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10 NFL Teams (and Two Sad Sagas) to Watch in 2012

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Don't look so glum – the summer will soon expire, but the fall and winter months bring us everyone's favorite deliciously violent sport, football. This season has the potential to be a real doozie, especially when it comes to the land of the quarterback. We'll get to see Peyton Manning play in an NFL uniform other than the Colts' blue and white for the first time, we'll find out whether this Andrew Luck fellow is worth the buzz, if Cam Newton will continue his path toward the elite class, and whether the Jets' two-QB set-up will spell success or doom. Hopefully you had your sofa and hi-def TV fine-tuned during the off-season, as the 2012 NFL season is now upon us.

By Greg Prato

st. louis rams

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10

St. Louis Rams

Ever since their magical run from 1999 through 2001 (which resulted in a Super Bowl XXXIV victory and a hard-fought Super Bowl XXXVI loss), for the most part, the St. Louis Rams have fallen flat. Case in point – a stinky 2011 season, which saw the team flounder at 2-14, leading to the firing of both head coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney. But the Rams' holding pattern of mediocrity may change soon, as former Titans head coach Jeff Fisher has been brought on board to right the ship. Ex-Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has signed on as well. Hopefully, Rams fans have built up strong stomachs over the past few seasons: there's no reason to believe that Schotty won't construct a befuddling offensive game plan like the ones that gave Jets fans indigestion the past few seasons.

pittsburgh steelers

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9

Pittsburgh Steelers

Although it's been a full season since they lost to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV, a bad taste probably still lingers in the mouths of the Pittsburgh Steelers, which can only be washed away by a champagne-doused Super Bowl victory celebration. One of the most significant subtractions from the team is the retirement of eventual Hall of Fame receiver Hines Ward, who in 2011 experienced the lowest of lows (being arrested for a DUI) and the highest of highs (being crowned champion of Dancing with the Stars). OK, maybe not the highest of highs. Regardless, Ward will be a tough player to replace. Last year, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger surprised many by staying out of trouble with the law for an entire season. Will Big Ben remain a good boy and lead the Steelers back to the big show?

dallas cowboys

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8

Dallas Cowboys

Going into December of last year, it looked as if the Cowboys (7-4 at the time) were going to gallop into the playoffs. But the month known for holiday cheer was not very cheerful for the 'Boys, as they went 1-4 down the stretch. It's safe to assume there are few NFL teams as anxious as Dallas to get the 2012 season underway. Can the Cowboys get back on track immediately, or will they suffer a hangover? After several years of ups and downs, is this finally QB Tony Romo's make-or-break season? And will this be the first year that owner Jerry Jones refrains from showing his mug on the sideline?

carolina panthers

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7

Carolina Panthers

You wouldn't know it by gazing at the Carolina Panthers' unimpressive 6-10 record from last year, but the team experienced their most exciting season since 2005 (when they made it all the way to the NFC Championship). This can be attributed to a single gentleman – the number one pick of the 2011 NFL Draft (and 2010 Heisman Trophy winner), QB Cam Newton. Newton singlehandedly carried the Panthers' offense, and in the process set all sorts of team rookie records, made the Pro Bowl and, deservedly, won the NFL's Rookie of the Year Award. So what does this fast-emerging star have planned for an encore? Will he avoid the dreaded sophomore slump and make the Panthers a contender after several largely forgettable seasons? All eyes are on Mr. Newton.

new england patriots

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6

New England Patriots

You can always count on Tom Brady to be, well, Tom Brady. One Patriot who is anxious to have a flub-free season is wide receiver Wes Welker, who has had rough endings the past two years. Welker was benched for the start of a 2011 playoff game vs. the Jets that the Pats eventually lost (after goofing on Rex Ryan's alleged fondness for feet), and he dropped a pass in last season's Super Bowl, which could have potentially finished off the Giants. Also, will Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez continue to be the most dynamic tight end tandem in the NFL? And what dastardly maneuvers does Bill Belichick have up his sleeve?

san francisco 49ers

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5

San Francisco 49ers

Can two seemingly obnoxious gentlemen coexist on the same team? We're talking about 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh (who enjoys giving opposing coaches a firm handshake and a strong slap on the back, post-victory) and recently acquired wide receiver Randy Moss (who holds the "honor" of being jettisoned by three teams in a single season the last time he played in the NFL, back in 2010). The 49ers came oh-so-close to a Super Bowl appearance last year (they couldn't get past eventual Super Bowl champs the Giants in the NFC Championship game), and they are looking to get over the hump in 2012. But the question remains: will Mr. Moss hurt the team, or even bother to stick around?

new york jets

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4

New York Jets

Like the Dallas Cowboys, the Jets crashed and burned last year when it mattered most, costing them a trip to the playoffs. To add insult to injury, Gang Green had to sit and watch as two of their biggest rivals, the New England Patriots and the New York Giants, made it all the way to the Super Bowl. Similar to the Brett Favre experiment of 2008, Jets brass decided to keep fan interest high after a Giants Super Bowl victory by making a big splash in the off-season, acquiring the wildly popular comeback kid Tim Tebow. One small problem, though – the Jets already have a starting quarterback, the hot-and-cold Mark Sanchez. Will the two-headed QB work for the Jets? Will it be a fiasco that costs GM Mike Tannenbaum and head coach Rex Ryan their jobs? It's never a dull moment in Jetsville.

New York Giants

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3

New York Giants

Once and for all, the New York Giants proved that regular season records aren't the be-all, end-all: as long as your team gets into the playoffs and hits its stride come January, you're in business. It's hard to fathom that as recently as December of last year, fans were calling for the firing of head coach Tom Coughlin, who eventually helped guide the team to its second Super Bowl victory of his tenure (fourth in team history). But after every Super Bowl victory comes the inevitable question: can the Giants repeat as champions? Can Jason Pierre-Paul continue to thrive as one of the NFL's most dominant defensive ends, and will he refrain from tossing any more teammates into a tub of chilly water? Will QB Eli Manning's second Super Bowl win finally do away with his infamous zombie stare while on the field?

Indianapolis Colts

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2

Indianapolis Colts

Even when it was announced last year that quarterback Peyton Manning was out indefinitely after two neck surgeries (he wound up not playing the entire 2011 season), Indianapolis Colts fans couldn't have predicted how awful their team would be. By late December, the Colts had yet to win a single game (they finished 2-14) – just two years removed from an appearance in Super Bowl XLIV. Subsequently, the Colts were awarded the number one draft pick, with which they promptly selected highly regarded Stanford QB Andrew Luck, signaling Manning's exit from the team he singlehandedly turned into a perennial contender. Will young Andrew make Colts fans forget about Peyton? Will Luck prevent the team's higher-ups from looking like fools for letting go of one of the greatest modern-day QBs? With any luck, Luck will get lucky.

denver broncos

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1

Denver Broncos

The Denver Broncos endured one of the wackiest, rollercoaster-like seasons of recent memory last year, thanks to Tim Tebow, who led the team to several miraculous, last-minute comeback victories. But when the Broncos had the opportunity to acquire Peyton Manning, they couldn't pass it up, giving Tebow a one-way ticket to Jet-land. So the most curious question going into the 2012 NFL season is: how will Peyton Manning do as the Broncos' QB after a full year away from the gridiron? For those who are wondering, no, the Broncos and Colts do not face off against each other this season (surely, the NFL schedule makers are kicking themselves).

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