EYE SEE YOU: Despite all the offseason distractions, Drew Brees and the Saints say they still have their eyes on the prize. Photo courtesy Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Can you feel it? The NFL season is almost upon us. Maybe it doesn’t quite feel like it yet and maybe the hangover from summer is hampering your enthusiasm. But to the American sports fan, this is the best time of the year.

It’s a time that, when we were younger, we used to dread. It meant we had to go back to school and the fun of summer was over. But now, for the fans of the NFL, the fun is just about to begin.

Of course, the season of sorts has already begun. We’ve had OTA’s and training camp and now the preseason is all but completed. So with the dawn of another regular season just over the horizon, now’s as good a time as any to preview the 2012 NFL season.

First, we look at the NFC. Where some teams became shrouded in controversy (see: New Orleans) others began what they hoped to be a new era (see: Washington). But those two teams as well as the other 14 in the conference all have something in common: right now, they believe this year is the year.

Let’s take a look…

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NFC East

Dallas Cowboys | 2011 Record: 8-8
Two years removed from an abysmal season, the demanding Jerry Jones expects greatness

If you believed the Cowboys were headed to a Super Bowl that year when everything went awry, it might feel like it hasn’t been almost two years. You see, Dallas was in a unique situation that year. They went from contender, to disappointment, to doormat, to rebuilding, to future contender all in the course of sixteen games.

The transition was so fast that, even with an official regime change last year, the Cowboys were given as good of odds as any in the division to win it all. Instead, they limped to a mediocre 8-8 record and failed to do anything past Week 17 once again.

If everything is bigger in Texas, everything is certainly faster in Dallas. This means that the already quite demanding owner, Jerry Jones, must be having his patience worn thin. The men that have been anchors on the roster for years like Romo and Witten are quickly aging and the younger generation has a steep learning curve ahead of them. If there’s any program with label “win now” over their heads, it’s the 2012 Cowboys.

New York Giants | 2011 Record: 9-7
The kryptonite of New England has another ring and more slack in the leash for an embattled coach

You have to give Tom Coughlin credit: he might be the closest thing to a “clutch coach”. Every time it appears his head is legitimately on the chopping block, he nabs another Lombardi trophy for the Giant faithful. It’s a nice trick given that it quickly wipes away the memory of just barely making the playoffs.

But that doesn’t mean things haven’t changed in 2012. A once crowded receiving corps. has been stripped to the point where rookie receiver Reuben Randle now looks to be the third-best option. On top of that, Brandon Jacobs is gone, forcing Ahmad Bradshaw up from sidekick to RB1. In his absence, the Giants have brought in another rookie, David Wilson, to help Bradshaw with the workload.

The Giants appear to be determined to prove that you can transition flawlessly between generations while remaining competitive. The irony here is that the Giants, despite having two Super Bowls won, have not exactly been a powerhouse in recent history. With the NFC East as stacked as ever, that much, at least, remains the same.

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Philadelphia Eagles | 2011 Record: 8-8
A year after the “dream team”, the Eagles are still in pursuit of a reverie unrealized

It’s been a tough 12 months for the city of brotherly love. After compiling talent into what almost looked like a fantasy football roster, the Eagles, dubiously named the ‘dream team’ thanks to a sound bite from their backup quarterback, stumbled out of the gates and, before they knew it, their postseason pursuit in 2011 was over. Then, as they regrouped and rearmed, during training camp head coach Andy Reid’s son was found dead in his dormitory at the camp.

2012 will without a doubt be a test of fortitude for this squad. The sheer adversity they’ve faced over the course of the last year is enough to crack any team, dream-like or otherwise. Now the question becomes whether the main characters in this saga can pull together to give this East coast town a Hollywood ending.

A lot of the same critical parts are back for the Eagles and they got an absolute steal in Fletcher Cox in the first round of the draft. Translation? They aren’t about to let a boatload of excuses prevent them from competing for a spot in the playoffs. They may not have the same hype and “swagger” they did heading into 2011, but these Eagles might just take a note from their division rival, the Giants, and operate under the belief that being underdogs is the way to go.

Washington Redskins | 2011 Record: 5-11
With so many pieces remaining the same, Washington is learning how one person can possess so much

Those who follow politics may recognize 2008 as the year “hope” came to the nation’s capital. However, the town’s sports faithful may document that year as 2012 on their timeline. That’s because the one and only Robert Griffin III is now the new face of the franchise, and, even with so many issues remaining, the D.C. fans feel like they have a chance for the first time in a very long time.

