With the exception of recent dynasties like the Patriots and Steelers, the NFL is still rife with parity. And as a result, every year several teams come out of nowhere to shock the NFL world.
After finishing last the previous season in their respective divisions, we saw Philadelphia, Miami, Baltimore, and Atlanta rise from the ashes to make the 2008 postseason.
The Eagles' and Ravens' turnarounds weren’t necessarily surprising, considering both teams had significant playoff success this decade, but there likely isn’t an "expert" out there who had the Falcons and Dolphins making a return to the postseason.
Conversely, every year there are teams with lofty expectations, pegged as playoff locks and championship contenders, that fall short of expectations. These teams resemble the computer version of a Trojan horse —they appear legitimate based on recent history, but inherent destructive elements are in place that could ultimately lead to undesirable results.
Last year, such 2007 playoff teams as Tampa Bay, Green Bay, Dallas, Seattle, and Jacksonville all met this fate—and most of them fell hard. In fact, with the exception of Tampa, these teams made it to at least the second round of the 2007 playoffs before failing to qualify at all in 2008.
So, who are the likely 2009 dark horse and "Trojan horse" candidates? Let’s take a look at all eight divisions and pick a team with the potential to rise, and one with the potential to fall.
Dark Horse: Washington Redskins
The NFC East could quite possibly be the best division in the NFL in 2009. Most everyone in the football world has the Eagles and Giants penciled in as not only the top two teams in the division, but the top two teams in the conference. Some would suggest they are the top two teams in the NFL.
I’m not a Dan Snyder fan, but if Albert Haynesworth stays healthy and doesn’t turn into another bloated unmotivated fat cat, the 'Skins defense should be among the league's best in 2009. It will be interesting to see how Jason Campbell reacts knowing ownership doesn't believe in him as the QB of the future.
When you consider the 2008 Redskins raced out to a 6-2 start, there are elements in place that tell me this team could surprise in 2009 and sneak up on the two favorites.
Trojan Horse: Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles are the consensus "sexy" pick in 2009 to win the division and represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. If all the key players stay healthy and the draft class produces, I agree they are a wild card team at worst.
But that’s in a perfect world; in reality there are some combustible elements here I don’t like. First of all, if Donovan McNabb gets hurt, this team isn’t going anywhere.
Brian Westbrook is the key to making the entire offense work, and he has never played a full season in his NFL career. There are already big-time questions regarding his health heading into the season.
A lot of experts also think the offensive line will be dominant in 2009, with the addition of Jason Peters, but he is another player with injury concerns. A lot of curious eyes will be watching to see if he truly is a Pro Bowler, or just a pretender. As a Bills fan who knows the real Jason Peters, I’m betting on the latter.
Defensively, longtime cornerstones Brian Dawkins and Lito Sheppard have moved on via free agency, and there is likely going to be a new defensive coordinator as well. See where I’m going with all of this?
Dark Horse: Green Bay Packers
It wouldn't be a shock if the Packers make the playoffs in 2009; after all, they went 13-3 just two years ago and possess a great young QB in Aaron Rodgers. Regardless, they do play in what should be a vastly improved division, and they are making the transition to 3-4 defense as well. This could perpetuate the defensive struggles that held them back last year.
Rodgers was definitely the best choice in the 2005 QB draft class, despite the fact he tumbled on draft day. Offensively, the Pack should have enough firepower to win games as he continues to grow.
I really feel they will be a surprise, because most pundits have the Bears and Vikings as the division favorites, and aren’t even mentioning the Packers in the conversation. You have to go way back to the pre-Favre days to see a Packers team flying under the radar like this one.
Trojan Horse: Chicago Bears
It’d be too easy to pick Minnesota because of the imminent signing of a declining Brett Favre and the potential media circus and locker room mutiny that will follow him there.
Still, I don’t see the Vikings falling off; with or without Favre, they are the team to beat with Adrian Peterson and their defense. They also have a pretty easy schedule to open the season that can help them overcome the looming suspension of the Williams boys.
Moving on, I know the Bears weren’t a playoff team last year, but they did finish second at 9-7. A lot of people think they are a lock in 2009 because they landed Jay Cutler, but if you take a closer look I see this team regressing in 2009.
Many of the key players on the defensive side of the ball have started to show their age, and on offense I believe Cutler will be exposed for the turnover machine he is, and won’t come close to passing for as many yards as he did in Mike Shanahan’s offense.
If there’s a more overrated player in the NFL today, please show him to me. Even if Cutler performs as expected, the 2009 Bears might look a lot like the 2008 Broncos.
