Divisional Breakdown : NFC North Teams

We’ve arrived at my favorite divisional breakdown: the NFC North breakdown. Featuring the best team in any division, named by a completely unbiased source who has not been a fan since age 10: the Green Bay Packers.

I’m so excited.

The Chicago Bears

History: Founded in 1919 and becoming a charter member of the NFL in 1920, the Chicago Bears have one of the longest histories in the NFL. They are often identified with longtime leader and football pioneer George Halas (“Papa Bear”) and iconic player and coach Mike Ditka. The Bears are known for their defense (especially in the ’85 “Super Bowl Shuffle” season) and their historic rivalry with the Green Bay Packers.

Current Players to Know: Jay Cutler, the oft criticized quarterback, doesn’t always have the demeanor associated with the position, but has the arm for it. Brandon Marshall is a wide receiver who just relocated back to Chicago after a brief stint with the Broncos. Brian Urlacher is the leader of the defense – and really, the whole team – as an 8-time Pro Bowler at the linebacker position.

Head Coach: Lovie Smith

2011 Regular Season Record: 8-8

What to Watch For in 2012: As a Packers fan, the Bears make me nervous this year. The Cutler-Marshall connection was strong over the first weekend of NFL action…to the tune of 41 points in a 41-21 win over the Colts. Primarily known as a defensive team, this offensive explosion is really a revelation for the Bears.

The Detroit Lions

History: The Lions, originally the Spartans, were formed in 1929. Despite their long history, the Lions have never played in a Super Bowl (though they did win four NFL championships prior to the Super Bowl era), and also lay claim to the unfortunate statistic of being the only team in the NFL to go 0-16: a completely winless season. Barry Sanders, one of the best running backs of all time, played for the Lions from 1989 – 1998.

Current Players to Know: Matthew Stafford is the Lions young but experienced quarterback. If you hear the name “Megatron” on a Sunday afternoon you haven’t accidentally been switched to a showing of Transformers – that’s the nickname of the Lions incomparable wide receiver Calvin Johnson. And holding down the fort with big plays and big penalities on offense is Ndamukong Suh, who plays defensive tackle.

Head Coach: Jim Schwartz

2011 Regular Season Record: 10-6

What to Watch For in 2012: The Lions are kind of known as the punks of the league…and I’m not just saying that because I’m a Packers fan. Examples include last season’s head coach handshake debacle and Ndamukong Suh “unintentionally” stomping on a defenseless (Packers) player at the end of a play, resulting in a 2 game suspension. If they can get over themselves and be mature, they can increase the growth that has taken them from an 0-16 team to a playoff contender.

The Green Bay Packers

(Just so we’re clear, I’m going to be unapologetically biased while writing this review. I love the Packers more than almost anything.)

History: The Packers were founded in 1919 by Curly Lambeau. They were originally known as the “ACME Packers” as they were sponsored by the ACME Meat Packing Company. With 13 titles, the Packers have won more championships (not Super Bowls…yet) than any other team in NFL history, which is how Green Bay was issued the name “Titletown USA.” Eight of those titles came at the hands of legendary coach Vince Lombardi. Prolific players include Bart Starr, Jerry Kramer, Paul Hornung, Ray Nietschke, Reggie White, and Brett Favre. The Packers are the only remaining publicly owned franchise in American sports. Fans are renowned as “cheeseheads” and are often referred to as the best fans in sports (an accolade with which I wholeheartedly agree.)

Current Players to Know: Aaron Rodgers is the Packers quarterback and current league MVP. The blond beast at linebacker is Clay Matthews, who is already off to a great start with 2.5 sacks in Sunday’s game. Charles Woodson is the leader on defense; this season he’s transitioning from cornerback to safety.

Head Coach: Mike McCarthy

2011 Regular Season Record: 15-1

What to Watch For in 2012: The Packers had an unbelievable regular season last year – 15-1!!! – despite having the 32nd ranked defense in the league. Unfortunately…they’ve already matched that loss total in Week 1 and the defense doesn’t appear to have improved much. The Packers were a popular preseason pick to make it all the way to the Super Bowl but with the NFC North as good as it is they’ll have a hard time making the playoffs if the defense doesn’t improve ASAP.

