NFL Nation: NFC scenarios 2012

Giants: Dream/nightmare scenario

May, 25, 2012
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Giants in 2012.

Dream scenario (12-4): The last time the the Giants won the Super Bowl, they followed it up with a 12-4 season and claimed the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. It seems a fair bet that, this time, their top wide receiver won't shoot himself in the leg with an unlicensed firearm in a nightclub and severely damage their playoff chances. The Giants remain extremely strong at quarterback, wide receiver and pass-rusher in a pass-heavy NFL era, and for that reason they have reason to believe they can be a much better regular-season team than the one that went 9-7 and made the playoffs on the final day last season. In the Giants' dream scenario, Hakeem Nicks recovers from his broken foot in time to start the season, second-round pick Rueben Randle wins the No. 3 wide receiver spot and someone -- perhaps first-rounder David Wilson -- steps forward to be the running back who can spell Ahmad Bradshaw when he needs a rest. Terrell Thomas comes back healthy and continues along the career path that, this time last year, had him on track to become one of the best cornerbacks in the league. Keith Rivers solidifies the linebacker corps and Jason Pierre-Paul and Victor Cruz build on their breakout seasons as the Giants get back into the playoffs and make a real run at defending their title.

Nightmare scenario (6-10): The Nicks injury is a reminder that the Giants did lose some depth this offseason. And although they are (a) very strong if their front-line starters are healthy, (b) very good at filling needs internally and (c) always at least in contention even when they miss the playoffs, the likelihood of the nightmare scenario is unimportant to this exercise. This is about imagining, and in the Giants' nightmare scenario their key starters -- such as Nicks, Cruz, Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Bradshaw -- struggle either with injury or ineffectiveness. Eli Manning reverts to his interception-happy ways of 2011. Thomas struggles to get back to where he was, Prince Amukamara fails to take the next step forward and they still can't find a reliable middle linebacker from among the crew they bring to camp. The nightmare scenario also sees the offensive line struggle, especially at the left tackle spot, where Will Beatty was a work in progress in 2011 before eye problems ended his season. Should these troubles come to pass, they would have to lean heavily on their rookies, and it's unlikely that Wilson, Randle and Jayron Hosley could all emerge as successful starters in their first year in the NFL. Again, the Giants' nightmare scenario seems unlikely, but if it happens it will have to do with depth issues behind the starters.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Chicago Bears in 2012.

Dream scenario (13-3): Tailback Matt Forte reports to training camp happy and healthy, either with a new contract or an acceptance of the franchise tag. His good will soothes the locker room and allows players to focus on football. Quarterback Jay Cutler leads the second coming of the 2008 Denver Broncos offense, connecting with receiver Brandon Marshall for 100-plus receptions, and the Bears finally find a Devin Hester "Package" that works. The aging defense remains sharp, rookie Shea McClellin provides an important balance to the pass rush and the Bears prove to be an NFC powerhouse.

Nightmare scenario: (7-9): Forte holds out from training camp, starting the summer off on a bad vibe. An offense that looks good on paper struggles to get organized under first-year coordinator Mike Tice. The Hester Package limits his effectiveness as a returner. McClellin isn't ready to be a three-down player. The defense gets old more quickly than expected, exposing the Bears' lack of young impact players.

49ers: Dream/nightmare scenario

May, 25, 2012
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the 49ers in 2012:

Dream scenario (14-2): The 49ers pick up where they left off last season. They continue to force turnovers and protect the football while dictating field position with their dominant special teams. This time, however, the offense has more firepower.

Receiver Michael Crabtree backs up coach Jim Harbaugh's comments suggesting Crabtree has all-time great hands. A rejuvenated Randy Moss strikes fear into secondaries. Quarterback Alex Smith, armed with sufficient weapons, strikes for explosive plays more frequently. The offensive line, stabilized by Alex Boone's emergence as a top young guard, sustains drives on third down and finishes them in the red zone.

