Every year, at least one team emerges from the slums of the football world to make a surprising run. It's only natural in a league with so much parity—one in which a bad team can become good and a good team can become bad with merely a single positive or negative offseason development.
Of course, success is relative. Some of the seven sleeping giants we're about to reveal could become Super Bowl contenders just like that, while others might simply surprise people by climbing out of the basement.
All have the ability to become much better, though, and all have a chance to do some damage.
Statistically, the Kansas City Chiefs were just terrible last season. They allowed 214 more points than they scored, which ranked dead last in football by a margin of nearly two points per game, finishing with a 2-14 record to "earn" the draft's top pick.
But the simple presence of first overall selection Eric Fisher isn't the only reason why Kansas City could be on the verge of a shockingly strong season. There's a new look and feel to this team, with brand-new head coach Andy Reid bringing his winning résumé to a fresh setting and with brand-new quarterback Alex Smith bringing some stability to the most important position on the field.
KC was hit hard by injuries last season, revealing a severe lack of depth. And that's what killed the Chiefs. This was, after all, the only non-playoff team to send six players to the Pro Bowl at the end of the year. How on earth do you lose 14 games with six Pro Bowlers?
But in addition to adding Reid, Smith and Fisher and securing key offensive contributors Branden Albert and Dwayne Bowe, the Chiefs also invested in depth players this offseason. Sean Smith, Akeem Jordan, Dunta Robinson and Mike DeVito have the ability to boost that defense, while Donnie Avery and Geoff Schwartz can add some pad on offense.
This is a team that won its division and went 10-6 just three years ago. Right now, it might be better than it was then.
2012 record: 2-14
Projected 2013 record: 9-7
The Philadelphia Eagles went just 4-12 last year, but this is the kind of team that could be exceptionally good or hilariously bad once again. That's because the roster has a lot of talent, but there are two huge mysteries that must be solved.
Mystery No. 1: Can they get quality, consistent play at the quarterback position?
Michael Vick is so damn talented, but he's been a model of inconsistency the last two years, with the highest turnover rate in football. Can he get his career back on track? And if not, can Nick Foles, Matt Barkley or Dennis Dixon emerge? Nobody knows, but if one of those guys can find a way to shine, the Eagles could explode.
Mystery No. 2: Will the Chip Kelly experiment work?
Kelly could be another Steve Spurrier or Nick Saban, but there's also a chance the mad offensive genius is the next big thing in the NFL coaching world. His offense is expected to be extremely unique and fast-paced, and he certainly has the weapons to pull that off, with guys like Vick, LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Bryce Brown on the roster.
If those studs can come through, if one of the quarterbacks can emerge, if Kelly can keep them together and if a very talented offensive line and potentially solid defense can deliver, the Eagles could turn this thing around, especially in the wide open NFC East.
2012 record: 4-12
Projected 2013 record: 8-8
There were times in 2012 when the Miami Dolphins looked abysmal, but then there were times when they looked like a playoff-worthy team. Still, they finished with a losing record for the fourth consecutive season, leaving a lot of room for a surprisingly solid 2013 campaign.
The key, naturally, will be what they get out of second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who stepped up his game as his rookie campaign progressed. The No. 8 overall pick had just one interception during the final five games of 2012.
This year, Tannehill will have a new toy with Mike Wallace joining the Dolphins as a prized free-agent pickup. With Dustin Keller and Tyson Clabo also added to the offensive fray, the passing game could take off quickly in 2013.
And yes, Jake Long is gone, but Long struggled with injuries last season anyway, so that might not affect Tannehill and Co. as much as some think.
And then there's that defense, which adds top pick Dion Jordan, who could be half of an amazing pass-rushing duo with Cameron Wake. That unit probably got better in the offseason, which is quite encouraging when you consider that only six teams in football surrendered fewer points than Miami did in 2012.
They might not be able to slay the Patriots atop the AFC East just yet, but the 'Phins have the ability to make waves. At the very least, they should finally move back above .500 next year.
2012 record: 7-9
Projected 2013 record: 9-7
When Cam Newton's your quarterback and he's entering his third season, you're at the very least a wild card. And by that I mean the joker in the deck, not a playoff team (although both could surely transpire).