The Minnesota Vikings

History: The Vikings are the only team in the NFC North that wasn’t founded with the original NFL. Their franchise was awarded in 1960 and they’ve enjoyed moderate success ever since. You may remember the Vikings from the Metrodome collapse of 2010.

Current Players to Know: Adrian Peterson is the offensive name to know on this team. He’s been one of the league’s leading running backs ever since his rookie season. Jared Allen, famous for his post-sack celebrations, is the leader of the defense at linebacker. Christian Ponder is the quarterback.

Head Coach: Leslie Frazier

2011 Regular Season Record: 3-13

What to Watch For in 2012: The Vikings were less than impressive last year…and that’s being generous. This season, AP is back with a fully rehabbed knee (torn ACL and MCL) and looks to be back in winning form. Their quarterback situation is far from rock solid, but Christian Ponder has been decent so far.

Divisional Breakdown : AFC West Teams

Today’s feature: AFC West Teams. And off we go:

The Denver Broncos

History: The Broncos were created as part of the original AFL and kept their identity throughout the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. Their most famous player is former quarterback John Elway, who led the Broncos to five Super Bowls, won two back to back, and is now the Executive Vice President of the team.

Current Players to Know: Peyton Manning, ousted from Indy, landed in Denver. His continuing career in Denver is without a doubt the biggest story of the season. DeMaryius Thomas is the wide receiver who caught the game-winning pass in overtime in last year’s playoff win against the Steelers. Von Miller is an outside linebacker who was selected to the Pro Bowl last year – in his rookie season.

Head Coach: John Fox

2011 Regular Season Record: 8-8

What to Watch For in 2012: Peyton Manning. Watch for his every move to be dissected relentlessly as everyone tries to figure out whether or not he’s still the player he once was.

The Kansas City Chiefs

History: The Chiefs were originally the Dallas Texans, and actually had considerable success under that moniker. However, after the move to Kansas City and the AFL-NFL merger, things started to go downhill. Their one and only Super Bowl win came right after the merger in 1970.

Current Players to Know: Matt Cassel was a standout backup quarterback for the New England Patriots when Tom Brady was injured in the 2008 season. That earned him a starting spot in Kansas City, where he was traded in the 2009 draft. Dwayne Bowe is the team’s best wide reciever by a landslide and an essential component of their offense. Dontari Poe holds down the defensive fort at nose tackle.

Head Coach: Romeo Crennel

2011 Regular Season Record: 7-9

What to Watch For in 2012: Matt Cassel will be starting at quarterback again after losing his spot last season to Kyle Orton, who was traded by the Broncos when Tim Tebow earned the starting job there. Orton has since left to assume the backup role in Dallas. Cassel will now have the responsibility of reclaiming the team and his former prowess.

The Oakland Raiders

History: Oakland was selected as the 8th AFL team even though they had no stadium, no ownership, and had not asked for a team. After holding a local contest, the new team was named the “Oakland SeƱors,” but after a few weeks the name was changed to the Raiders because…well…that’s so much better. The Raiders moved from Oakland to LA 1982 and then back to Oakland again in 1995. The team is synonymous with long-time owner Al Davis, who, though eccentric, was essential to the history and progress of the NFL.

Current Players to Know: Carson Palmer, former Bengals quarterback, will get the to start his first full season as the Raiders quarterback this year. When he’s healthy, Darren McFadden is an excellent running back. And the whole Defensive Line is of note for the Raiders, who dominate in this area.

Head Coach: Dennis Allen

2011 Regular Season Record: 8-8

What to Watch For in 2012: The Raiders have a new coach this year, but the Raiders have a new coach every year. Sometimes more often than that. Since they aren’t in the strongest division in the NFL they could have a decent shot at the playoffs if they could establish any kind of consistency.

