Sports

Silverman: Key Questions Face Last Year’s NFL Risers

(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

By Steve Silverman
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The NFL is formatted to give everyone a chance to get better once they spend a couple of seasons at the bottom of the league.

When you finish at or near the bottom of the league, you are rewarded with an excellent drafting position. The better players you select with that drafting slot, you improve your chances of winning games and moving up the ladder.

But a one-season rise in the standings does not mean that you are automatically a better team. Last year, teams like the San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos and Houston Texans all were playoff teams and the 49ers made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game.

But are those teams really good enough to sustain their success? What teams that finished out of the playoffs have a chance to rise this year.

Here’s a look at those three risers from last season and three teams that have an excellent chance to climb the charts this season.

San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers are one of the preseason favorites to win the NFC Championship this year, but all that love may be a bit undeserved. Start off with quarterback Alex Smith, who had a solid 2011 season but has not shown he can play well in back-to-back seasons. He has a brilliant weapon in tight end Vernon Davis, but the 49ers may not have enough talent at the wide receiver position. Michael Crabtree is solid, but Randy Moss is a complete crapshoot. The other problem is head coach Jim Harbaugh. He looked like one of the best coaches in the league last year, but what happens this year if all of his in-game decisions don’t work out like they did last year? How fast will he be able to think on his feet? He’s also got an abrasive personality that may start to show this season.

Denver Broncos – The Broncos took advantage of a poor division to make the playoffs a year ago even though they were a team with many flaws. Somehow, head coach John Fox found a way to get the most out of Tim Tebow when the quarterback struggled with the most important issue any quarterback must master – passing accuracy. While Tebow fell short in this area, he found a way to turn things around in the fourth quarter and overtime of several games. Fox and John Elway knew that it would be difficult to depend on “Miracleball” two seasons in a row and traded Tebow to the Jets after the Broncos signed Peyton Manning. This is a major upgrade. Look for the Broncos to continue to improve and challenge the San Diego Chargers for the AFC West title.

Houston Texans – The Texans had been on the verge of becoming a solid team and they stepped into the void created by Peyton Manning’s neck injury that forced the Indianapolis Colts to move into rebuilding mode. The Texans had a host of serious injuries last season and still finished on top of the AFC South with a 10-6 record. If Gary Kubiak’s team can stay healthy and quarterback Matt Schaub can work with superior wide receiver Andre Johnson on an every-week basis, there is no reason this team can’t challenge teams like New England and Baltimore in the AFC.

Buffalo Bills – This is a team that appears ready to take a big step up in the AFC East. Remember that the Bills started the season by winning their first three games and taking four of their first five games. The offense should be solid with unheralded Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback and talented but moody Stevie Johnson at wide receiver. Running back Fred Jackson will give the offense balance. However, the key to the Bills is the signing of free-agent defensive end Mario Williams. He will be a dominant pass rusher for a team that could not pressure the quarterback last year. As long as Williams does not get hurt, he will harass quarterbacks on an every-game basis.

Chicago Bears – The Bears were on their way to a playoff berth last year until quarterback Jay Cutler broke his thumb and they did not have a competent backup to take his place. That’s not the case this year as Jason Campbell has replaced Caleb Hanie. However, the Bears’ biggest offseason move was adding big-play wide receiver Brandon Marshall. He may be the Bears’ best down-the-field threat since Jim McMahon was throwing to Willie Gault. The Bears could challenge the Green Bay Packers for NFC North superiority and should be a playoff team whether they catch the Packers or not.

Carolina Panthers – This may be a bit of a longshot, but the combination of second-year head coach Ron Rivera and second-year quarterback Cam Newton could pay big dividends this season. Newton had a memorable rookie season because he threw for 4,051 yards, the most by any rookie quarterback. He’s also a brilliant runner. As he improves a bit at reading defenses and can improve on his 21-17 TD-interception ratio, the Panthers will step up. The big key for this team is improving a defense that gave up the most points and passing yards in team history. Look for Rivera to get much more out of his defense this season.

Which teams do you think will be successful next season? Sound off with your thoughts and comments in the section below…