While the outcome of the 2012 NFL season cannot be predicted, certain divisions will be heavily favored to excel in the postseason and other divisions will limp in and be labeled as having no chance.
The top-dogs from last year— Packers, Patriots, 49ers, Ravens, Saints, and Steelers— will remain the favorites once again. (The Giants are not included because they finished the regular season 9-7). Even the Texans, as I mentioned in a previous column, are capable of becoming a perennial powerhouse.
The AFC West, however, is the lone division in its conference that cannot be included on this list of projected playoff potential. The Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, and Kansas City Chiefs all enter the season with anxiety and uncertainty, with the same being true for Denver despite the fact that the Broncos won a playoff game last year and recently acquired star quarterback Peyton Manning.
For Raiders' fans, there is a fear of the unknown in starting the season with a new and inexperienced head coach, Dennis Allen. Allen, who walked into a difficult situation the second he was introduced in Oakland, is expected to immediately challenge the culture of a franchise with more than enough problems.
The only consistent bright spots for the Raiders are Shane Lechler and Sebastian Janikowski, the All-Pro punter and placekicker.
Unfortunately, Darren McFadden, recently voted by his peers as the 60th best player on NFL Networks' Top 100: Players of 2012, has been unable to stay healthy for a whole season in each of his first four years. Last year was the worst of them all— he missed nine of the team's 16 games when he suffered a Lisfranc injury week seven against Kansas City.
Although the former University of Arkansas standout has infected Raider nation with worry surrounding his health, the good news for the silver and black is how dangerous and productive he is when on the field. Last season, in particular, McFadden was pounding defenses prior to his injury, rushing for 614 yards in fewer than seven games.
He also averaged 5.4 yards per carry, which is more than all eight of the other running backs ranked ahead of him on the Top 100: Players of 2012, including Adrian Peterson (No. 8) and Maurice Jones-Drew (No. 12 and last year's leading rusher). McFadden staying healthy is essential to the team’s success.
A more serious concern for Oakland is inconsistent play in Carson Palmer. Once a top-five quarterback in the league, the former Bengal needs to get back on track and win over fans in the black hole.
Questionable decision-making, errant throws, and unacceptable turnovers have been an ongoing problem for the Raiders quarterback and that trend continued in 2011— Palmer threw 16 interceptions in only 10 games after replacing Jason Campbell in week seven. In addition, he barely reached a passer rating of 80 and made costly mistakes at crucial moments.
There were some high points for Palmer and company such as his 14-20, 299-yard performance against San Diego on Thursday Night Football. In this contest the once Pro Bowl quarterback returned to old form, tossing two touchdowns and avoiding an interception.
For the Raiders to progress, Palmer and the young wideouts need to collaborate. This means two things: Palmer needs to do a better job of anticipating when his receivers make their breaks and Oakland's pass-catchers need to hold onto the ball when given opportunities.
One receiver specifically, Derrius Heyward-Bey, has been known to have butter-hands on too many occasions. His talent is visible and he finally showed flashes last season as to why the Raiders selected him with the 7th overall pick in 2009.
Injuries at the wide receiver position also plagued an Oakland roster with vast durability issues. Raiders fans are praying that Jacoby Ford and second-year play-maker Denarius Moore can stay off of IR as health in the passing game will be critical when it comes to instilling fear in opposing defenses.
On the other hand, developing an offensive rhythm was hardly the worst of the Raiders problems in 2011. Defense, defense, and defense haunted this team each week.
Their rushing defense was ranked 27th, their passing defense was ranked the same, and when you combine the two their total defense was the fourth worst in the league, giving up 387.6 yards per game. If the Raiders want to make their first playoff appearance since they were clobbered in the 2002 Super Bowl, their defense must return to its 2010 form when they were giving up a combined 65 fewer yards on the ground and in the air.
It may surprise some fans, but with an excellent coaching job and the savvy veterans this team has on both sides of the ball (Palmer, Richard Seymour, McFadden, Tommy Kelly), the Raiders have a respectable chance of upsetting the division and getting to play beyond week 17.