The San Diego Chargers

History: The Chargers were part of the original AFL. They spent one season in Los Angeles before moving to San Diego in 1961. Surprisingly, since they are often playoff contenders, the Chargers have only been to the Super Bowl once (in 1963) and have never won.

Current Players to Know: Phillip Rivers has been the team’s quarterback since 2004. Ryan Matthews is an up-and-coming running back. Melvin Ingram was selected by the Chargers in the first round of this year’s draft and is expected to work wonders at the linebacker position as a pass rusher.

Head Coach: Norv Turner

2011 Regular Season Record: 8-8

What to Watch For in 2012: In the 2000’s the Chargers won five divisional titles in six years. They are always good. But they’re rarely good enough, especially in the past few years. It’ll be tougher for them this year with wide reciever Vincent Brown out with a broken ankle for at least half of the regular season and star running back Ryan Matthews out with a broken clavicle for 4-6 weeks.

Divisional Breakdown : AFC East Teams

Today we’re traveling to the AFC East! Here’s the deal with the teams in that division:

The Buffalo Bills

History: Buffalo had a long list of teams with other minor football organizations prior to establishing the Bills with the AFL in 1960. O.J. Simpson was a star running back for the Bills in the 70’s. The Bills are also famous for going to the Super Bowl FOUR TIMES IN A ROW in the 90’s but never winning. That decline has carried over into the present era.

Current Players to Know: Ryan Fitzpatrick is a Harvard-educated quarterback. He was nothing to write home about until last season when he led the Bills on an excellent winning streak early in the season. He did not perform quite as well for the rest of the season. Mario Williams is a star defensive end who signed with Buffalo over the summer (he used to play for the Houston Texans). Fred Jackson is a running back who was having a great season last year before he was injured in Week 11.

Head Coach: Chan Gailey

2011 Regular Season Record: 6-10

What to Watch For in 2012: I don’t want to jinx it because I would love to see Buffalo succeed…but the Bills really could be good this year! While they lack depth in some areas they added a lot of talent in the off-season. Ryan Fitzpatrick received a big contract extension in the middle of last season but didn’t really live up to it, so he might perform on the basis of having something to prove this year. And always keep an eye on wide receiver Stevie Johnson, as he’s prone to drama and can usually be counted on for good press conference material.

The Miami Dolphins

History: Florida’s first professional football team was actually named the “Miami Seahawks,” a team that played for the AAFC. That team only lasted one season. Twenty years later, the AFL established a new team in Miami, and a fan vote decided that the team would be named the Dolphins. The ’72 Dolphins are famous for having the only undefeated season in NFL history (and for fervently clinging to that identity). Legendary QB Dan Marino established his legacy in Miami in the 80’s and 90’s.

Current Players to Know: The quarterback situation is still up in the air. It looks like Rookie QB Ryan Tannehill might beat out veteran David Garrard and incumbent Matt Moore for the starting job. Former New Orleans Saint Reggie Bush can always be counted on for a reliable performance at running back. Centers don’t always get a lot of love, but Mike Pouncey is one of the best.

Head Coach: Joe Philbin (former Packers Offensive Coordinator…we miss you, Coach!)

2011 Regular Season Record: 6-10

What to Watch For in 2012: Oh…Miami! They’ve really been unable to recover since the Dan Marino era ended…in 1999. This season is already off to a tumultuous start for the Dolphins, who have chosen to appear on the HBO series “Hard Knocks.” A team that is already unstable is now under the microscope, and they just garnered even more media coverage with the Chad Johnson debacle over the weekend. Maybe it’ll be a great season, but I think it might be an uphill battle, especially with Buffalo looking better than they have in the recent past.

The New England Patriots

History: The Boston Patriots were established in 1959 and became the New England Patriots soon after the merger in 1970. They had one Super Bowl appearance in the 80’s and one in the 90’s but started dominating the league in the 2000’s. The team has flourished under the leadership of respected owner Robert Kraft and iconic hoodie-wearing coach Bill Belichick, not to mention the notable contributions of their star quarterback, Tom Brady. The Patriots are kind of the Yankees of the NFL – you either love them or you hate them.

