Ryan Williams was injured his entire rookie season, so the Cards may end up with a good one-two punch in the backfield for 2012. LaRod Stephens-Howling is a Darren Sproles-type that can sting defenses. He also averaged almost 24 yards per kick return.
3. Larry Fitzgerald is either the best or second-best WR in the NFL, depending upon whether one is a Lions fan.
4. Through two seasons in Arizona, Jay Feely is 43-of-51 on field goals, good for an 84.3-percent success rate.
5. The defense finished the year ranked 17th overall and fifth in preventing TD passes. Rookie Patrick Peterson was considered to be the best athlete of the 2011 draft and has confirmed that ranking. He improved steadily all year at corner and is a frightening punt returner.
1. John McNulty is the new QB coach. He used to coach the WRs, but worked with the QBs at Rutgers.
2. Rookie WR Michael Floyd's late preseason performance may draw a few corners his way. Larry will be fine with that.
3. Both of Arizona's 2012 draft picks (Floyd and RT Bobby Massie) appear to have the right NFL stuff.
4. Unfortunately for Skelton, LT Levi Brown is out for the year, leaving free agent D'Anthony Batiste to start. Uh... perhaps he's just a late-bloomer. Other free agent signings should increase the O-line's general quality.
5. The team also brought in free agent defenders, including former Steelers CB William Gay, who is starting over oft-injured Greg Toler.
6. Jeff King beat out aging and injury-prone TE Todd Heap.
1. Larry Fitzgerald should hit the 10,000-yard mark and Jay Feely may become one of only 24 players to kick 300 FGs.
2. WR Floyd's speed up the learning curve will have an impact on this offense.
3. This is the year that John Skelton proves he's an NFL starter. Or not.
4. This defense should end the season as a well-respected unit, though they begin it flying somewhat under the radar.
St. Louis Rams
QB Sam Bradford maintains that he is 100 percent healthy. The state of Missouri certainly hopes so.
1. Bradford is the first decent thing at Rams QB since Mike Martz let Kurt Warner and Marc Bulger get pummeled to dust. How he managed to throw for over 2,000 yards with a high ankle sprain is a tribute to his talent and grit.
2. Only one offensive player started all 16 games. Not one cornerback who reported to training camp was still active in Week 16. (Lindy's 2012 Draft Guide.) That explains a lot.
3. If there were any shred of a lingering doubt that Steven Jackson is the most incredible running back in the NFL, take a look at the 2011 Rams. He might as well have carried a neon sign that read, "I will always get the ball--tackle me." If any player deserves a Reggie White/John Elway Super Bowl moment, it's this class act pro.
4. WR Brandon Gibson had 36 receptions with an average of 12 yards per catch while working in the shadow of Brandon Lloyd--who is now a Patriot.
5. Danny Amendola is back from injury and looked pretty good in the preseason.
6. The defense was generally unproductive, but there were bright spots. Chris Long (yes, Howie's kid) has steadily improved and had 13 sacks. MLB John Laurinaitis (105 tackles) continues his lifetime of over-achieving and rookie Robert Quinn grew before our eyes.
7. TE Lance Kendricks had another good preseason -- but he looked great in August last year too. Stay tuned.
8. The offensive line was an injury-filled mess, which makes Jackson's seventh consecutive 1,000 season even more impressive.
9. Special teams was underwhelming, to be kind.
1. Jeff Fisher brings yet another new set of offensive and defensive schemes and leadership.
2. The new OC is Brian Schottenheimer, from the Jets. Frankly, this could go either way, depending upon his partnership with Bradford and Jackson.
3. New GM Les Snead and Fisher made a monster trade with Washington over Robert Griffin III so that the Rams could continue to address their many holes.
4. Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson are two rookie RBs behind Jackson. Pead was stellar in the Senior Bowl and Richardson has looked a bit like Dexter McCluster in August.
5. Rookie D-lineman Michael Brockers and former Dolphins DT Kendall Langford help the interior line.
6. St. Louis signed Cortland Finnegan away from Fishers' old team. Cortland is so, uh, feisty that he can be counted on for at least one penalty per game. This guy managed to get into a fight with zen-like WR Andre Johnson.
7. The offensive line has been a disaster. The team traded for the Jets' Wayne Hunter. Fifth-round rookie Rokevious Watkins just landed the starting LG slot.
1. Gregg Williams was the new defensive coordinator, but he will not be joining us this season courtesy of the bounty scandal. Fisher and Assistant Head Coach Dave McGinnis will share defensive coaching duties. McGinnis is a long-time Fisher collaborator and has some head coaching experience.
2. Rookie Greg Zuerlein is the new PK. Rookie punter Johnny Hekker will try to give Steven Jackson (er--I mean, the offense) decent field position. Bring on the Pepto for the Special Teams coach. Who just happens to be former New York Giants head coach, John Fassel. St. Louis has brought in a lot of young players and a lot of seasoned coaching pros.
3. Free agent Steve Smith (no, the other one), rookies Brian Quick and Chris Givens and 2nd-year players Austin Pettis and Greg Salas will try to flesh out the WRing corps.
8. Fisher released TE Michael Hoomanawanui, so Lance Kendricks is the man. The Rams need their TEs to both block and catch.
4. The Rams drafted DB Janoris Jenkins, who has a history of character issues. The rookie corner has been phenomenal on the field so far. Fingers crossed.
5. Center Scott Wells will be a pivotal player.
The defense should be better. If the O-line can raise their play dramatically and quickly, the offense has a chance to grow. Unfortunately, it's still likely to be another long year for football fans in the Gateway City.