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Top Ten NFL Teams Poised to Return to the 2013 Playoffs
Reaching the playoffs alone is hard enough in the NFL. Any talk of a championship can't start until one gets there. A fundamental truth of the league over the past decade or so is that parity rules the day. This means a high number of teams that didn't make the playoffs one year have an excellent shot to do so the next. Part of it is roster improvement, new coaching or just better health. Everybody knows who the typical contenders are, but which teams have a great chance to join them in the 2013 chase?
THE DARK HORSES
10. Tennessee Titans
After the season they had a year ago it's no wonder few people have talked about where the Tennessee Titans fall on the NFL totem pole. They had a lot of holes to fill on both sides of the ball. Yet, without much direct attention from the league, they quietly put together an excellent off-season. Free agency saw them lock up guard Andy Levitre, tight end Delanie Walker and two needed safeties in George Wilson and Bernard Pollard. The Levitre move was made far more interesting when Tennessee drafted guard Chance Warmack in the first round. This potentially gives them the best starting interior in the league, not to mention their underrated pick center Brian Schwenke in the fourth round. This team is more talented by far than a year ago. The only question is can they get enough out of quarterback Jake Locker. He hasn't shown many flashes of big improvement so far. They hope better protection will help that. It just might.
9. Carolina Panthers
Things seemed to have stacked against the Carolina Panthers. According to experts they have the hardest schedule in the league based on team records from a year ago. They also lost their valuable offensive coordinator in Rob Chudzinski. That means the burden of the offense will fall on the shoulders of Cam Newton. He still has a lot of talent around him and obviously talent of his own, but after such a tough season in 2012 many wonder if he has the head for it. The good news is Carolina should boast an improved defense after collecting two very solid defensive tackles in the draft in Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. Throw in some smart bargain buys in free agency like D.J. Moore, Chase Blackburn, Domenik Hixon and Ted Ginn Jr. and this team could surprise people.
8. Detroit Lions
Given their salary cap issues experts didn't think the Detroit Lions could do much for their roster short of the draft. Instead they put together a solid free agency by signing Reggie Bush, Glover Quin, Jason Jones and bringing back Louis Delmas. They followed that with a strong draft that featured defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, corner Darius Slay and guard Larry Warford. They didn't find any receiver or tackle help which could come back to haunt them but as a whole Lions fans should not be disappointed with what their team has done. While the playoffs aren't a lock they will play better than the 4-12 record from a year ago. Just how far they go depends on staying focused.
7. Cleveland Browns
This pick might surprise a lot of people. The Cleveland Browns haven't sniffed the playoffs for over ten years and have big questions at quarterback with Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell. However, the true strength of their chances to reach the playoffs lay in an outstanding coaching staff. Rob Chudzinski, a respected offensive specialist, takes over as head coach and is joined by veteran coach Norv Turner as his offensive coordinator and rising star Ray Horton as defensive coordinator. Add in some nice pieces in free agency and the draft like Paul Kruger, Desmond Bryant and Barkevious Mingo. If Chudzinski can get the offense on track this team can compete in a somewhat murky AFC North division.
6. Philadelphia Eagles
This team owns the real wild card of the 2013 season. Nobody knows what head coach Chip Kelly has in store for the Philadelphia Eagles. All they understand is it will be up-tempo. Though Andy Reid is gone the team has done a great job keeping its talent base intact. They signed some second tier but solid free agents in Patrick Chung (Patriots), James Casey (Texans), Isaac Sopoaga (49ers), Cary Williams (Ravens) and Kenny Phillips (Giants). Then they brought it together with a strategic draft by signing left tackle Lane Johnson, tight end Zach Ertz, and quarterback Matt Barkley. These are all picks with high potential. If Kelly knows what he's doing it could pay off big for the Eagles.
THE LEGITIMATE SHOTS
5. St. Louis Rams
The best way to make the playoffs when you are a rebuilding team is to string good drafts together. That is what the St. Louis Rams and head coach Jeff Fisher have done. They spent 2012 beefing up the defense into a stout unit, then rounded out the roster this year. In order to give quarterback Sam Bradford his best chance for success they signed talented tight end Jared Cook in free agency and moved up to draft dynamic receiver Tavon Austin in the first round. Throw in two excellent value picks in Austin teammate Stedman Bailey and three-time champion Alabama center Barrett Jones and the Rams have no reason to fear their pending showdown with the powerhouse 49ers and Seahawks in the NFC West. What it comes down to is whether Bradford can finally take the next step.
4. New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees is still under center for the New Orleans Saints. That alone gives them a great shot to get back to the playoffs. Considering they still went 7-9 without their general manager, offensive coordinator and head coach for most or all of last season it is an impressive feat. Sean Payton is back on the sidelines now and his impact was felt immediately. New Orleans put together an outstanding off-season signing Keenan Lewis and Victor Butler in free agency before finding great value with Kenny Vaccaro, Terron Armstead and John Jenkins in the draft. Add in respected defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and the Saints should play much better on defense this season. Considering their offense shows no signs of slowing down it should signal the teams' return to playoff competition after a brief absence.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The talent on this roster is hard to ignore. Head coach Greg Schiano seems to have no weak points to worry about with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They shored up their problems at corner by trading for Darrelle Revis, then signed Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson in free agency. In the draft they put together some nice picks for depth including corner Jonathan Banks and defensive tackle Akeem Spence. The key position to watch this year is quarterback. Josh Freeman has no excuses for playing any worse than he did a year ago (over 4,000 yards and 27 touchdowns). Where he needs to improve is cutting down the turnovers (19). If he can't, then third round pick Mike Glennon might see action for this up-and-coming squad.
2. Miami Dolphins
The activity was fast and furious for this AFC East team. Having played the doormat for years to the New England Patriots, GM Jeff Ireland set about doing everything possible to infuse the roster with more talent. Free agency saw loads of names arrive including Mike Wallace, Danelle Ellerbe, Brent Grimes, and Dustin Keller in free agency followed by Dion Jordan and Jamar Taylor in the draft. Ryan Tannehill should have a vast array of new weapons to throw to on offense while the Dolphins defense got younger, faster and stronger in preparation for Tom Brady. The jury is still out on head coach Joe Philbin but the pieces are in place to make noise in the AFC. It's just a question of bringing all the talent together playing well.
1. Chicago Bears
Of all the teams on this list the Chicago Bears was the only one to post a winning record last season. They went 10-6, usually good enough to reach the playoffs but they fell just short. Considering their roster has improved since then is a good sign that they can finish what they started. Quarterback Jay Cutler will have better protection from new left tackle Jermon Bushrod and guards Matt Slauson and Kyle Long. He'll also see better tight end play from Martellus Bennett. The defense did lose Brian Urlacher. Still, they scooped up two talented youngsters in the draft in Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene. However, the true success for Chicago will come through new head coach Marc Trestman. A 57-year old veteran, he spent two decades in the league before jumping to Canada where he won championships as a head coach. He's renowned for his offensive aptitude and innovation, especially with quarterbacks. If he can get Cutler playing up near his Pro Bowl level from back in 2008, then the Bears should see action in January.