Current Players to Know: Tom Brady, of course. Rob Gronkowski burst onto the scene last year as one of the league’s most valuable tight ends. Aaron Hernandez, the other half of a deadly tight end set, is poised to have another great season. (It should also be noted that New England is way ahead of the game as it pertains to the evolution of the tight end position. Which should come as no surprise with living legend Bill Belichick as the head coach.)

Head Coach: Bill Belichick

2011 Regular Season Record: 13-3

What to Watch For in 2012: The Patriots are coming off of a Super Bowl loss to the Giants – the second in 4 years. While the Patriots always have a great regular season, they haven’t won a Super Bowl since they won back to back in the 2004 and 2005 seasons. It’s hard to say that a team which consistently makes the playoffs is hungry for a successful season, but with the recent losses to the Giants they’ll definitely be fired up.

The New York Jets

History: The Jets began in the same fashion they represent today: with a bold statement. They were originally named the Titans because, as per then-owner Harry Wismer, “The Titans are bigger and stronger than the Giants.” They were renamed the Jets after being rescued from bankruptcy in 1962. Joe Namath, famed Jets quarterback, led the team to their only Super Bowl victory in 1969.

Current Players to Know: Mark Sanchez is the Jets’ oft-debated starting quarterback, and Tim Tebow, who led the Denver Broncos to a playoff victory last season, is the league’s most famous backup quarterback. Darelle Revis is one of the league’s best cornerbacks. (And this is completely unsolicited, but after going to the Jets training camp last week I think Stephen Hill, rookie wide receiver, could potentially have a notable season.)

Head Coach: Rex Ryan

2011 Regular Season Record: 8-8

What to Watch For in 2012: The Sanchez-Tebow marriage. There is no controversy, per-se, as Mark Sanchez is the undisputed starter…but so was Kyle Orton in Denver last season, and that season ended with Orton being shipped off to Kansas City and Tebow leading the Broncos to a playoff victory against the Steelers. While it doesn’t appear likely that Tebow will replace Sanchez as QB1, the Jets have a great opportunity to use the unconventional backup in a variety of ways – especially in running situations, since Tebow is basically a human mountain and can run over professional linebackers like they are Pop Warner players. In a perfect world this two-quarterback system would work flawlessly, but in the Jets world, everything is complicated, especially as it pertains to locker room dynamics.

Divisional Breakdown : AFC South Teams

Welcome to this week’s divisional breakdown! Today, we’re learning all about the AFC South.

The Houston Texans

History: Houston’s team was the Oilers until 1997, when owner Bud Adams was granted permission to move the team to Tennessee. They (eventually) became the Tennessee Titans. Teamless, Houston levied for an expansion team and was granted one (but not before a long and expensive battle with Los Angeles). The Texans first season was 2002.

Current Players to Know: Matt Schaub will be returning as quarterback after sitting out the second half of last season to a foot injury. J.J. Watt will be holding down the fort on defense as the team’s star defensive end as long as his dislocated elbow heals by the season opener on September 9th. And Andre Johnson is Andre Johnson: possibly the best wide receiver in the league.

Head Coach: Gary Kubiak

2011 Regular Season Record: 10-6

What to Watch For in 2012: The Texans could be a Super Bowl contender in 2012. They made a splash in the playoffs last season and that was without starting QB Matt Schaub. If they can stay healthy they could have a great season.

The Indianapolis Colts

History: The Colts have been members of the NFL since it’s inception and were one of three teams to move over to the AFC during the 1970 merger. They moved from Baltimore to their current home in Indianapolis in 1984.

Current Players to Know: Andrew Luck, Andrew Luck, and Andrew Luck. You may have heard that the Colts’ 14 year franchise quarterback, Peyton Manning, was ousted from Indy for the young whipper snapper Andrew Luck. Luck is touted as the best prospect to come out of the draft in decades, so all eyes will be on him and how he replaces a legend this season.