On one hand, you could make the argument that Newton and the Carolina Panthers are about to break out based on the fact they won their final four games of 2012. But Carolina also won four of its final six games in 2011 before starting 1-6 this past season.
So are the Panthers just perennial late bloomers or is this the year in which it all comes together?
The Panthers didn't do much in free agency, which is fine because they're keeping it in-house and focusing on building through the draft after a rocky run on the open market a couple years ago. They addressed a weak spot while shoring up the defensive front seven with top pick Star Lotulelei.
This team might not be as talented as Atlanta or New Orleans, but the core is solid and Newton and defensive leader Luke Kuechly have as much upside as anyone playing this game. So long as that's the case, the Panthers will have a chance to shock everyone.
2012 record: 7-9
Projected 2013 record: 9-7
Yes, they're coming off back-to-back 8-8 seasons and league-imposed sanctions kept them from making waves this spring, but that doesn't mean the Dallas Cowboys don't have a chance to surprise a lot of people in 2013.
Despite the fact the defense was completely ravaged by injuries in 2012, Dallas managed to win five of its last eight games (including five of six before injuries really did a number on the roster in the final two weeks).
Tony Romo led the league with five fourth-quarter comebacks despite little support from his line and backfield, and Dez Bryant had more touchdowns during the second half of the season than any player in football.
If indeed Bryant has emerged as a superstar, Romo could finally excel with him and the always-stellar Jason Witten catching everything. If former top-10 pick Tyron Smith can keep emerging at left tackle and third-year back DeMarco Murray can stay healthy, the sky's the limit for "America's Team" on offense.
The D was hit harder than other teams by injuries last year, but Sean Lee and Bruce Carter were both studs when healthy, DeMarcus Ware is DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher and Anthony Spencer are coming off career years and Morris Claiborne is only going to get better.
That offensive line might be a concern, but it's not easy to find weak spots outside of that on this roster. That and injuries could again do the Cowboys in, but there's also a chance the stars finally align for a team that has been snakebitten for a decade and a half.
2012 record: 8-8
Projected 2013 record: 10-6
The Cincinnati Bengals have finished above .500 and made the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, so when we talk about them shocking the world we're referring to a potential Super Bowl run. That's a strange thought for a Bengals team that, in two appearances, did not capture the Lombardi, but there are lots of reasons to be optimistic right now.
For starters, you've got one heck of a young and talented offensive battery with Andy Dalton at quarterback and A.J. Green in the top wide receiver slot. If those two can continue to progress in their big third season together, the Cincy offense should be tough to stop.
And that's scary when you consider that the Bengals defense is still their bread and butter. That line, led by the game's top defensive tackle in Geno Atkins, is one of the best in football, and youngsters Vontaze Burfict and Dre Kirkpatrick should only get better at the other two levels.
Plus, who knows what James Harrison might be able to bring to the table after showing signs of life with five sacks in his final seven games last year in Pittsburgh.
With the Ravens and Steelers both taking hits this offseason, the Bengals could finally control the AFC North. And if that's how things transpire, anything can happen—even a Cincinnati Super Bowl appearance.
2012 record: 10-6
Projected 2013 record: 12-4
The NFC West became the best division in football in 2012, and yet the St. Louis Rams somehow lost only a single game in six matchups with their rivals in said division. Now, in Jeff Fisher's second season and with the Gregg Williams tumult a thing of the past, St. Louis could be on track to post a winning record for the first time in a decade.
Sam Bradford enters his fourth season after putting together his best year as a pro in 2012. He'll miss Danny Amendola, but Bradford will benefit more from the addition of Jake Long and Jared Cook. Throw in electric rookie wide receiver Tavon Austin and you have the right recipe in place.
The defense was never the main problem anyway, but you'd have to imagine it'll only get better with talented 25-or-under starters Janoris Jenkins, Robert Quinn and Alec Ogletree continuing to establish chemistry with solid veterans such as Cortland Finnegan and Chris Long.
The Rams tied the eventual Super Bowl finalist 49ers after their Week 9 bye in 2012, and that started them on a path that featured them win four of their final six games (with a Week 13 win over the Niners in that stretch). It'll be tough to make a playoff run happen in that division, especially with Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona all seemingly getting better, but the Rams might actually have it in them.
2012 record: 7-8-1
Projected 2013 record: 9-7