Dark Horse: New Orleans Saints
Here's another team that might not be a playoff surprise given how good their offense is, but when you finish last in your division in 2008, to make the playoffs in 2009 would be considered an improvement.
Teams like the Saints are somewhat of an enigma, though. Since winning the division in 2006 and making it the NFC Championship, they have fallen on hard times. Numerous defensive adjustments haven't helped support their prolific offense.
They also need to improve on the road, as they’ve been a Jekyll-and-Hyde team away from the Superdome. Odds are good that this year they get the defense fixed, and their offense could be even better in 2009—if that’s possible. Here’s hoping Drew Brees' career doesn't go the way of Dan Marino’s.
Trojan Horse: Atlanta Falcons
Knowing they were starting over after the Michael Vick dog-fighting debacle, nobody expected the Falcons to win more than five or six games in 2008.
How can you root against them now, after Matt Ryan’s ridiculous rookie campaign? Let's be realistic —they will now be the hunted, and Ryan will have a major target on his back in 2009.
Also consider the fact they face the loaded AFC East, NFC East and their own division, in which all four teams finished with 8 or more wins in 2008. You get the picture.
Assuming Ryan avoids the dreaded sophomore slump, they might be even better offensively in 2009. Defensively, I see all kinds of question marks that will no doubt be answered in a negative way come September. History is not on Atlanta’s side, as the Falcons have never posted back-to-back winning seasons. Add it all up and they have all the makings for a classic letdown.
Dark Horse: San Francisco 49ers
When you watch Mike Singletary on the sidelines, you see an old-school throwback to the good old days. And I do believe it was the right move by the 49ers to retain him for the long term.
San Fran's disciplined 3-4 defense is very underrated. They were one of the hotter teams down the stretch last year, winning five of their last seven.
Heading into 2009, the biggest question they have to answer is at QB. Shaun Hill was very effective last year after taking over as the starter, and word out of the Bay Area is that former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith may be ready to rise to the forefront as well.
Despite the fact the Cardinals went to the Super Bowl last year, the division remains relatively weak. Look for the 49ers to take advantage.
Trojan Horse: Arizona Cardinals
Will the dreaded curse of the Super Bowl loser continue? Perhaps, but the reason I think the Cardinals could be a potential disappointment in 2009 is simple—just like the Falcons, Arizona has been hard-pressed to post consecutive winning seasons, let alone playoff runs.
Keeping Warner was the right move, but he isn’t exactly a spring chicken. His history of injury is a cause for concern as well. There are also major contract issues with just about every star player on the roster demanding a new contract this offseason.
But the biggest question might be continuity in terms of coaching, considering the Cardinals lost their offensive and defensive coordinators to Kansas City.
Let’s not forget that despite their deep playoff run last year, this team pretty much backed into the playoffs by finishing 9-7 after a 7-3 start, and they had some very ugly losses in the process.
Dark Horse: Buffalo Bills
After three straight 7-9 seasons and going 0-6 in the division last year, not many people outside of western New York are giving the Bills much of a chance. No matter that they added one of the biggest names in professional sports history.
"The player," as Bill Parcells called him in Dallas, will make a major impact on the offensive side of the ball, whether or not this is truly a playoff-caliber team.
I like Buffalo this year, and not just because I’m a Bills fan. I believe pseudo-GM Russ Brandon has a made a lot of bold power moves to get this franchise heading in the right direction.
Trading Jason Peters was a coup, despite what a lot of the so-called experts think. By trading the overrated, unmotivated diva, they likely added a franchise offensive lineman and top-flight tight end.
They might not be the best team in the division yet, but they won’t go 0-6 either. Aside from the addition of Terrell Owens and other solid veteran help, there is a plethora of young talent on both sides of the ball primed to explode.
Even if the coaching staff remains suspect, it's the players on the field that ultimately win games. In 2009, Buffalo will likely field their most talented roster this decade.
Trojan Horse: Miami Dolphins
Nobody expected the 1-15 Dolphins to become the 11-5 dolphins, but the Parcells magic prevailed, and Brett Favre sent a gift-wrapped package to south Florida in the form of a starting QB.
The Jets may have dumped Chad Pennington in favor of the aforementioned prima donna, but it was the Jets—not the 'Fins—who ended up all wet.
But 2009 will be a far different story for the Cinderella porpoises. On paper, they had the easiest schedule in the league in 2008, but on paper in 2009, they have the hardest.
History has shown that Pennington is an up-and-down QB. Even if he's healthy, he has never had back-to-back winning seasons. Also, the wildcat offense was a great idea last year, but this year it won’t be a surprise to opposing defenses.