Head Coach: Chuck Pagano

2011 Regular Season Record: 2-14

What to Watch For in 2012: Well…everything. The Colts were deplorable last season without Manning, and their reaction was to clean house completely. Sixty of the ninety players who reported to training camp this season are new, the head coach is new, the defensive system is new, even the long-standing executives are new. It’ll be so interesting to see how the Colts adjust to this era in their history.

The Jacksonville Jaguars

History: The Jaguars are a relatively new team, granted as an expansion team and the 30th team overall in 1995. They’ve had sparks of greatness and splashes of less-than-greatness in that short amount of time.

Current Players to Know: Maurice Jones-Drew will be the big name here – he’s the running back who is holding out for a better contract and is key to the Jaguars offense functioning at it’s best. Rookie wide receiver Justin Blackmon should help the offense if he lives up to his potential. Blaine Gabbert is almost definitely going to be the starting quarterback.

Head Coach: Mike Mularkey

2011 Regular Season Record: 5-11

What to Watch For in 2012: The Jaguars can do defense…it’s offense they struggle with. If Blaine Gabbert struggles Chad Henne would be the replacement at QB – not a bad deal in the least, and potentially preferable. The MJD story will continue to be a focal point until it resolves.

The Tennessee Titans

History: The Tennessee Titans were originally the Houston Oilers. They remained the Oilers even after they moved to Tennessee in 1997 (owner Bud Adams requested the move), but in 1998 due to fan request the name was changed to the Titans.

Current Players to Know: Matt Hasselbeck is a veteran quarterback, Jack Locker is a second year QB. The two are currently fighting it out (cordially) for the starting spot. Chris Johnson is a running back who had a record setting year several years ago but has not returned to similar glory since, although he’s still outstanding at his job.

Head Coach: Mike Munchak

2011 Regular Season Record: 9-7

What to Watch For in 2012: Who starts at quarterback? How productive will Chris Johnson be? Will Kenny Britt, consistently delinquent juvenile, be available to play for most/any/all of the season or will he be suspended? The Titans managed to have a decent year last year (partially because most of the other teams in the division managed to have a non-decent year last year), so they have the potential to be respectable this season.

Divisional Breakdown : AFC North Teams

In the coming weeks we’ll talk more about how the league is organized in Basics posts. But just so we’re all on the same page right now, let’s do a quick overview of NFL teams.

  • There are 32 teams in the National Football League
  • There are two conferences within the National Football League: the AFC (American Football Conference) and the NFC (National Football Conference). There is a long and confusing history behind this establishment but here’s the gist of it: the NFL and the AFL were two separate football-playing organizations until 1970 when they merged and became two parts (the NFC and AFC) of one whole (the NFL). Though changes have been made to the teams and the divisions within each conference since the merger, the current setup has been in place since the 2002 realignment.
  • Did you survive that bullet? It was kind of a long and wordy one. It’s easier from here on out!
  • Each Conference (AFC and NFC) has four geographic divisions: North, South, East, and West.
  • (4 teams x 4 divisions) x 2 conferences = 32 teams.

Make sense?

(Let’s also take a moment to note a phenomenon: I can’t believe I remember how to use parentheses in multiplication. Wonders never cease.)

SO: on Tuesdays/Wednesdays in August we’ll be learning more about each division in preparation for the start of the 2012 season. Today we’ll dive right in and start with the AFC North.

AFC North

The Baltimore Ravens

History: The Ravens actually used to be the Cleveland Browns, but in 1996 then-owner Art Modell tried to move the Browns from Cleveland to Baltimore. After lots of legal dispute it was decided that the Browns franchise was to stay in Cleveland but the “team” – players, coaches, etc – would be allowed to move to Baltimore as an expansion team. The new team name was actually chosen by a fan vote. They opted for the Ravens as a tribute to Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem, The Raven, penned in Baltimore.

