Bills on the rise
Buffalo are the team to watch, says Simon Veness in his NFL half-term 'report' from the off-season.
Last Updated: 22/05/12 10:26am
We're now officially half-way through the off-season, that Twilight Zone of NFL action and inaction, news and rumour, which fills six months of the year.
Under normal circumstances, it would not be an occasion anyone would think to notice, let alone commemorate in any way. But these are not normal circumstances. Anyone who's been following the league's turbulent off-season so far will know it has been a roller-coaster ride of dismal proportions, filled only with the bleakest of headlines.
But this is the week when players and teams emerge from their winter sloth (again, the 'normal' course of events), to begin the famous 'OTA's (Organised Team Activities, usually a training session or mini-camp) that mark the beginning of a hint of a return to the semblance of normality.
This week it's for the teams with new head coaches (Tampa, Oakland, Indianapolis, St Louis and Jacksonville) and next week it is everyone else (plus Miami, who opted to wait a week under new coach Joe Philbin).
So here, with a quick look at each division, is a summary Who's Looking Good as we start to think about The Real Thing once again, and Who Has Most Cause To Worry.
NFC East: It has been surprisingly quiet on the Dallas front, which leads many to think the Cowboys could be the team to watch this pre-season. No big splashes or fanfares (unlike Washington), and everything points to a team that's rolling up its sleeves in anticipation of hard work - and improved results.
The Giants have been equally quiet - borderline smug, according to some commentators - but that rarely serves a defending champ well when the action heats up again. Philadelphia have their defensive Think Tank working overtime to figure out Where It All Went Wrong in 2011 (and, more importantly, how to put it right), while Washington have nailed their colours to the mast of RGIII. And, if Robert Griffin ISN'T the immediate answer at quarterback, watch for Mike Shanahan to be the first man out of town.
NFC North: Here it's all about running the ball. Or, more correctly, just WHO will be running the ball in 2012. All four teams have major question-marks over their backfields and how they address those issues will probably decide if this remains the ultra-competitive division it promised to be last year.
Of course, if Green Bay rediscover the secret to good D, it might not matter a whole lot what the other three do, as an Aaron Rodgers who doesn't have to put up 40 points a game just to keep his side in it is a pretty formidable prospect (see, 2010).
NFC South: That huge grey raincloud that you can probably see from your side of the Atlantic is situated firmly over New Orleans, and it's not moving anytime soon. The ongoing fallout of Bounty-gate, confusion in the coaching ranks, a front office shake-up and the ongoing contract wrangling with Drew Brees all mean that if the Saints put out even a half-competitive team, many observers will be surprised.
No-one is expecting too much out of the gate from Tampa but both Atlanta and Carolina have made the kind of moves that suggest they expect to be serious contenders this time around, either reinforcing their secondaries or beefing up the linebacking corps - all in a bid to be better than New Orleans.
NFC West: San Francisco's moves to upgrade their wide receiver potential are the biggest item in this division, where the 49ers played like champs for most of the season and then chumps, at least on offence, when it came to their big NFC Championship shoot-out against the Giants.
The consensus is that St Louis still have at least a couple of years of rebuilding to do while Seattle remain short of veteran talent on both sides of the ball and Arizona are still a team in search of a quarterback.
AFC East: Hold on, here come the Bills! Yes, you heard it right. The team most pundits are high on at this stage in the off-season are the division doormats, hapless Buffalo, without a play-off appearance since Roman Abramovich was only a state representative for Chukotka (that would be 1999).
With aggressive moves in both free agency (Mario Williams, Mark Anderson) and the Draft (top talent at cornerback, offensive line and receiver), they could easily leap-frog Miami and the Jets as the prime challengers to New England. The Patriots, meanwhile, have loaded up at wide receiver - and I do mean loaded. At last count, they have NINE recent starters all competing for a roster spot, let alone the starting line-up. Take your pick from Wes Welker, Deon Branch, Brandon Lloyd, Donte Stallworth, Anthony Gonzalez, Jabar Gaffney, Julian Edelman, Matthew Slater AND Chad Ochocinco. Think Tom Brady will be throwing a few passes this year?
AFC North: Much will be made between now and September 5, when the season kicks off, of the fate of Baltimore defensive kingpins Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs. While one is a self-doubt to strap on the pads ever again, the other's injured Achilles looks likely to deprive the team of their 14-sack monster from 2011.
And that opens the door for quietly re-tooling Pittsburgh and possibly even Cincinnati to take a run at the division crown. Cleveland? No, not really a glimmer of hope for them just now. But then we do have three months to go, and they might, suddenly, find a viable quarterback, a running back and an offensive line falling into their laps from somewhere. Or not.
AFC South: There's a big question mark hovering over one team in this division, and it's not who you might think. Indianapolis already know they face the LONG road back, with a rookie quarterback and a team shorn of almost all its skill position stars, while Tennessee are still licking their wounds at missing out on The Great Manning Lottery.
Jacksonville remain several light-years off the NFL pace - so much so that Miami cast-off Chad Henne is the predicted starter at quarterback, over Blaine Gabbert - which leaves Houston in the winners-by-default column. But they have mystified quite a few observers by their apparent inability to even hold steady, let alone improve during the off-season.
AFC West: If there's a big query over the Texans, there are all kinds of questions waiting to be answered over here, where ALL eyes will be directed at a certain former University of Tennessee quarterback. After the Tebow Experiment comes the Manning Era, with Denver sure they have improved enough on defence to give the new-look offence a good shot.
Whether Peyton can stay healthy is the $60,000 poser, though, and you suspect each of Kansas, Oakland and San Diego will be holding their breath waiting to see. The Chargers remain the most intriguing possibility in the AFC for many. If Philip Rivers doesn't throw 20 INTs next term, they could be serious dark horses.
And here's a quick question to finish with: What have the numbers 12, 9, 9 and 7 got in common? Clue: start with the Bills! Answer in two weeks.