You don’t have to win a championship to overachieve.
Some teams that have done big things this year—in the NFL, in the NBA, in college football and in college basketball—have done so against all odds. Some of them have simply made it to the playoffs one year after establishing themselves as some of the worst teams out there. Others have climbed to the top of the polls or standings, seemingly out of nowhere.
And one thing they all have in common is that nobody expected them to do what they have done.
Here’s a look at some of the teams we didn’t expect to be this good right now.
There were some people who thought that Peyton Manning was going to come back into the league washed up and struggling in the aftermath of neck surgery that kept him off the field for the entirety of the 2011 season. And those people probably feel pretty foolish right about now.
It may have taken some time, but the Denver Broncos certainly found their way this season. After starting off the season 2-3, they reeled off 11 straight wins to lay claim to the AFC's No. 1 seed for the playoffs. Manning is the only guy who can possibly give Adrian Peterson a run for his money for MVP after putting this team on his back and throwing for 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns. It's safe to say he didn't miss a beat after missing 2011, despite all those who didn't think he could make a comeback at age 36.
Last season, the Broncos were pretty good with Tim Tebow at the helm. Now, with Manning in the mix, they are a completely different beast.
For much of the 2012-13 season, the Indiana Pacers have been up and down. Lately, though, they've been way up—enough to usurp the Chicago Bulls at the top of the Central Division and establish themselves as one of the new threats in the Eastern Conference.
Through the first 11 games of the season, the Pacers went 4-7. After that, they may not have been able to put together a Clippers-esque winning streak, but they certainly started winning a lot more than they lost. In the month of December, Indiana went 10-5, and Roy Hibbert established himself as the star of the show, averaging 9.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. The frontcourt tandem of David West and Paul George took most of the offensive load on their own shoulders as the Pacers developed into one of the league's best rebounding teams.
If they keep doing what they're doing, it's hard to imagine that this team won't be a force for the rest of the season.
In terms of mid-majors, San Diego State isn't bad. It's just that we didn't think that the Aztecs were quite this good.
There are always teams coming out of the Mountain West that end up doing damage come tournament time. New Mexico, UNLV, Nevada—these are the teams we regard warily as potential bracket busters. Now, there's another one to add to the list, and as of now, its trumping its underdog conference-mates.
San Diego State is currently the highest-ranked Mountain West team at No. 16, and by all indications, it deserves it. After losing the season opener to Syracuse, the Aztecs reeled off 11 consecutive wins—including victories over USC and UCLA—and though they still have to prove they can beat a ranked opponent, it's so far, so pretty darn good.
For years, Northwestern has been building a competitive college football team—and finally, in 2012, everything came together.
In most preseason polls, the Wildcats were projected to finish fifth in the Big Ten's Legends Division and go .500 in conference play, if they were lucky. Well, like most other preseason college football rankings, those ones turned out to be laughable by season's end: The Wildcats finished third in division play and went 10-3 overall, knocking off the likes of Michigan State, Iowa and Vanderbilt along the way.
But their proudest moment came on New Year's Day, when they handily defeated Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl to win their first bowl game since 1949, ending one of the longest droughts in NCAA history.
So they didn't make it out of the first round of the playoffs. Oh, well. The Cincinnati Bengals still got to the playoffs, which is more than most people could have hoped for them at midseason, when they had just dropped four straight games and looked like they were going nowhere fast.
After a demoralizing 31-23 loss to the Denver Broncos in Week 9, the Bengals were 3-5 and lost. But perhaps that loss was a wake-up call, because from there on out, they dropped just a single game, going 7-1 down the stretch to fight their way into a playoff berth. They tied Baltimore for the division lead but lost the tiebreaker for the division win.
So what if they lost to the Texans in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. They got to the playoffs, which was sort of a miracle in itself—and much more than we thought this team would accomplish when we were watching loss after loss back in October.
For a while, the Portland Trail Blazers were seen as one of those teams that was kind of the laughingstock of the NBA.
In an increasingly competitive Western Conference, the Trail Blazers are in the mix for the playoffs and have a better record than big-name teams like the Lakers, the Mavericks and the Celtics. LaMarcus Aldridge has been incredibly consistent as a scorer over the last few seasons, but this year, it's paying off. He leads the team with 20.4 points per game, while rookie point guard Damian Lillard has registered an impressive 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. Maybe the Trail Blazers did something right in last year's draft.
Is it beginner's luck or will it last? We'll soon find out, but for now, it's been pretty impressive.
We knew the Dukes and the Indianas of the world would be strong this college basketball season. What we wouldn't have predicted is Arizona being ranked ahead of one of them by January.
Last season, the Wildcats were decent, at best. In a weak year for the Pac-12, they needed a conference championship in order to squeeze their way into March Madness, but they couldn't get it done, suffering a two-point loss to Colorado in the finals and having to settle for the NIT instead.
Seems that some of that disappointment has been channeled into a ferocious start to 2012-13. The fourth-ranked Wildcats are currently 14-0 and in first place in the Pac-12, having knocked off the likes of Texas Tech, Clemson and even then-No. 5 Florida in a 65-64 statement win thus far. Unless disaster strikes over the next couple of months, the Wildcats should very well be able to make up for last year's futility by dancing this March.