It’s been enough to put a horrible 2011 campaign way back in the rearview. Without playing a down of “official” football, RG3 already feels like a proven improvement over the rotating carousel of Rex Grossman and John Beck. Now, Beck is gone and Grossman is back on the bench where he belongs, but a number of problems remain.

The O-line is still in shambles, and no one knows how the pothead duo of Fred Davis and Trent Williams will bounce back from their season-ending suspensions. Furthermore, the team just found out that safety Tanard Jackson, who had a remarkable preseason, has failed yet another drug test. What’s the point of all this? While there’s a new tune in the nation’s capital, some of the rhythmic undertones remain all too familiar for a losing franchise

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NFC North

Chicago Bears | 2011 Record: 8-8
If Brandon Marshall can’t make Chicago love Jay Cutler, no one can

When Jay Cutler first came to town, the feeling in Chi-town seemed to be “we finally have a quarterback”. Now, as we enter 2012, most Bears fans probably roll their eyes at the name Cutler, and that, mind you, is with an NFC championship appearance the season before last.

The Cutler apologists have always had the fact that Chicago didn’t have any real receiving threats to throw at the gunslinger’s critics. Now, though, the Bears made their move and acquired Brandon Marshall. What does that mean? It means “put up or shut up” time is quickly approaching.

But Marshall is not without his own drama. And for a team with a knack of bringing the combination of drama and football to a fevered pitch, Marshal may also end up being the straw that broke the camel’s back. This is what will make 2012 so interesting to watch. The Bears have enough talent to improve upon last year’s 8-8 record, but they also have enough problems to dismantle yet another season.

Detroit Lions | 2011 Record: 10-6
One part underdogs, one part superstars, and one part villains, the Lions are a dynamic 2012 force

The most successful franchises in the NFL can measure their success by the feelings of football fans. When it comes to the cream of the crop, most football fans either love them or hate them. If you polled those same fans about these Lions, the results may indicate that time in Detroit is quickly approaching.

That’s because, often existing in the shadow of Chicago and Green Bay, the Lions have long been labeled an up-and-coming underdog. But after last year’s “Foot Stomp Fiasco” and “Handshake Gate”, a lot of football fans are seeing a real mean streak in this club.

But one truth remains: fans really only care about teams that matter. And when it comes to the 2012 contender picture, the Detroit Lions definitely matter. Megatron is expected to be as good as ever and that young, tough defense is another year wiser. If you’re underestimating this Detroit team, you’ve already made the first mistake of this football season.

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Green Bay Packers | 2011 Record: 15-1
Lambeau continues to be the home of a proven winner

What can you say about the Green Bay Packers? They were phenomenal a year ago. So much so that NOT making to the Super Bowl was a letdown. Then again, they WON the Super Bowl the year before, so how much of a letdown can it really be?

The Green Bay roadmap to victory is easy: be relentless on both sides of the ball. They have guys like Claw Matthews keeping quarterbacks up at night while their own quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, probably loses sleep at night simply because he has SO many offensive targets to choose from.

Speaking of offensive, calling this team anything but a title contender in 2012 should be considered SUPER offensive to the green and gold. They’ve put together an uber-competitive roster and maintained it over the last few seasons. As we approach December this year, there will definitely be a rumbling. It might be the spawn of Mayan apocalypse, but more likely it’s the full head of steam this football juggernaut will undoubtedly have heading into the playoffs.

Minnesota Vikings | 2011 Record: 3-13
Looking for things to be excited about with the Vikings will take a powerful microscope

If you ask teams like the Redskins or the Browns, they’ll tell you there’s simply no room for an even marginally talented team when there are already three playoff-caliber teams within the division. It’s just the hard truth. No division is going to be that stacked from top to bottom. Every division needs a doormat. And in the NFC North, it’s colors are purple and gold.

Do they have a somewhat promising quarterback in Christian Ponder? Yes. Do they have an impact player in Percy Harvin? Sure. But what else is truly exciting about this team? All expectations are that their one true superstar, Adrian Peterson, is going to be a shell of his former self in 2012 with high-mileage legs taking their toll. And the road only gets darker from there.

