Dark Horse Candidates to Crash Next Year's Super Bowl

Sam Stryker@sbstrykerContributor IIIFebruary 6, 2013

Dark Horse Candidates to Crash Next Year's Super Bowl

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    Now that the season is officially over, NFL teams are already dreaming of making the trip to Super Bowl XLVIII in New York.

    While the best teams from this past season will look to take the next step and play in the big game, it wouldn’t be out of the question for an underdog to catch experts by surprise and sneak into the title game.

    It has been done before—think the Arizona Cardinals in 2009 and the Green Bay Packers in 2011, who both snuck into the playoffs as a No. 6 seed and made it all the way to the title game. 

    Here are a list of teams that didn’t make the playoffs in 2012 but are dark horse candidates to crash the party at next year’s Super Bowl in the Big Apple.

    All statistics are gathered from ESPN

The New York Giants

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    The Giants had a disappointing follow up performance to their Super Bowl XVLI victory over the Patriots. However, don’t expect the hangover period to last more than a season.

    The Giants just barely missed winning the NFC East division title, finishing with a 9-7 record. While the offense wasn’t great (12th in the league in passing yards per game and 14th in rushing yards per game), defense is ultimately what cost the team.

    In late-season losses to Cincinnati, Atlanta and Baltimore, New York gave up 31, 33 and 34 points respectively. The defense simply needs to step it up a notch this year.

    With quarterback Eli Manning leading the team, the Giants are always playoff contenders. Expect the Big Blue to bounce back this year and maybe even become the first home team to play in the Super Bowl.

The Chicago Bears

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    At 10-6 the Bears had the best record of any team to not make the playoffs last season. Additionally, Chicago had the best point differential in the NFC North and the fourth-best in the league. 

    The Bears started off hot, winning seven of their first eight games. But a rough midseason stretch where they lost five of six ultimately cost them a playoff berth and head coach Lovie Smith his job. 

    The club brought in former Montreal Alouettes coach Marc Trestman to right the ship, and he might be the right man for the job. Trestman led Montreal to two straight Grey Cups and was CFL Coach of the Year in 2009.

    If Trestman can fix the abysmal Bears pass offense (the team ranked 29th in the NFL last year) the team might stand a chance of making a deep playoff run this season.

The New Orleans Saints

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    To say 2012 was a rough year for the Saints would be an understatement.

    With NFL commissioner Roger Goodell issuing some of the harshest penalties in league history for the team’s bounty program, New Orleans was left without head coach Sean Payton for the season and several other key players and personnel for various periods of time.

    The team finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs, but there were some bright spots on the lost season. Veteran quarterback Drew Brees led the NFL in pass yards (5,177) and touchdowns (43), though he did throw 19 interceptions.

    With Payton reinstated, look for the Saints to come back with a vengeance in 2013—and maybe even crash the big game in the Big Apple.

The Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Noticeably absent from the playoffs were the Steelers, who failed to make the postseason for the first time since 2006. Don’t expect that to happen two years in a row.

    The Steelers’ 8-8 record fails to indicate how stingy the team was on defense. The team lead the league in total yards allowed and only let teams score at a rate of 19.6 points per game.

    Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger turned in a solid if not spectacular campaign, throwing 26 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. 

    The Steelers had a couple of bad losses on the season—namely a 26-23 to the lowly Titans and a 20-14 defeat to the Browns—so if the team can stay focused in 2013, it could be a force to be reckoned with come the postseason.

The San Diego Chargers

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    The Chargers have a habit of ending the season in disappointment, but not making the playoffs in 2012 stings especially bad—and even cost coach Norv Turner and general manager AJ Smith their jobs. 

    But former Denver offensive coordinator Mike McCoy (the man behind Peyton Manning’s career resurgence) is seizing the reigns in San Diego.

    Combined that with former Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt taking over offensive coordinator duties, and you can expect things to turn around in Southern California in 2013.

    The Chargers especially struggled on offense last season, racking up just 205.9 yards passing and 91.3 yards rushing per game. Quarterback Philip Rivers wasn’t awful, but he wasn’t great either, finishing the year with 26 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. 

    But with two offensive masterminds joining forces out West, San Diego is a playoff contender in 2013 and a Super Bowl dark horse.