So, how 'bout that mighty SEC? Apparently, Louisville didn't get the memo.
Say what you want about the Big East. We all know it certainly isn't the strongest of college football conferences, and last year, Louisville didn't seem to be one of its strongest members. Entering 2012, the Cardinals were coming off a 7-6 season. That didn't lead many to believe they would be anything special.
And yet, they were. The Cardinals didn't lose their first game until early November, and though they ended their season with a thud instead of a bang—losing two of their final three—they won the biggest game of all when it counted the most.
Nobody gave Louisville a chance at all in the Sugar Bowl against big, bad No. 3 Florida, which was one loss to Georgia away from a national championship berth. Somehow, though, Louisville put up two first-quarter touchdowns against one of the nation's very best defenses and rode that hot start to a 33-23 Sugar Bowl win.
Given the fact that Derrick Rose still isn’t back and probably won’t be until after the All-Star break, things are going pretty well for the Chicago Bulls right now.
When Rose went down in the last couple of minutes of the Bulls’ first playoff game against the Philadelphia 76ers with a torn ACL, most of us were expecting the worst as far as the prognosis for Chicago was concerned. Some of us even expected 2012-13 to be a wash because, if the Bulls couldn’t withstand the first half of the season without Rose, they would probably be too far out of the race to compete by the time he did return.
But in a strange turn of events, the Bulls have withstood. They’re right behind the Indiana Pacers in the Central Division, and they’re in fifth place in the Eastern Conference—obviously well in the mix for a playoff berth. Guys like Nate Robinson and Joakim Noah are holding down the fort and making this team far more competitive than we thought it would be at this point in time, so imagine what it will be able to do once it gets the former MVP back.
Forget about how the season ended for Northern Illinois University. Instead, focus on what this team did to get to where it was at season's end.
Nobody expects to see a MAC team in a BCS bowl, but somehow, the Huskies weaseled their way in there. There weren't many who were expecting this team to do much of anything after it lost its season opener to lowly Iowa by one point—except after that, the Huskies reeled off a 12-game winning streak and beat then-No. 12 Kent State in double-overtime to claim that precious Orange Bowl berth.
NIU may have fallen to Florida State 31-10 in its biggest game of the season, and maybe it was a little bit out of its league. But in terms of teams we never expected to be in a major bowl game at the beginning of the season, this one was at the top of the list.
The Minnesota Vikings were another one of those teams that looked dead in the middle of the season and then suddenly found some way to surge into the playoffs.
Correction: It found Adrian Peterson.
What Peterson did for this Vikings team in 2012 was remarkable. He put everyone on his back and carried them to the playoffs like his life depended on it, finishing the season with 2,097 yards—nine yards short of the single-season rushing record—and 12 touchdowns. A team that was a mediocre 5-4 after Week 9 went 5-2 down the stretch and battled its way into the postseason, despite being in one of the toughest divisions in the NFL.
Peterson and Christian Ponder carried this team into the playoffs for the first time since Brett Favre was the quarterback. Pretty impressive, seeing as it went 3-13 a year ago.
The Washington Redskins had to deal with a lot of struggle this year. They had to weather injuries to key players, and they had to find the mental toughness to survive in spite of those injuries.
It takes a special team to be able to go 7-0 down the stretch, when each and every one of those games is a must-win in order to reach the postseason, when five of those seven games came against division opponents, most of whom were also fighting tooth and nail to get into the playoffs.
And yet the Redskins—who hadn't won a division title since 1999, who hadn't been to the playoffs since 2007—managed to do it.
No, Washington didn't win when it counted the most on Sunday against the Seahawks in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, but this team wasn't ever going to be able to do much of anything if Robert Griffin III was hurt—which he so obviously was for most of Sunday's game. When he was healthy, though, this team was truly special, and it proved its worth a lot sooner than many thought it would.
When Andrew Luck bid farewell to Stanford, Cardinal fans prepared themselves for a rebuilding period.
Except that rebuilding period never arrived.
In 2012, quarterbacks Josh Nunes and, eventually, Kevin Hogan picked up right where Luck left off in 2011. During a season when nobody wanted to talk about any Pac-12 teams except USC and Oregon, the Cardinal quietly went about their business, knocking off the likes of USC, Oregon and UCLA—twice—en route to a second consecutive Rose Bowl berth. When Hogan took over in November, he made the fans forget all about Luck, finishing the season with 1,096 yards and nine touchdowns.
A 20-14 victory over Wisconsin in Pasadena was the perfect way to cap off an unexpectedly great season—and the good news is, there likely is more success on the horizon, since Hogan was only a freshman.
They are old. They were missing one of their key players until very recently. Why, then, do the New York Knicks look like one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference?
This offseason was an interesting one for the Knicks. It wasn't terrible, but it wasn't good. They lost their most exciting young player in Jeremy Lin, and they added a bunch of veterans—Jason Kidd, Rasheed Wallace and Marcus Camby among them—and one thing they all have in common is that they're really old.
