By Steve Silverman
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There’s a tendency to get overwhelmed with the fortunes of the Giants and Jets during training camp.
As defending champions, the Giants return a powerful lineup and appear to be in a strong position to contend again. The Jets have many more issues — most notably at the quarterback spot — but could find themselves ready to challenge the Patriots.
But it’s not just the local teams when it comes to the NFL. More than any other league, the NFL excels at building interest in the full package.
Fans are familiar with the exploits of the Packers, Patriots, Saints and 49ers. However, there are four teams that may be ready to jump up and challenge the league’s elite teams.
The Bears were 8-8 last season, but they were 7-3 when quarterback Jay Cutler broke his thumb and missed the final six games of the season. Cutler is healthy again and the Bears added a big-time receiver in Brandon Marshall during the offseason. Cutler and Marshall worked together when they were both in Denver, and they should form an explosive duo.
The Bears should have a balanced offense because Matt Forte is a versatile and productive running back. Backup Michael Bush should be a force around the goal line, and he will keep Forte fresh.
However, there are questions about the Bears’ offensive line. Roberto Garza is probably their best blocker at center, but he’s just average at the position. There are major questions at right tackle with Gabe Carimi and left tackle with J’Marcus Webb.
The Bears are counting on their defense to be one of their strongest attributes. The best players on that unit are Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman. There are concerns about Peppers and Urlacher losing some of their effectiveness as they get older, but head coach Lovie Smith believes that they have much more good football left in them.
This could be one of the biggest stories in the league this year. The Bengals had a fine 9-7 season last year, and with a year under his belt quarterback Andy Dalton could be ready for a huge season.
One of the reasons for that is the presence of wide receiver A.J. Green, who had 65 receptions for 1,057 yards last year. Green was an impact player a year ago and he should be even better this year. He had 11 catches of 35 yards or more in 2011.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis will give them a much more honest running back than they had with Cedric Benson. Green-Ellis brings it on every play, while Benson only brought it after taking the two previous weeks off.
On the defensive side, keep your eye on defensive tackles Geno Atkins and Domata Peko. That pair will not only shut off the opponents’ interior run, but they will crush the pocket and make life easier for the team’s defensive backs.
Kansas City Chiefs
You may be rolling your eyes at the thought of the Chiefs becoming a good team, but they were 7-9 last year even though they were devastated by injuries.
A healthy Kansas City team could become a real story this year. The players responded well to Romeo Crennel after he came in late in the season. And if the effort level remains high and they don’t suffer the devastating injuries that felled strong safety Eric Berry, tight end Tony Moeaki and running back Jamaal Charles, this team will make noise in the AFC West.
They also need starting quarterback Matt Cassel to stay healthy. Cassel played nine games before going on Injured Reserve with a hand injury. He does not have a big arm, but he is an accurate passer.
The good thing for the Seahawks is that they play in a division that appears to be vulnerable. Many observers look at the San Francisco 49ers as the Giants’ main competition for the NFC crown, but few teams had more breaks than San Francisco had last year. If quarterback Alex Smith struggles — he’s never had two good years in a row — Jim Harbaugh’s obnoxious personality could rub players the wrong way.
The Seahawks will give Matt Flynn the opportunity to carry the offense. Flynn has a quick release and accuracy, and he appears to have the skills to provide an upgrade at the quarterback position. He will be helped by the presence of Marshawn Lynch, one of the most explosive running backs in the league.
Look for the Seahawks to become a dominant, run-stuffing machine on defense thanks to defensive end Red Bryant. He is nasty and hard-working, and that’s a great combination. DE Chris Clemons is a solid pass rusher who has had back-to-back 11-sack seasons.
Football fans, which of the Bears, Bengals, Chiefs and Seahawks do you think has the best chance to win its division this upcoming season? Let us know in the comments section below…