Head coaches in the NFL are probably circling this club on their schedule trying to suppress a smile from sprouting on their face. They have good reason, too. This is not a good football team, it’s just that simple. Their deep playoff run a few years ago was clearly because of one over-the-hill quarterback playing absolutely out of his mind, and he isn’t even in the NFL anymore. In 2012, the Vikings are a legitimate threat to take the first overall pick in next year’s draft.

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NFC South

Atlanta Falcons | 2011 Record: 10-6
One of these years, potential is going to have to evolve into progress

When I talked about a hope at a new era with the Redskins, I couldn’t help but to remember what it was like when the Falcons drafted Matt Ryan. They flew him into Atlanta and introduced him, literally, as the new face of the franchise. But hope is dependent upon measurable progress.

The Falcons have been in a purgatory of sorts for some time, and the beginning of 2012 is no different. Everyone knows they’re good, but they perpetually seem to be an afterthought to the “traditional” heavyweights. Last year, Julio Jones exploded onto the scene and helped doubled down on the youth they invested in with Ryan, but the end result wasn’t much different.

Now they enter 2012. ‘Burner’ Turner isn’t getting younger and their tight end, Tony Gonzalez, is the equivalent of a World War II-era carrier serving in today’s navy. There’s plenty of youth in Hotlanta, but there are aging veterans as well. Who knows, maybe 2012 will be the year that cumbersome combination pays dividends for the Falcons.

Carolina Panthers | 2011 Record: 6-10
What does the future hold for Cam Newton a year after a stunning rookie campaign

If there was a team with a larger disparity between excitement and their actual record, I don’t know  of it. The aura of the Carolina Panthers in 2011 was nothing more than a complete rebirth of a franchise. Cam Newton, taken first overall, lived up to every expectation and more and brought with him an absolutely jaw-dropping style of play. With as many high-fives and smiles that were shared in Charlotte last year, you would’ve thought this team went 10-6 instead of 6-10.

Now, the Panthers are essentially expecting that same atmosphere to take them a step further in 2012 because, relatively speaking, the Panthers did absolutely nothing in the offseason. No big signees, no blockbuster trades. Carolina essentially took 2011’s squad and sprinkled in some fresh, new rookies.

For as much momentum as this organization appears to have, that’s a pretty big gamble. They are basically willing to bet that that excitement from 2011 should’ve translated MORE into a 10-6 team than it did and 2012 will be the realization of just that. But, if it doesn’t, the division cellar isn’t out of the option, either.

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New Orleans Saints | 2011 Record: 13-3
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but will the 2012 Saints prove it

Bountygate. Everyone knows about it, and everyone knows what it has done to the Saints. In terms of this season, it has left them all but dead. Their coach is suspended for the year. Their INTERIM coach is suspended for PART of the year. And a team in shambles has to now succeed in a new shadow of villainy.

If this team is going to do anything this season, it’s going to have to start and end with Drew Brees. It’s just that simple. Every other incumbent person in a position of leadership on this team is either suspended or gone. Can the undersized, underdog signal caller lift the city up once again?

One thing’s for sure, plenty of talent remains. Marques Colston is back as is the tandem of Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles. The defense will likely have their fair share of bad games, but is that so much different than the way it was in 2011? The bottom line is I wouldn’t be surprised to see NOLA in the playoffs yet again, but anything is really possible.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers | 2011 Record: 4-12
It’s a new dawn in Florida, but are the new-look Bucs competition ready-for 2012

The Bucs appeared to be on the up-and-up at the start of 2011, which made their sort of “cut their losses and rebuild” offseason a bit of a head-scratcher. Two years ago, Raheem Morris seemed like the new, hot thing in the world of coaching. Now, he’s a defensive backs coach for the mediocre Redskins. LeGarette Blount was an overnight stud at running back, now he’s a backup to an unproven rookie.

My point is, the transformation Tampa Bay has taken in preparation for 2012 seemed unfathomable even a year ago. That will leave many to wonder if these have been the right moves, and these 16 games for this season will be the first litmus test of just that.

One of the most notable offseason “moves” for new coach Greg Schiano of course was the signing of paralyzed former Rutgers football star Eric LeGrand. Of course, the move was purely ceremonial, and was nothing more than a nice gesture. That starts this new regime off on a feel-good note, but your success in the NFL will always be defined wins and losses. In that regard, Coach Schiano’s test is just beginning.