Because of that, most of us didn't expect them to be this good, but something is working. New York is second only to mighty Miami in the Eastern Conference, and not by much. It leads the Atlantic Division by a whole lot. Perhaps we shouldn't judge a book by its age after all.
Forget, for a moment, what happened to the Irish on Monday in Miami. Think about everything they did to get to that point, and think about whether you would have expected them to be in the BCS championship at all at the beginning of the 2012 college football season.
When Notre Dame popped up in the national preseason polls this season despite doing nothing to deserve its ranking, many were outraged. They called Notre Dame a team that capitalized on its reputation rather than recent success.
And then, of course, Notre Dame finished the regular season undefeated and the haters really didn't have anything left to say at all.
By all indications, this Notre Dame team shouldn't have been special—or any more special than the last five, in which the Irish had never finished better than 8-5 and went a combined 32-31. They were the picture of mediocrity, and to boot, their then-quarterback was suspended at the end of the summer for off-the-field issues.
But what Notre Dame built is a team that excelled defensively—at least, when it wasn't playing Alabama—and in college football, that is what you need to survive. Objectively, seeing them in the national championship may have been a surprise, but when you look at the stats—just 12.8 points allowed per game, up from 10.3 after the title game—it makes perfect sense.
It's hard to go from one of the worst teams in the NFL to one of the best teams in the NFL all in the course of one season—unless, apparently, you have the No. 1 pick in the draft and use it to select Andrew Luck.
Luck was one of the best rookie quarterbacks in the NFL this year—and given how little success many rookie QBs have had in the past several years, he deserves some credit. He finished 2012 with 4,374 yards and 23 touchdowns. Given the fact that this team went a pathetic 2-14 just one season earlier, the turnaround was swift and jarring.
The magic didn't last into the postseason—Indianapolis suffered a 24-9 loss to a Baltimore team that finally showed up to play—but that shouldn't take away from what this team was able to do in 2012. It beat some very good teams, especially down the stretch, when it went 9-2, and it fought hard to reach the postseason. We knew Luck would end up being good for the Colts, but we didn't know it would happen this fast.
We’ve all heard plenty about the SEC and its history of greatness. The SEC is a war zone, and only the strongest survive. Most looked on in amusement as Texas A&M prepared for its inaugural season in the mightiest of all college football conferences—but before long, the teams that had to face Johnny Manziel and his high-octane offense were far from amused.
After they went 7-6 in the Big 12 in 2011, nobody was expecting much of the Aggies in the SEC. But when all was said and done, the Aggies finished 6-2 in the conference and 11-2 overall, losing only to Florida and LSU. They were, of course, the only team this year to beat Alabama in the regular season, and Manziel became the first freshman to ever win the Heisman Trophy after breaking Cam Newton's SEC record for total yards in a season.
As long as Johnny Football is around, life isn't going to get any easier for the rest of the SEC.
For a long time, the Los Angeles Clippers have been on the verge of being a great team. Last season, they made it to the playoffs but they still got embarrassed in the second round by the San Antonio Spurs. This season, it seems like they've fueled that disappointment into desire, and it's working.
As it stands, the Clippers are the second-best team in the Western Conference and have the second-best record in the NBA. They just embarked on a 17-game winning streak that lasted through the entire month of December. Injuries don't seem to be an issue for once—Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are healthy—and they have the kind of chemistry that makes it clear this team is built for the long haul.
Finally, the Clippers aren't the redheaded stepchild in L.A.
For all the talk about how good Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck were supposed to be, it sure is interesting that he got beaten by another rookie quarterback when it mattered the most—a rookie quarterback who was still available when the Seattle Seahawks were picking in the third round.
That isn't to say that Griffin and Luck weren't good; Russell Wilson was just better, as he proved time and time again in 2012. Sure, he had one of the best defenses in the NFL to make himself look that much better. Maybe that top-ranked defense is the real reason Seattle went 11-5. But after Wilson finished the season with the league's fourth-best passer rating, it's hard to dispute his skill.
And it was even harder on Sunday, as he led his Seahawks to a come-from-behind 24-14 win over RGIII and the Redskins in the Wild Card round.
This summer, many of us laughed at Wilson's cockiness, at his insistence that he could be great, even as a relatively no-name third-round draft pick. Now, we're all thinking that maybe he was onto something.
The Golden State Warriors’ accomplishments at this point have been pretty admirable. Not only are they currently in fifth place in the Western Conference at 22-11 and in second place in the Pacific Division, but they've gone from one of the worst rebounding teams in the NBA to one of the best rebounding teams in the NBA—all in one season.
Part of it is health. Steph Curry and David Lee are on the court at the same time, finally. Veterans like Jarrett Jack are playing well, as are rookies like Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes. Guys are doing the little things, and it's adding up to a complete package. Imagine how much more dangerous the Warriors are going to get when Andrew Bogut comes back.
They may not be on top of the NBA just yet, but they've proven they can truly compete. And it's a huge turnaround for a team that couldn't even compete for a playoff berth a year ago.