On Thursday, Sept. 5, the NFL regular season will officially commence and the football community will rejoice. After months of anticipation, the time has finally come for the hype to dissipate and the reality to sink in.
The question is, which dark-horse postseason contenders will shine under bright lights and start their season off right?
The Super Bowl favorites are readily established, as the familiar faces have managed to maintain elite rosters. With that being said, only a select few squads are perennial title contenders and, with each passing season, new postseason teams rise up.
Don't expect 2013 to serve as an exception.
Whether or not these teams contend for a Super Bowl title is another conversation, but that doesn't eliminate their postseason upside. Whether they have the caliber defense to shine or the offensive firepower to break through, multiple teams are in line for a breakout season.
Only a select few will start their season off with a win.
Opponent: Minnesota Vikings
2012 W-L: 4-12
Why Detroit Will Contend
After going 10-6 during the 2011 NFL regular season, the Detroit Lions went 4-12 in 2012. The extreme drop-off was not only stunning but also a testament to the inconsistency of the Lions' organization.
Just don't think that makes them anything less than a team to watch in 2013.
The Lions return two elite offensive pieces from a production standpoint with wide receiver Calvin Johnson and quarterback Matthew Stafford. They also bring in their best running back since Barry Sanders in Reggie Bush.
That's not only a compliment to Bush but also a sign of just how bad Detroit has been at the position since Sanders retired.
Bush should alleviate pressure from the passing game, which is critical after Stafford threw 727 passes in 2012—57 more than the player with the second-highest amount. He's run for 2,072 yards over the past two seasons and can catch passes to help mask the fact that Detroit is without a reliable No. 2 receiver.
One way or another, Detroit's offense will continue to thrive.
The key for the Lions will be on defense, where Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh must correct character issues and lead this team. Adding Ezekiel Ansah and Glover Quin should help, and the returning Chris Houston and Stephen Tulloch are reliable performers, but it starts in the middle.
The question is, can they live up to the hype?
The Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings all won at least 10 games during the 2012 season. That sets the golden number for Detroit at a mark of double-figure wins to reach the playoffs.
If it fails to do so, expect major changes.
Why Detroit Will Win
The Lions have a tough task with a Week 1 game against the Vikings. During the 2012 regular season, the Lions lost 20-13 at Minnesota and 34-24 in Detroit when the two sides met.
In 2011, they won 26-23 in overtime at Minnesota and 34-28 at home. In other words, these two sides are evenly matched, and the rivalry between them will permit a close game.
It all comes down to which quarterback will execute when it matters most, and I'm not entirely sold on Christian Ponder.
Stafford will need to improve from his 20 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in 2012, but he's flashed brilliance before. Interceptions will always be an issue for a gunslinger like Stafford, but with Johnson and Bush both on the roster, touchdowns should be easier to come by.
Adrian Peterson will be a handful and thus force Stafford to throw, but the former Georgia star will outduel Ponder during Week 1.
Kansas City Chiefs
Opponent: Jacksonville Jaguars
2012 W-L: 2-14
Why Kansas City Will Contend
When you remember that the Kansas City Chiefs were 2-14 in 2012, it's easy to write them off as a non-factor in 2013. With that being said, the Chiefs have made drastic changes to their roster.
Each one has them looking like an eight-win team, which opens the door for two unpredictable victories to create a postseason berth.
It all starts up top for Kansas City, as it hired head coach Andy Reid to take over and right the ship. Say what you will about Reid's past two seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, but he's made nine postseason appearances since 2000 and earned five berths in the NFC Championship Game.
Super Bowl ring or not, Reid knows how to make it to the postseason.
As important as Reid and his schematic changes will be, the most critical shift comes at the quarterback position. After receiving dismal performances by Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn in 2012, the Chiefs now shift to playing with Alex Smith under center.
Smith has 30 touchdowns to 10 interceptions over his past 26 appearances, while Cassel and Quinn combined for eight touchdowns and 20 interceptions in 2012.