Rookie receiver A.J. Jenkins hits stride in December as the 49ers clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs heading into Week 17. Colin Kaepernick throws for 350 yards and four touchdowns in the regular-season finale as San Francisco eliminates division-rival Arizona from playoff contention. Sufficiently rested, the 49ers score a dominating victory over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, delivering San Francisco its first Super Bowl title since the 1994 season.

Nightmare scenario (6-10): The odds catch up to Smith when the Detroit Lions' Ndamukong Suh delivers a controversial hit at the knees in Week 2. Kaepernick isn't ready, Moss loses interest and the offense can't score enough points. Meanwhile, Peyton Manning has the Denver Broncos looking like contenders.

The 49ers realize they were fortunate to have Smith start 18 games the previous season despite taking 51 sacks. They realize how risky it was going into the season without a proven right guard. How hard would it have been to pay one of the veteran options the team considered in free agency? That's a question reporters keep asking, even though none of them said much before the season. The question stings now that Smith is done for the season and Kaepernick is running for his life.

Tough defense and special teams keep the 49ers reasonably competitive. The coaching staff does its best to stabilize the situation. The 49ers compete and steal victories from other teams with quarterback issues. In the end, however, they become the latest team to suffer a hard fall after posting a glittering record the previous season. Rock bottom arrives when Sando notes, again, that the 13 teams finishing 13-3 from 2004 to 2010 averaged 8.3 victories the following season.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Detroit Lions in 2012.

Dream scenario (12-4): The team moves past its string of silly/immature problems, tightening up not only its off-field behavior but also its discipline on the field during games. Mikel Leshoure and Jahvid Best give the Lions a power/speed dimension in the backfield they lacked for most of last season. Rookie receiver Ryan Broyles' knee heals quickly enough to provide a legitimate fourth option among receivers and further spread out opposing defenses. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley realizes his playmaking potential and teams with Ndamukong Suh to provide consistent and dominant interior play. Fairley, Suh, Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch protect an undermanned secondary and Lions make big defensive plays against opponents feeling pressure to keep up with their offense.

Nightmare scenario (7-9): Best and Leshoure don't provide the balance the Lions hope for, either because of injuries or skill deterioration. Broyles takes longer than expected to return, Titus Young has a sophomore slump and opponents flock to receiver Calvin Johnson. Left tackle Jeff Backus can't hold up for another season as the Lions hope. Despite the formidable defensive line, the Lions can't cover for their secondary and give up too many big plays.
Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Saints in 2012.

Dream scenario (13-3): The ending of this dream is simple. It ends exactly where it starts -- in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. That’s the site of this season’s Super Bowl and there’s no sweeter vision in the eyes of Saints’ fans than watching their team win the NFL’s biggest spectacle at home. If revenge is sweet, this would be 1,000 times sweeter.

New Orleans fans and players are mad about how severely the NFL punished the Saints for their bounty program. They would love it if Roger Goodell hands the Saints the Lombardi Trophy in their own building.

It actually could happen. Think about it: Other than suspended coach Sean Payton, the Saints really haven’t lost that much from a team that went 13-3 last season. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma also is suspended for the entire season, but Vilma’s age (30) started to show last year. The Saints are better off with Curtis Lofton at middle linebacker. The Saints also will have to get through the first four games without suspended defensive end Will Smith.

But, other than that, this team remains loaded with talent. Drew Brees and the offense always will put up a bunch of points. If new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo can make the defense better, the Saints easily are a playoff team. They’ll be motivated by an us-against-the-world mentality, so anything is at least possible.

Nightmare scenario (6-10): It’s easy to say Payton had a great system in place and a veteran team, so the assistants can just run the show and it will be business as usual. I tend to agree with that theory. But what if the importance of a head coach is even greater than we realized? And what if the emotional weight of the most turbulent offseason in NFL history catches up to the Saints?

That’s when all bets are off and when things could start falling apart. Since winning the Super Bowl in the 2009 season, the defense hasn’t been very good. The greatness of the offense has been enough to carry the Saints to the playoffs the past two seasons, but it hasn’t been great enough to carry them deep into the postseason. There’s no doubting Spagnuolo has a good defensive mind, but he might not have all the personnel he needs to run his scheme successfully.