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NFC West

Arizona Cardinals | 2011 Record: 8-8
They quietly put together a .500 season, now they’ll look to improve in 2012

If you asked the average football fan, most of them would’ve probably been surprised to recall that the Cardinals put together an 8-8 record last season. Sure, they probably knew it at the end of the year, but the vibes this team gave off didn’t match up, and THAT is what most people remember going forward.

Take the situation at quarterback, for example. Kevin Kolb proved not to be the asset Arizona was hoping he’d be when they acquired him, and now he finds himself in a position battle with John Skelton, a guy who had “journeyman quarterback” written all over him when he was drafted. It was the kind of situation that reminded you a lot of something like, oh, say, division rival Seattle, but even they went 7-9.

Maybe it’s the lack of “star power” outside of Larry Fitzgerald, but this squad is quietly talented. Better yet, the division is lacking a perennial powerhouse. Sure, San Francisco put together a superb year in 2011, but they themselves are a newcomer to success. There’s no reason Arizona can’t be the 2011 49ers one year later.

St. Louis Rams | 2011 Record: 2-14
Two years after being drafted, Sam Bradford is still at the helm of a crappy team

Progress. There has been very little of that recently in St. Louis. They drafted Sam Bradford two years ago with the hope of rejuvenating the franchise that won a super bowl at the start of the century. And, to their credit, things were looking good after they narrowly missed the playoffs that first year. But one horrendous season later, you can’t help but to feel the Rams are back at square one.

They still really haven’t found their franchise quarterback that truly elite receiver and now Steven Jackson, long a stalwart in the backfield for blue and gold, is quickly approaching the end of his career. On defense, there’s James Laurinaitis and…yeah, James Laurinaitis. Rookie Michael Brockers has a ceiling where he could be a Pro Bowler year-in-and-year-out, but that remains to be seen.

So the goal in 2012 for the Rams appears to be moderate progress. Another 2- or 3-win season would be inexcusable, yes, but this franchise must realize that hoping for a winning record in 2012 is just simply impractical at this point. There may be better days ahead, but it won’t be at least until 2013.

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San Francisco 49ers | 2011 Record: 13-3
Last year’s ‘Cinderella kids’ must fight to avoid becoming a one-hit wonder

Ask anyone following pro football who the biggest surprise of 2011 was and 9 out of 10 of them will probably tell you it  was the 49ers. And, with a 13-3 record and a playoff run that finished just short of a Super Bowl appearance, who can blame them?

A microcosm of their sudden turnaround is the career of Alex Smith, who last year looked more like the number one overall draft pick he was than at any other point in his professional career. Early on, Michael Crabtree’s career has taken a similar path and it’ll be interesting to see if 2012 is the year HE turns it around. In the backfield, Frank Gore isn’t getting younger, but now he has a gaggle of talented running backs to support him.

But the real question is can they recapture the magic from last season.  One simple mistake by Kyle Williams cost them a trip to a Super Bowl, and, coming that close, you’d hate to see them regress in 2012 when, on paper, at least, they’ve improved. On the plus side, if they do stumble, it’s not like there is a bevy of powerhouses in their division to replace them.

Seattle Seahawks | 2011 Record: 7-9
They’re going with an underdog at quarterback, and the rest of the team may follow suit

I’m not sure what’ll make you try to adjust your television sets first, the Seahawks “aggressive” new jerseys, or their small-fry rookie quarterback that’ll be starting Week 1. Taken in the middle of the draft, way lower than any other legitimate Heisman hopeful, Russell Wilson is far from what you might traditionally consider a franchise quarterback.

But Russell Wilson is scrappy, and, so far, he’s been successful. Actually, come to think of it, I’m not sure there’s a better person to represent this franchise that has been an afterthought for much of the last decade. But it’s not all just Russell Wilson. First-round draftee Bruce Irvin was considered by most to be a huge stretch. But, if he lives up to whatever the Seattle front office saw in him (pass rushing, pass rushing, and more pass rushing), he could become their Russell Wilson of the defense.

Do you get the theme I’m trying to build here? These birds are absolute underdogs, even in a division as weak as the NFC West. Maybe they can put together a winning season and steal a playoff berth from someone, but, right now, no one — and I mean NO ONE — is banking on that.

NOTE: This story was originally posted on SportsHead. To read this article and others click here.
When Bryan isn’t writing, he is on Twitter! Make sure you follow him @bclienesch for NFL updates and other shenanigans!