Summer is over, or at least the miserable part without football is. NFL teams started training camp this week, which means that football season is right around the corner.
Besides the end of the offseason, what makes this part of the year so special for fans is that unbridled optimism and irrational exuberance are perfectly acceptable. In fact, you might want to reconsider your sports priorities if you cannot find some gleaming ray of hope emanating from your favorite team's practice facility this month.
Just in case you are struggling, or maybe just want to pile on the positive vibes, we are here to help with this perfectly rational look at why all 16 NFC teams have a shot at the playoffs this year.
The Cardinals can make the playoffs because the team finally got some help for Larry Fitzgerald when it drafted Notre Dame wide receiver Michael Floyd. Fitzgerald was wrapped up in double coverage against most opponents last season. With the big, physical Floyd working across from him, whoever ends up quarterbacking the team has another viable target to make quick throws and keep pass rushers honest. The Cardinals went 6-2 in the second half of 2011, thanks to big improvements on defense; more help scoring touchdowns could be a big boost in a wide open NFC West.
The Falcons can make the playoffs thanks to a big improvement in their secondary with the addition of Asante Samuel. The former Eagle excels in coverage; opposing passers completed just 47.5 percent of targets thrown in his direction last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Atlanta gave up 68 pass plays of 20 yards or more last season, the same number as the coverage-challenged Vikings (the Falcons also lost Brent Grimes for the last month of the season). Samuel also brings a knack for the pick, and getting the ball back into Matt Ryan's hands is never a bad thing.
The Panthers will make the playoffs because Cam Newton might be Iron Man in an uglier suit. Ok, in all seriousness, a normal curve of improvement from Newton will definitely help the Panthers win, but better play from the defense is key. Carolina still faces serious questions about its defensive tackle situation, but with first-round pick Luke Kuechly joining James Anderson and a (hopefully) healthy Thomas Davis to form a much improved group of linebackers, there's hope that there will be more support for a defense that gave up 4.53 adjusted line yards on runs up the middle, according to Football Outsiders. The return of Ron Edwards and another year of experience for Sione Fua and Terrell McClain helps at defensive tackle.
The Bears will make the playoffs because Chicago finally found some help for Jay Cutler. Trading for Brandon Marshall gives Chicago a legitimate No. 1 receiver, their first since bringing Cutler over from Denver. Rookie Alshon Jeffery, a big man with plenty of raw talent, joins the rotation, while Earl Bennett and Devin Hester can work in the slot. This is not the same offense Mike Martz tried to run, not with viable targets for quick throws and a pair of running backs in Michael Bush and Matt Forte. It makes blitzing harder and helps keep Cutler upright behind an iffy line. The schedule also works in Chicago's favor. The Bears play the Colts, Jaguars and Rams in their first five games of the season, interspersed with the Cowboys and Packers. In the last five games, they draw the Cardinals, Seahawks and Vikings, to break up games between the Lions and Packers.
The Cowboys will make the playoffs because they exorcised the demons in their secondary that sunk them in a Week 17 game against the Giants. Football Outsiders notes that Dallas was ranked 30th against the pass on third downs and allowed an average of 7.1 yards per pass when the quarterback made a throw when escaping pressure. The addition of free agent cornerback Brandon Carr and first-round pick Morris Claiborne vastly improves a unit that relied on Terence Newman to help opposing passers pad their Pro Bowl resumes.
Related video: Cowboys Training Camp Battles
The Lions will make the playoffs this season because the team has improved the players around Matthew Stafford, particularly in pass protection. Stafford completed just 46 percent of his passes under pressure last year. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus allowed nine sacks and 41 total pressures, according to PFF. First-round pick Riley Reiff should have the starting job on the right side sewn up before the end of the preseason, giving Detroit's quarterback much better protection.
Related video: Lions Training Camp Battles
The Packers will get another shot at the Lombardi Trophy thanks to improvement to their defense, including the addition of another pass rushing threat. Green Bay recorded 47 sacks in the Super Bowl-winning season of 2010, the second most in the league. Last year, the Packers had just 29, and only two teams had a lower sack total. Nick Perry, their first-round pick, puts a treat opposite Clay Matthews that defenses will have to respect. They also improved their defensive line with the addition of Jerel Worthy, who strengthens the front and adds some ability to get pressure.