Well, the easy thing to say is the offense will carry this team no matter what. But even if Payton wasn’t suspended, it’s hard to imagine the offense being even more productive than last season. Take Brees and the offense back down to what they were in 2007 and ’08, give New Orleans a defense that’s no better than last year and the Saints could tumble to a middle-of-the-pack team.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Redskins in 2012.

Dream scenario (9-7): This would mean Washington's first winning season since 2007, Joe Gibbs' final year as head coach. What has to happen to make it a reality? Well, lots, frankly. Robert Griffin III will need to be very good right away at taking care of the ball and limiting the kinds of mistakes it's reasonable to expect from rookie quarterbacks. Most important, the Redskins' offense must play very well around him. They'll need health from Tim Hightower and continued development from promising fellow running backs Roy Helu and Evan Royster. They'll need Pierre Garcon to play like the potential No. 1 wideout his free-agent price tag says they believe he can be. They'll need the offensive line to stay healthy and play well, with left tackle Trent Williams as its anchor. The Redskins' dream scenario sees Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan cementing their place among the league's top pass-rushing duos, DeAngelo Hall harnessing his ability and playing like a top corner, and something emerging from the muddle they take to training camp at safety. The defense looked like a young defense on the rise last year, and if the Redskins are to threaten or possibly exceed .500, it will have to continue that rise.

Nightmare scenario (5-11): And that would mean the same record as last year, and one game worse than the year before, and drop Mike Shanahan's three-year record as the team's head coach to a rather uninspiring 16-32. That would be what's called, in official NFL terms, "not good." In the Redskins' nightmare scenario, Griffin struggles with the transition, the wide receiver group is as uninspiring as Washington's free-agency critics believe it is and the offensive line falls apart due to injury for the second year in a row. In the nightmare scenario, the secondary remains a big-time weakness of the defense and costs the Redskins dearly in division games against the likes of Eli Manning, Tony Romo and Michael Vick. If all of this happens, the Redskins would enter the 2013 offseason with far more to fix than they currently believe they do, and with questions about Shanahan's future as coach. I don't think there's much that can happen to wreck the Griffin honeymoon between now and January, but if the rest of the team plays well around him and he commits too many turnovers, that particular nightmare scenario could make Redskins fans nervous about the new franchise quarterback going into next season.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Cardinals in 2012:

Dream scenario (11-5): A full offseason of healing and playbook study lets Kevin Kolb prove the Cardinals knew what they were doing when they acquired him from Philadelphia last offseason. There's plenty of credit to go around. The team's decision to reassign assistant coach John McNulty from receivers to quarterbacks becomes a popular storyline. There's no doubt Kolb's mechanics have improved, but talent and good health are what win football games.

Michael Floyd's addition through the draft makes the Cardinals' passing game nearly impossible to defend, particularly with second-year back Ryan Williams emerging as the game-breaking runner Arizona was convinced it had drafted. Adding young linemen for Russ Grimm to develop also pays off, particularly as the season progresses. Bobby Massie looks like a keeper at right tackle. On the other side, Levi Brown picks up where he left off last season, proving Arizona was right in re-signing him to a five-year contract.

The transformation on defense surprises even the Cardinals. Yes, Arizona made strides on that side of the ball while winning seven of its final nine games in 2011. But there was no way anyone could have expected Sam Acho to challenge Simeon Rice's season franchise record for sacks since 1982 (Rice had 16.5 in 1999). With a healthy Dan Williams at nose tackle and Acho pumping up an already underrated pass rush, cornerback Patrick Peterson takes the next logical step in his development: picking off passes and returning them for touchdowns.

Winning at San Francisco in Week 17 delivers an 11-5 record and the NFC West title to Arizona, the team's third division crown in five years.

Nightmare scenario (5-11): No one can blame Gregg Williams or Jonathan Vilma for the concussion Kolb suffers in the Hall of Fame Game against New Orleans to open the exhibition season. Some in the Cardinals' organization welcome the switch to John Skelton, but with Ryan Williams and Beanie Wells predictably battling knee problems, the offense becomes one-dimensional. That's tough for a team with Brown and a rookie starting at tackle. Kolb's return after a few weeks means as much as it did last season -- nothing.

