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Inside the NFL | Patriots, 49ers cream of the 2012-13 NFL crop

Published: Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, September 4, 2012 07:09

AlexSmith

MCT

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith will be looking to lead his team back to the NFC championship game, where they fell to the eventually Super Bowl champion New York Giants last season.


 

It’s that time again: summer is coming to an end, which means it’s time to fire up the flat screen, break out the wings, and settle in for another great football season. Below is a guide through the unmarked and treacherous terrain of the NFL,  make sense of what is sure to be another exciting year. 

AFC Preview:

When talking about the AFC, the conversation usually begins and ends with the New England Patriots. The Pats have been to the Super Bowl five times in the past eleven years and look poised to continue their dominant run this year with the same unstoppable aerial attack led by future hall-of-fame quarterback Tom Brady.

This year, though, the Pats feature a revamped defense after using every pick in the draft this year outside of the seventh round on defensive players in an effort to shore up a massive bugaboo for the team. 

Their draft consisted of two first-round selections who will immediately make an impact in the front seven: defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower. If the Patriots’ defense can improve and the offense sustains no major injuries, then New England’s current favorite team should continue to roll on.

However, the AFC is not short on firepower after the Patriots. The consensus AFC South division winner, the Houston Texans, look to be the biggest obstacle in the Patriots’ path to another Super Bowl trip. The Texans boast one of the strongest running games in the league, as Arian Foster and Ben Tate cut through the holes opened up by the best the zone-blocking scheme in football. 

Further up the field, wide receiver Andre Johnson and tight end Owen Daniels provide two big-time targets for quarterback Matt Schaub, who was not available for the playoffs last year due to injury. Finally, the Texans bring back a staunch defense that won’t miss a beat despite losing defensive end Mario Williams to free agency. Led by Pro Bowl cornerback Johnathan Joseph and a medley of pass-rushers, the Texans look poised to make another run deep into the playoffs. 

If you’re looking for a sleeper special, look no further than the Kansas City Chiefs. Sometimes a laughing stock and a perennial bottom dweller in the AFC West, the Chiefs finished a solid 7-9 last season, and appear to be on the upswing. 

The offense is not sparse in the talent department: running backs Jamal Charles and Peyton Hillis can both be pro-bowl caliber, and wide receivers Dwayne Bowe and Jon Baldwin provide athletic targets for quarterback Matt Cassel. The real key for the Chiefs is their young, fast defense. Third-year safety Eric Berry is a star in the making and OLB Tamba Hali anchors a stellar core of linebackers. 

The Chiefs are in a difficult division with the Chargers, Broncos, and an underrated Raiders squad, but expect them to make some noise out west. 

AFC East:  Patriots

AFC North: Ravens

AFC South:  Texans

AFC West:  Chiefs

Wild Card:  Steelers, Bills

Conference Champion:  Patriots

NFC Preview: 

The NFC is filled with gun-slingers in every division, which gives the Green Bay Packers a distinct advantage by having the best one in the game with Aaron Rodgers.  The Packers have surrounded Rodgers with downfield talent, like wide receivers Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson and tight end Jermicheal Finley, who are all more than capable of hauling in all of Rodgers’ bombs. 

What hurt the Packers last year, though, and eventually derailed their Super Bowl hopes, was their league-worst defense, as the Pack finished dead last in passing yards allowed (299.8) and 27th in rushing yards allowed (97.4). The bend-don’t-break strategy led Green Bay to a 15-1 record in the regular season, but in the playoffs, Green Bay’s defense couldn’t cut it against Eli Manning and the New York Giants. 

With all the preseason hype once again surrounding Green Bay, it’s easy to forget that the Giants are in fact the reigning Super Bowl champions. New York seems to find ways to win the games it has to and appears to have the necessary components for another championship run. Eli Manning has answered every question and possesses a clutch gene that is essential for quarterbacks in the pressure-filled playoffs. 

The Giants pass rush, however, is what sets them apart, and in today’s highflying game, getting to the passer is the key to slowing down opposing offenses. The three-headed behemoth of Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul at defensive end is absurdly talented. All three ends are some of the best at their position, and constant rotation keeps each of them fresh. 

The Giants only had a 9-7 record in the regular season last year, but the parity in the NFC leaves it wide open, and there are a multitude of teams with high-powered offenses that seem like viable Super Bowl candidates, whether it be New Orleans and Drew Brees or Atlanta and Matt Ryan. Or perhaps a different NFC East team can challenge the G-men, likely Tony Romo’s Cowboys or Michael Vick’s Eagles. 

But the one team that stands apart from the rest is the San Francisco 49ers, who came within a muffed punt of getting to the Super Bowl last season.

  The 49ers ‘calling card is their defense, which finished 2nd in points allowed per game, 1st in rushing yards allowed, and 4th in total yards allowed last season. Patrick Willis, a once-in-a-generation linebacker, is the unquestioned defensive and team leader and will be surrounded by familiar faces this year, as all eleven starting defenders return for San Fran. 

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