Current Players to Know: Joe Flacco is entering his 5th season as the team’s starting quarterback. He’s led his team to the playoffs every season of his career so far. Ray Lewis is the fiery emotional leader of the team. He’s a linebacker entering his 17th season in the league. Ed Reed is every quarterback’s worst nightmare – he’s one of the best safeties in the league.

Head Coach: John Harbaugh

2011 Regular Season Record: 12-4

What to Watch For in 2012: Terrell Suggs tore his Achilles tendon last April so his playing status for the season remains doubtful. His absence on defense will be noticeable. Ray Lewis is in better shape than ever after getting slim and trim in the off season, but questions will undoubtedly arise as to whether or not this will be the veteran’s final season.

The Cleveland Browns

History: The Browns are named for Paul Brown, a football pioneer and the team’s first coach and founder in 1944. The Browns originally played in the AAFC, then moved to the NFL, then were deactivated from 1996-1999 due to the aforementioned relocation attempt to Baltimore. The NFL decided that the franchise would stay in Cleveland but would be inactive for 3 years in order for a new stadium to be built. While the Browns had early success in the Paul Brown era, they’ve been lackluster in the modern era.

Current Players to Know: Colt McCoy and Brandon Weeden – both quarterbacks vying for the same starting position. Trent Richardson is a Heisman-nominated running back and first round draft pick starting his first year in the league. Joe Haden is a force to be reckoned with at cornerback.

Head Coach: Pat Shurmur

2011 Regular Season Record: 4-12

What to Watch For in 2012: The Quarterback Battle between incumbent starter Colt McCoy and 28 year old rookie Brandon Weeden. McCoy has not been the franchise quarterback the Browns had hoped for when they drafted him in 2010, and all signs point to Weeden being named the starting quarterback in Week 1.

The Cincinnati Bengals

History: Remember Paul Brown? Art Model fired him from the Browns in 1960. In 1966 the governor of Ohio convinced Brown that Ohio needed a second team to rival the Browns. The Bengals, a name chosen to create a link to a former professional football team of the same name in Cincinnati, were born.

Current Players to Know: Andy Dalton had a stand-out first year as the Bengal’s QB. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, a running back with one of the most fun names to say in football, will spend his first season in Cincinnati after leaving the Patriots during the off season. A.J. Green is an exceptional wide receiver who makes the most unbelievable catches you’ll ever see.

Head Coach: Marvin Lewis

2011 Regular Season Record: 9-7

What to Watch For in 2012: The Bengals have a lot of talent on their roster this season. The big question will be whether all of that talent can come together cohesively. And without tweeting, which Head Coach marvin Lewis just banned – at least through training camp.

The Pittsburgh Steelers

History: The Steelers were founded in 1933 by Art Rooney. The Rooney’s still own the franchise and are one of the most well-respected owners/families in all of sports. The Steelers were originally named The Pirates but Mr. Rooney changed the name to the Steelers in 1940 to reflect the heritage of Pittsburgh. (My favorite part of Steelers history? They needed to merge with the Philadelphia Eagles during World War II. The merged team became the “Steagles.” That never gets old.)

Current Players to Know: Ben Roethlisberger, the team’s quarterback, is the source of legend (for his toughness) and controversy (for his wild ways). James Harrison is a linebacker best known for getting fined by the NFL for his punishing, and often illegal, hits. Troy Polamalu, apart from being the face of Head & Shoulders, is one of the best safeties in the game.

Head Coach: Mike Tomlin

2011 Regular Season Record: 12-4

What to Watch For in 2012: The Steelers had a rough end to last season with an embarrassing playoff loss to the Denver Broncos. In the off season they lost star wide receiver Hines Ward to retirement and are currently entertaining trade offers for another star receiver, disgruntled hold-out Mike Wallace. They are hardly bereft at the position but it will be an adjustment all the same. Another adjustment: Todd Haley as the new offensive coordinator.