By October, it's clear the Cardinals didn't do enough at tackle or outside linebacker to take the next step. Those offseason stories about a full offseason helping Kolb seemed justified at the time, but we should have known better. McNulty's coaching helps, but players revert to form under pressure and Kolb is no exception. He wasn't going to develop instincts all of a sudden, was he? Aldon Smith's three-sack game against Arizona on Monday night in Week 8 doesn't seem so bad when Clay Matthews collects four of them the following week.

For the second time in three seasons, the Cards finish 5-11 after getting blown out at San Francisco in Week 17. The quarterback questions persisting upon Kurt Warner's retirement continue to linger. Watching Peyton Manning in the playoffs doesn't help.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Cowboys in 2012.

Dream scenario (12-4): The issue in Dallas is the extent to which the defense improves. If the improvement remains incremental, they'll lose some games they should win and have to scrap to stay in the division race. But if the defense takes a dramatic step forward in its second year under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and with Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne having been brought in to upgrade the secondary, the Cowboys become a Super Bowl contender quite quickly. In the Cowboys' dream scenario, Tony Romo has another big year at quarterback, Miles Austin and DeMarco Murray stay healthy and Dez Bryant takes a big developmental step forward of his own, using his considerable physical ability to dominate matchups in other teams' secondaries and the end zone. The new guys on the offensive line tighten things up in the interior, the move back to right tackle makes Doug Free more comfortable and Tyron Smith transitions seamlessly to left tackle. And in the dream scenario, the improvements in the secondary help the defensive front seven get more pressure on the quarterback, with outside linebacker Anthony Spencer playing the way he did in December of 2009 and DeMarcus Ware playing like... well, like he always does.

Nightmare scenario (6-10): The Cowboys' nightmare scenario, as is the case with anyone's, includes injuries. In this scenario, Austin and Bryant struggle to stay healthy, and the team actually does find itself missing the surprisingly effective replacement Laurent Robinson provided in 2011. Murray also gets banged up, forcing them to rely once again on Felix Jones and little else at running back. Claiborne struggles, as young corners often do, to adjust to the speed and intensity of the NFL game, and Spencer muddles along once again, content to be a pretty good but not great player opposite Ware. In the nightmare scenario, Romo has a bad year, riddled with turnovers and the kind of inconsistency that gives his critics actual evidence for their criticism, and raises legitimate questions about how much longer the Cowboys will remain committed to him. The nightmare scenario includes a slow start against a very tough-looking early portion of the schedule, and sees the Cowboys succumb to the tension and negativity that's always so quick to cling to them in times of trouble. And no, because you're asking, I don't think that even the nightmare scenario puts Jason Garrett on the hot seat. Jerry Jones loves that guy.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Green Bay Packers in 2012.

Dream scenario (16-0): The Packers' passing offense picks up where it left off in a record-breaking 2011 season. The scheme is enhanced by a new approach to the running game, center Jeff Saturday takes over a leadership role from the departed Scott Wells and Marshall Newhouse proves to be a franchise left tackle. The defense rebounds from last season's slump thanks to the infusion of draft picks Nick Perry, Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels. The Packers find a suitable long-term replacement for safety Nick Collins and, a season after falling five points short of a perfect season, the Packers pull it off in 2012.

Nightmare scenario (8-8): The Packers' running game falters when presumed starter James Starks can't stay on the field. Opponents find new ways to approach the Packers' passing game and the defense isn't any better because their slew of rookies aren't ready to play yet. Veteran Charles Woodson is forced to move to safety, and the Packers don't have a suitable replacement for him at cornerback. Despite these problems, it's hard to imagine the Packers finishing below .500.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Panthers in 2012.

Dream scenario (11-5): With the Saints dealing with turmoil and the Falcons facing enormous pressure, it’s at least possible the two teams that have dominated the NFC South in recent years won’t win it in 2012. The Panthers are the next logical choice, and there are all sorts of reasons for optimism.

