One thing that makes the NFL so wildly popular is the ability for teams to quickly improve from one season to the next. Just about every season, a team follows up a last-place finish by climbing to the top of its division. The New Orleans Saints are a recent example. After finishing last in the NFC South with an 8-8 record in 2008, they rebounded in 2009 by going 13-3 and winning both their division and the Super Bowl. So which division cellar-dweller is most likely to make the jump in 2012? I've ranked the NFC's four last-place finishers from 2011 based on their chances of going from worst to first inside each of their respective divisions. (Check back tomorrow for the four AFC teams.)
1) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Why it will happen: I've heard nothing but positive things about the discipline and structure that new head coach Greg Schiano has brought to the organization. That alone should be reflected in the win-loss column. Josh Freeman has rededicated himself following a disappointing 2011 campaign and he should benefit from several new offensive additions. Vincent Jackson will provide Freeman with a true No. 1 wide receiver while Carl Nicks will be a huge (literally and figuratively) addition at left guard. On defense, first-round pick Mark Barron should provide some big plays at safety while he develops into the leadership role held by current veteran Ronde Barber. The drama in New Orleans has made the goal of catching the Saints more attainable, and despite their recent success, the Atlanta Falcons don't seem to scare anybody.
Why it won't happen: The Bucs will be relying on a lot of new faces to contribute in key roles. While it's conceivable that things could come together quickly, it will likely take a few games to smooth out some rough areas. The defense has already been dealt a big blow after losing second-year lineman Da'Quan Bowers to an Achilles injury last month. There is reason for optimism in Tampa Bay, but you can't sugarcoat the fact that this team is coming off a season in which it lost the last 10 games.
2) Washington Redskins
Why it will happen: The Redskins proved that they were capable of playing at a high level by beating the Super Bowl-champion Giants in both of their meetings last season. They were able to accomplish that feat with the original RG (Rex Grossman) at QB. The new RG (Robert Griffin III) should be an enormous upgrade at the position. New receiving weapons Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan should fit perfectly into Mike Shanahan's offensive scheme. On defense, the young pass-rushing duo of Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan is one of the best in the league and they are only scratching the surface.
Why it won't happen: The NFC East is loaded. The Giants are coming off their second Super Bowl title in the last five seasons and many pundits don't even view them as the favorite in the division. The Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys both possess dynamic offenses and they can each create plenty of pressure with their pass rush. It is also reasonable to expect RG3 to have his struggles adjusting to a pro offense and opposing defenses that fail to resemble those of the Big 12.
3) St. Louis Rams
Why it will happen: The Rams were viewed as one of the league's top young teams heading into last season. After tying for the division lead in 2010, the wheels fell of the bus in 2011. Despite coming off such a disastrous season, hopes are high in St. Louis after the arrival of new head coach Jeff Fisher. Along with an entirely new coaching staff, the Rams added one of the top free agents in former Titans CB Cortland Finnegan. Despite limited pass rushing opportunities, DE Chris Long had his finest year as a pro and notched 13 sacks in 2011. The offense has no choice but to improve. They averaged a Pop Warner-like 12.1 points per game last season under former coordinator Josh McDaniels. New coordinator Brian Schottenheimer should jell much better with QB Sam Bradford.
Why it won't happen: The Rams still don't have a reliable No. 1 wide receiver for Sam Bradford to throw to. They're hoping second-round pick Brian Quick can eventually develop into that role, but that is unlikely to happen during his first NFL season. The addition of first-round pick Michael Brockers and free agent Kendall Langford will help the run defense but there are still more holes to plug in a front seven that finished 31st in the NFL against the run. The NFC West is no longer viewed as a cupcake division after the emergence of the 49ers. The Seahawks are also a legitimate playoff contender and if the Cardinals can get any QB play, they are very dangerous as well.
4) Minnesota Vikings
Why it will happen: The best news to come out of Minnesota, besides their new stadium agreement, is the report that Adrian Peterson's rehab is progressing ahead of schedule. A healthy Peterson would be extremely beneficial to QB Christian Ponder as he enters his second season. Ponder should be pleased with the Vikings' first-round selection of LT Matt Kalil. He will slide right into the starting lineup and provide an immediate upgrade in pass protection. On the defensive side of the ball, the Vikings boast a talented front four that includes the NFL's sack leader in 2011 (Jared Allen) and one of the most underrated players in the league, Brian Robison.
Why it won't happen:Aaron Rodgers. The Vikings are stuck in a division with the league's top quarterback just as he enters the prime of his career. The gap from the 15-1 Packers to the 3-13 Vikings is sizeable. If Peterson suffers any setbacks and has to miss regular-season games, that gap will remain significant. Christian Ponder showed some positive flashes last season but he failed to throw for more than 120 yards in each of his last four games while accounting for nine interceptions.