The Vikings will get back to the postseason ... ok, I'll admit, it's a stretch, but there is plenty of reason for optimism in Minnesota, besides a new stadium coming in 2016. Minnesota made Christian Ponder the center of its offseason moves, bringing in talent that plays to the second-year quarterback's strengths. First and foremost, Matt Kalil shores up the protection. Hopefully, Adrian Peterson rebounds from his ACL tear because he makes the play action that much more effective. Second-year tight end Kyle Rudolph has plenty of upside, and with the addition of John Carlson, 2-TE sets give the playbook another chapter. Of course, the Vikings also have plenty of speed at receiver in Percy Harvin and rookie Jarius Wright.
The Saints will make the playoffs because despite all the outside distractions, the defense is improved. Stability is not the first buzz word that comes to mind when you think of the Saints, but moving away from Greg Williams' blitz-first approach to Steve Spagnuolo's system should up the team's defensive success. Leaving safety Roman Harper in the secondary instead of blitzing will shore up a unit that surrendered 14 passing plays of 40 yards or more, the highest number in the league. Even more notable is the addition of linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne.
The Giants will get another shot to win it all thanks to an improved running game. Yes, this is a passing league, and Eli Manning has quietly become one of the game's top quarterbacks. A diverse offense only makes them better. Last year's Giants averaged a league-worst 3.5 yards per rushing attempt. Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks will still be the primary focus for defenses, but the duo of Ahmad Bradshaw and first-round pick David Wilson will command more and more attention as the season progresses.
The Eagles will make the playoffs because they had a full day of reflection to get over the "dream team" nightmare. Lost in the narrative of Philly's flop is a late season rebound in which the Eagles won their last four games. The smallest margin of those four wins was a 20-7 victory in Week 16 over Dallas. The NFC East is going to be a tough place to play this season. Moving Nnamdi Asomugha back to press man and filling gaping holes at linebacker fix the most significant problems behind a defensive front that tied for the league lead with 50 sacks.
The St. Louis Rams have a long road to the playoffs, but they can make it back thanks to playing in a wide open NFC West. What really helps the Rams in their division is that they have two essential ingredients for taking on three shaky quarterback situations in six of their games. Cortland Finnegan, one of the NFL's best pass defenders last year, joins Janoris Jenkins to lead a suddenly deep group of corners. In front of them is a defensive line headlined by Chris Long, who had 13 sacks and 83 total pressures last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
Related video: Rams Training Camp Battles
The 49ers will make the playoffs this season by cruising through the NFC West with a talent laden roster. Right now, the 49ers have plenty of doubters about their prospects for another 13-win season. Maybe, but they have a favorable schedule that should help. In their last five games, San Francisco faces St. Louis, Miami, New England, Seattle and Arizona. It would be an upset if they lost more than one of those games, and the combo of Aldon Smith and Justin Smith could be an advantage over the Patriots.
Related video: 49ers Training Camp Battles
The NFL world is in wait and see mode when it comes to Seattle's quarterback situation. However, the Seahawks can make the playoffs thanks to a powerful defense that added some pass rushing help, hopefully, with the surprise pick of Bruce Irvin in the first round. More notable for the Seahawks is the terrible run of injuries the team suffered on offense last year. According to Football Outsiders' 2012 Almanac, Seattle's offense had 53.4 adjusted games lost last season, third-most of any offensive unit in the NFL. Almost half of those games lost came from the offensive line. The Seahawks should see a swing back in the right direction on the medical front.
Related video: Seahawks Training Camp Battles
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made some big changes this year, bringing in the no-nonsense Greg Schiano to get a talented roster more focused on the task at hand. Just as important, the team made moves designed to help quarterback Josh Freeman, signing wide receiver Vincent Jackson, bolstering the offensive line with Carl Nicks and drafting running back Doug Martin. One place on the stat sheet where the difference might be most evident is on turnovers. The Bucs had a league-worst -16 turnover ratio last year, thanks to LeGarrette Blount's five fumbles and Josh Freeman's 22 interceptions. The year before, Freeman threw only six picks.
If opening the wallet was all it takes for a ticket to the playoffs, the Washington Redskins would be a dynasty. Instead of another ill-conceived shopping spree, Washington got smart with its spending. They traded a hefty load of draft picks in order to snag franchise cornerstone Robert Griffin III, and perhaps you've heard of him. Their free agent spending focused on providing weapons for RGIII, including Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan. Washington will make the playoffs if its dynamic young quarterback can help the team score more than an average of 18 points a game this year.