Coach Ron Rivera’s entering his second season and so is quarterback Cam Newton, who was the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year despite not having an offseason with his coaches and their playbook. Newton should only continue to improve, a scary thought for a guy who lit up defenses with his arm and his legs last season. He has Steve Smith still going strong, a backfield that includes Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams and has added fullback/tailback Mike Tolbert.

There are far fewer questions about Carolina’s offense now than there were a year ago. It’s obvious the Panthers are going to score some points on offense. But the defense will tell the story. If this team is going to make the playoffs, Jon Beason and Ron Edwards must make strong comebacks from injuries and rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly must make an instant impact.

Nightmare scenario (6-10): Anything less than last year’s 6-10 record would be a huge disappointment. Although I don’t think it’s likely, it’s at least possible that Newton will take a step back. If he does, then maybe Smith no longer looks so young and maybe that loaded backfield doesn’t look so good. Then, there’s the matter of a defense that was so bad a year ago. A lot of people seem to assume the return of Beason and Edwards and the addition of Kuechly will solve everything. But maybe Beason and Edwards aren’t the players they were before their injuries and maybe Kuechly doesn’t live up to his billing.

If all that happens, then the Panthers really aren’t going to be any different than they were the last couple of seasons.
Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Minnesota Vikings in 2012.

Dream scenario (9-7): Quarterback Christian Ponder makes a big leap in his second season, spurred in part by confidence in his new offensive line. Ponder makes good use of his two pass-catching tight ends, Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson, and either Jerome Simpson or Greg Childs provides a legitimate downfield threat. Tailback Adrian Peterson (knee) is back to full strength early in the season, if not in Week 1. The Vikings get a big return on overhauling the middle of their defense and aren't hindered by starting one rookie safety (Harrison Smith) and perhaps two (with Robert Blanton). In a tough division, they're thrilled to finish with a winning record.

Nightmare scenario (3-13): The Vikings show no improvement from 2011, giving them a three-year record of 12-36. Ponder's inconsistency raises questions about his future with the franchise. Peterson returns but isn't a dominant runner any longer. The defense implodes because of its inexperience and lack of playmakers in the back end. It's clear the franchise has another year or more to go before matching the rest of the division.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for Seattle in 2012:

Dream scenario (12-4): Matt Flynn's fourth-quarter comeback victory over Green Bay in Week 3 serves notice in prime time that Seattle made the right move in signing the Packers' former backup. Sure, Russell Wilson lit up opponents during the preseason, but everyone figured coach Pete Carroll would go with Flynn heading into the season. Seattle hadn't been able to finish games on offense previously, but the vibe is completely different now. Flynn isn't perfect, of course, and he doesn't have to be. He has the NFL's most physical running back in Marshawn Lynch, two viable tight ends, a healthy Sidney Rice and a downright nasty offensive line.

Finally healthy, left tackle Russell Okung joins fellow 2010 draftees Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor in the Pro Bowl. Second-rounder Golden Tate won't be making the trip, but preseason rumors of a potential breakout season weren't far off.

With the defense allowing only 16 points per game, Flynn doesn't have to be a hero most weeks. By midseason, it's all Carroll can do to refrain from gloating over the team's then-controversial decision to draft Bruce Irvin in the first round. Irvin's two-sack game at San Francisco on Thursday night in Week 7 gives him 5.5 for the season, matching what the 49ers' Aldon Smith had at the same point in 2011. Irvin doesn't quite equal the 14-sack total Smith posted as a rookie, but he's not far behind. The national pundits learn the hard way what should have been evident already: Carroll and the Seahawks' personnel department know what they want on defense.

A trip to Green Bay for the NFC Championship Game leaves the Seahawks thinking big.

Nightmare scenario (6-10): Flynn isn't the answer, Wilson isn't ready and Carroll pays a high price for failing to seriously address the quarterback position until his third season with the team. It's hard for some to believe the Seahawks would miss Tarvaris Jackson, but that is the case as Flynn predictably struggles in his first full season as an NFL starter. No one cares about the division title Carroll won a couple years ago. Critics cite his 7-9, 7-9 and 6-10 records in building a case for his dismissal. They also gloat over the growing pains Irvin experienced while transitioning from West Virginia to the NFL.

