The 2011 NFL season was nothing less than spectacular. Seeing the New York Football Giants go from the brink of playoff elimination to Super Bowl Champions is what just what the NFL is all about. With that said, who is going to be the 2012 season's hero? Which team is going to come out of nowhere to wow fans, and and which teams are going to disappoint fans? Here is a list of three teams that I feel will take the next step in 2012 to make the playoffs that missed out in 2011.
1. Carolina Panthers (Wild Card)
The Carolina Panthers finished the 2011 season with a 6-10 record behind rookie quarterback sensation Cam Newton . With Newton at the helm, Carolina finished with the third best running game and 13 best passing offense. Newton, who broke several rookie scoring records, wowed the Carolina fan base with his fast feet, agile legs, rocket arm and dead-on accuracy. Carolina's defense, on the other hand, left a lot to be desired finishing the 2011 season 24th against the pass and 25th against the run. With some personnel improvements on the defensive side of the ball the Panthers are in for many years of success.
2. St. Louis Rams (Division Champion)
In my opinion no team improved more during the 2012 off season than the St. Louis Rams. Not only did the Rams acquire a talented new head coach in Jeff Fisher, but they improved on both sides of the ball. Their biggest offensive acquisition was center Scott Wells. Playing for the Green Bay Packers for several years, Wells was the anchor of an above average Green Bay offensive line. He will no doubt play a key role in protecting QB Sam Bradford in a division that boasts one of the top defenses in the league. The Rams' biggest defensive signing was CB Cortland Finnegan . Finnegan is well known as one of the best shut down cornerbacks in the league. He will be a welcome addition to a rebuilt Rams defense. The Rams will have a tough time, but after studying S.F.'s defensive schemes all off-season, I think they will edge the 49ers for the division title.
3. Oakland Raiders (Wild Card)
The Oakland Raiders did not make any free agent splashes during the 2012 off season. They didn't even over pay for some under performing nobody that would be released half way through the season. So, why are they on this list? There is one aspect of the 2012 Oakland Raiders that makes them so mysterious: Al Davis is no longer calling the shots. Let me say this first, I respect the hell out of Al Davis. Without Davis' influence, the NFL would not be what it is today. With that said, Davis wasn't exactly unpredictable. Davis ran the same offense and defense year in and year out, making it pretty easy for teams to game plan against them. Now, with new GM Reggie McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen calling the shots, game planning for Oakland is going to be difficult. No one knows what to expect out of Oakland. Will they run a 3-4 or 4-3 defense and blitz more? Will they run more of a west coast offense, or continue to stretch defenses? There are about a thousand more questions teams will have to answer, but by the time they do, Oakland may very well be running to the playoffs. Teams expecting to see the same old Oakland Raiders may be in for a very rude awakening.