And speaking of defense, a lot of the key players on that side of the ball are aging. The Dolphins have yet to patch up a suspect secondary, and will be relying on rookies to improve the pass defense. Add it all up, and I believe they take a step backwards this year, and could find themselves treading deep water early.
Dark Horse: Cincinnati Bengals
With the exception of Chad Ochocinco’s latest off-the-field antics, the Bengals are quietly flying under the radar this offseason. But then again, when have the Bengals ever been expected to do anything the last 20 years?
I’m not overlooking them, though, and I think this team might have had the best overall offseason in terms of draft and free-agent signings. If Carson Palmer can stay healthy, the Bengals should field their best team since 2005, when they last won the division and made the playoffs.
They likely aren’t good enough to knock off the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers for the division crown, but there just might be enough here to steal a wild card spot if they can string together some wins early. Marvin Lewis is perched on one of the hotter seats in the NFL in 2009, so they'll need to produce in order to keep him around for the long term.
Trojan Horse: Baltimore Ravens
I don’t believe the Ravens will fall off the map completely in 2009, but I don’t see them being as good as they were last year.
They lost defensive coordinator and evil genius Rex Ryan, who is currently in New York making bold prognostications and statements. He brought some key pieces to the puzzle along with him to his new team that will ultimately hurt the Ravens.
Offensively, I’m not sure Joe Flacco will be able to improve much, considering he still doesn’t have a legitimate playmaker to catch the ball. The run game should be solid, but overall they definitely don’t have a team capable of beating the Steelers.
And with Ray Lewis in the twilight of his career, they really need to start thinking about the future of their defense.
Dark Horse: Houston Texans
I'm jumping on the standing-room-only Texans bandwagon. I do believe this team is due to break through and make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. They are loaded with great young talent on both sides of the football, and just like the Saints, they are banking on the defense to make a marginal improvement to propel their top five offense into the playoffs.
They play in a very tough division, and face a very tough schedule on paper in 2009, but at some point talent prevails. Instead of knocking on the door, they may just break it down.
The recipe for success is pretty simple—get off to a fast start, beat the Colts, and keep Matt Schaub healthy. I think all three of these could happen this year.
Trojan Horse: Tennessee Titans
Even though I see the Colts as a potential disappointment as well, it’s easier to pick the Titans because they don’t have a guy named Manning playing for them.
Jeff Fisher has done a great job during his extended tenure as head coach—going all the way back to the Houston Oilers days. But no matter which way you slice it, losing Haynesworth was a major blow to a physical team built on defense. He was the Hoover Dam that kept the Colorado River from bursting through.
Offensively, they should have continuing success pounding the rock with two great running backs. However, in terms of the passing game, you have the feeling that Kerry Collins might not have enough left in the tank. Vince Young is another cancerous element waiting to join the elite diva ranks of Favre and T.O.
The division hasn’t gotten any easier, and the Titans could take a step back in 2009 if a lot of things don’t go their way.
Dark Horse: Oakland Raiders
The Raiders played much better in the second half of last year under Tom Cable. They had some big wins against teams fighting for a playoff spot, including the Jets and on the road against the Broncos and Buccaneers.
They have a sound offensive line and great running game, and if JaMarcus Russell can prove he’s more than another strong armed QB, all the ingredients are in the mixing bowl for this offense to score a lot of points in 2009.
The division is weak, and signing defensive end Greg Ellis was a shrewd move to help a defense that has been pretty solid the last few years and features the NFL’s top cornerback.
Their top two draft picks in April raised some eyebrows, but perhaps there is a method after all behind Al Davis' madness. An opening-day win against the Chargers on the Monday Night Football doubleheader would surely set the tone for the season. Don’t forget they blew a big lead at home against the Chargers last year.
Trojan Horse: San Diego Chargers
Considering how weak this division was in 2008, it’s hard to pick a true "disappointment" here. But despite making a late-season charge to make the playoffs, San Diego was only 8-8 last year. In fact, they were 4-8 at one point, which definitely qualifies as disappointing.
In an ironic twist of fate, the Buffalo Bills pulled off a huge win in Denver on Week 16, setting the stage for San Diego to clinch the division in the season finale.
Philip Rivers is a top-five QB, but there are concerns that LaDainian Tomlinson is finished. Some rightly wondered whether San Diego kept the right running back when they traded Turner to Atlanta last year.
On defense, one wonders if Shawne Merriman’s return will be enough to improve a defense that had many gaping holes in 2008.
I still think they win the division by default, but their overall record could once again be disappointing. And they might not steamroll through the division this year if Oakland and Kansas City improve as expected. Don’t be surprised if Denver is more competitive than people think they will be.