Lynch's diminished production makes him an easy target for those suggesting a big contract led to complacency. Some recall Shaun Alexander's post-contract demise. But there are other reasons. Another injury-plagued season on the offensive line becomes a primary culprit. Okung, James Carpenter and John Moffitt were coming off season-ending surgeries. Rice, the team's most talented receiver, had procedures on both shoulders. Banking on so many injured offensive players was understandable after the Tom Cable-coached line worked near-miracles in 2011. But every staff has its limits. Giving some of fullback Michael Robinson's snaps to new tight end Kellen Winslow also might have affected the ground game.

The defense does enough for Carroll to keep his job, but the team heads toward the 2013 draft needing to find its next quarterback -- or else.

Eagles: Dream/nightmare scenario

May, 25, 2012
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Eagles in 2012.

Dream scenario (13-3): The Eagles believed they'd assembled a team last year that could be among the very best in the NFL, and they believe it still. They will need to play defense better, but new middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans and the year the rest of the players have now spent in the new defensive scheme should help them do that. Michael Vick will need to commit fewer turnovers, but his words last December and so far this offseason indicate a better understanding of his own level of responsibility. In the Eagles' dream scenario, Vick plays safer than he did in 2010 and smarter than he did in 2011, and the meet-in-the-middle result is one of the league's most productive quarterbacks. With DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy around him, as well as his own ability, he has no excuse not to be. The Eagles' dream scenario also has them leading the league in sacks again but covering receivers better this time, especially in the middle of the field. And it has Demetress Bell serving as a surprisingly good replacement for injured left tackle Jason Peters. If these things all come to pass, the Eagles will be capable of beating anyone on their schedule.

Nightmare scenario (7-9): Yeah, as bad as they were last year, they still managed to finish 8-8, and Andy Reid's had only one sub-.500 season since the turn of the century. In the Eagles' nightmare scenario, though, the turnover problem doesn't get fixed, the downgrade from Peters to Bell at left tackle messes with the entire offensive line dynamic, Vick gets hurt again and someone like Mike Kafka or Nick Foles has to start a half-dozen games. In the nightmare scenario, 2011 turns out not to have been just one down year for Nnamdi Asomugha but rather the start of a decline. Maclin can't regain his 2010 form the way he's expected to now that he's fully healthy, and Jackson remains a deep downfield decoy who keeps the safeties back and limits Vick's offense to smaller chunks of yardage instead of backbreaking big plays. The nightmare scenario, in which the Eagles finish under .500 in year two of this big plan, sees the end of the Reid and Vick eras in Philadelphia, and leads into a 2013 offseason of great change and upheaval in an organization that prizes continuity as one of its better traits.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Buccaneers in 2012.

Dream scenario (10-6): This will only happen if coach Greg Schiano makes the transition from college to the NFL more like Jim Harbaugh than Nick Saban or Bobby Petrino. Harbaugh isn’t the norm in this category, but it’s possible Schiano could follow in his tracks. The cupboard isn’t bare, it just needs organizing. The Bucs have assembled a lot of young talent in recent drafts -- Josh Freeman, Gerald McCoy, Brian Price, Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn, Adrian Clayborn, Mark Barron, Doug Martin and Lavonte David -- and Schiano showed he can build during his time at Rutgers.

The key to it all is Freeman. Is he the quarterback who threw 25 touchdowns and six interceptions in a 10-6 season in 2010 or the guy that threw 22 interceptions and looked awfully anxious last season? Schiano and his staff firmly believe the 2010 version was the real Freeman and they’ve done everything possible to upgrade his supporting cast. They brought in Vincent Jackson to be the No. 1 receiver and guard Carl Nicks to bolster an offensive line that has a chance to be very good. They also drafted Martin and plan to use him as an every-down running back.