Joining Smith on offense will be All-Pro running back Jamaal Charles and Pro Bowl wide receiver Dwayne Bowe. Both are two of the best in the NFL at their respective positions, and each will have an easier time producing with a reliable quarterback under center.
Defensively, the Chiefs have added Dunta Robinson and Sean Smith to a backfield that already consists of star cornerback Brandon Flowers and Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry. Kansas City also added the likes of defensive lineman Mike DeVito and linebacker Akeem Jordan.
Paired with Tamba Hali, Justin Houston and Derrick Johnson, the Chiefs defense is in position to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the season.
Why Kansas City Will Win
The Chiefs open the season on the road against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Jacksonville also finished the 2012 season at 2-14, which suggests that this is a game between two of the worst teams in the league.
While the Jaguars have done little to escape that label, the Chiefs aren't what they used to be—and that's a good thing.
Playing at Jacksonville will be difficult, but the Jaguars are relying upon Blaine Gabbert to lead their offense. Gabbert has completed 53.8 percent of his passes through two seasons, and Kansas City's defensive backfield should exploit his inaccuracy.
Playing without Justin Blackmon won't help, as the star receiver is serving a four-game suspension, per The Associated Press (via ESPN.com).
There may not be many points scored here, but a battle between Charles and Maurice Jones-Drew will provide fireworks. In the end, it'll come down to which quarterback can make plays, and Smith wins that competition almost every time out.
A strong start for Kansas City, and its postseason contention begins.
St. Louis Rams
Opponent: Arizona Cardinals
Betting Line: Rams (-4.5) via BOVADA
Why St. Louis Will Contend
The St. Louis Rams are the biggest long-shot of any team listed, mainly due to the fact that they play in the same division as the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks. Both are primary Super Bowl contenders and each project to win more than 10 games.
To make matters worse, the Rams don't have a very favorable schedule.
What St. Louis does possess, however, is one of the most respected head coaches in the NFL with Jeff Fisher at the helm. The postseason hasn't always been guaranteed under Fisher, but he's long made lackluster teams have the look of a contender.
In St. Louis, he has the talent to create a force.
Quarterback Sam Bradford has played well, but with the absence of a reliable offensive line, his production has been hindered by how many times he's hit each game. The Rams went out and decided to bring in premier left tackle Jake Long to help cure his blind side woes.
With Rodger Saffold at right tackle, the Rams may just have enough to keep Bradford safe.
Other than that, the Rams are being over-hyped offensively, as Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey are rookies and Daryl Richardson must replace Steven Jackson's production and leadership. If it all pans out, the Rams will be explosive, but at this point, they're a team that will depend on their defense.
Fortunately, they have quite the defensive unit to depend upon.
Chris Long and Robert Quinn are a dynamic pass rushing tandem, combining for 22.0 sacks in 2012, and the combination of Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford should do an excellent job of stopping the run. With James Laurinaitis in the middle and Alec Ogletree beside him, the Rams have skill up front.
As long as Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins can continue developing into a top cornerback duo, the Rams will contend for a postseason berth.
Why They'll Win
Anyone who believes the Rams' will blow the Arizona Cardinals out has another thing coming to them. The Cardinals have a head coach, Bruce Arians, who helped the Indianapolis Colts overachieve in 2013, and Arizona will have a competent quarterback for the first time since Kurt Warner.
In the end, however, the Rams just won't lose a season-opener at home.
Bradford has something to prove, and with Austin, Bailey and Chris Givens helping to improve St. Louis' receiving corps, he should do just that. Richardson will have a tough time running against Arizona, but the Rams' defense should keep things close enough for the passing game to strike.
A cause for concern is the fact that the Cardinals' combination of Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald exceeds anything the Rams have established in the passing game. In the end, however, home field advantage plays a major role as St. Louis moves to 1-0.
From there, it's a long road to the postseason.
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