If Freeman is for real, he should bounce back strong from last year’s debacle. Lots of coaches and scouts around the league still believe in Freeman, but we’ll soon find out if he still believes in himself or if last year forever shattered his confidence. But, even if Freeman improves, the Bucs must be a lot better on defense than they were last season when they allowed more points (494) than any team in franchise history.

Nightmare scenario (4-12): As demonstrated by the likes of Saban and Petrino, NFL players don’t always respond well to hard-charging college coaches. There’s no doubt this team needs some order after the Wild West days of Raheem Morris, but Schiano must get his players to buy into the new order in their worlds or he could be in for trouble. Although ownership showed a willingness to spend in free agency and the Bucs have had some early draft picks in recent years, this job is far from paradise.

Few, if any, of those early draft picks have shown that they are the real deal. Maybe all they need is better coaching, but maybe the Bucs just haven’t drafted very well. If Freeman struggles again, the Bucs suddenly have a quarterback quandary on their hands. If they struggle on offense, there’s no way they can win games in the NFC South. You don’t win a lot of games with defense in the modern NFL and, at least on paper, Tampa Bay’s offense is much more talented than its defense.

If Freeman doesn’t take a step forward and the defense doesn’t show improvement, it will become last season all over again. This is not a franchise that can handle a lot more misery. Attendance has been lacking in recent years and the Bucs aren’t going to fill up their stadium until they escape obscurity and win consistently.

Rams: Dream/nightmare scenario

May, 25, 2012
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Rams in 2012:

Dream scenario (8-8): Sam Bradford takes every snap on offense for the second time in three seasons as the Rams protect their franchise quarterback with sensible play calling. It's the sixth time a Jeff Fisher-coached team finishes 8-8, but no one is complaining after the Rams' 15-65 run over the previous five seasons. Trusting offensive line coach Paul Boudreau to salvage right tackle Jason Smith becomes one of the surprise success stories of the 2012 season, and a critical one for the Rams' efforts to re-establish Bradford.

Turns out the Rams were not fibbing when they suggested Brian Quick, the receiver they took in the second round, ranked up there with first-rounder Justin Blackmon on their board. The constant threat of Steven Jackson and Isaiah Pead out of the backfield creates favorable matchups for Quick and the Rams' underrated receivers. Bradford publicly downplays a Week 2 victory over Robert Griffin III and Washington, but it feels good to win at home against the player St. Louis could have selected second overall this year.

Watching Janoris Jenkins score on a fourth-quarter punt return in Patrick Peterson's house improbably stakes the Rams to a 6-5 record, stirring visions of the postseason. It's certainly sweet to finally win within the division again. The Rams lose to San Francisco the following week and ultimately finish the regular season with a respectable defeat at Seattle, but the season is a success by any measure.

Nightmare scenario (3-13): Road games against Detroit and Chicago in the first three weeks expose Bradford to significant punishment as Smith and the line struggle to find their bearings. Bradford doesn't want to talk about the ankle injury he aggravated at some point in the season's first month, but it's clearly a factor. Facing Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Ndamukong Suh, Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan, Julius Peppers, Chris Clemons, Bruce Irvin, Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, Cameron Wake and Clay Matthews in the first seven games leaves Bradford limping toward the bye week, his confidence shaken.

Steven Jackson continues to plug away, but we've seen this movie before and it doesn't end well for the Rams. The depth at receiver is indeed improved, but Bradford doesn't have any truly dynamic weapons. Quick understandably needs seasoning, but with Blackmon and Arizona's Michael Floyd challenging rookie receiving records, the Rams look bad for trading down. It's tough finding open receivers with Smith struggling at tackle, anyway.

First-round pick Michael Brockers and free-agent addition Kendall Langford upgrade the run defense, but life as an every-down defensive end is tough for Robert Quinn. The veteran outside linebackers signed as stopgaps represent only a minor upgrade from last season. Off-field issues dog Jenkins and the defense fails to meet expectations. Critics conveniently blame Gregg Williams' suspension, but the problems are more complex than that.

The Rams head into the offseason with another high draft choice, one they'll almost certainly have to invest in a playmaker of some sort.