Every year in the NFL, there are a few teams that surprise a majority of fans with their fantastic play. Fans say that the teams "came out of nowhere" or had "a season of destiny."
For one reason or another, these five teams aren't considered to be contenders or aren't given as much respect as they should be given.
Thus, we have the five most underrated teams coming into the 2009 NFL season.
Side-note: Neither the Jaguars nor Freddy Taylor are on this list. I just needed a picture that didn't give away any of the teams and Taylor is probably the most underrated player of our generation.
Last season, the Niners won five of their last seven games and finished with a respectable 7-9 record, which isn't bad for a rebuilding team. Throw in a great draft and good free agency signings at key positions and you have a sleeper to make the playoffs in the NFC.
First off, they have possibly the best inside linebacker in the NFL in young Patrick Willis. The whispers of "next Ray Lewis" look more true with every game. Willis leads a solid defensive corps that ranked in the top 13 against both the run and the pass last season.
On the offensive side of the ball, former first round pick Alex Smith and veteran Shaun Hill are battling for the starting spot. It will likely go to Hill who performed well after taking over for J.T. O'Sullivan last season, not making costly mistakes that the former had trouble with.
A prized new target for Hill is first round draft pick Michael Crabtree whom the Niners were happy to take with the 10th pick. Crabtree has all the makings of an NFL star and he helps spread out the passing game that includes Isaac Bruce and Vernon Davis.
People can be so judgmental. Just because they have a clinically insane owner that may or may not have been dead for the last 17 years, the Oakland Raiders are not going to be a good team in 2009. Nonsense.
The Raiders are underrated in a different way than the rest of the teams here. I don't think that they will be a playoff team, but I believe that they will have a pretty good record and play well, which will surprise a lot of people who think that they are a lock for a top five pick next year.
A young team on the rise, the Raiders really have some pieces that will make them a contender for a few years. This starts with a great cornerback tandem in Nnamdi Asomugha and Chris Johnson.
Asomugha has been the best cornerback in the league for years and in Johnson, the Raiders have finally found a capable number two guy across from him.
Quarterback JaMarcus Russell performed fairly in his first season as a starter and finished the season strong, winning two of his last three games, throwing for six touchdowns and two interceptions.
He didn't have the greatest receiving corps to work with last season, but it should be better this season with a healthy Javon Walker, rookies Darrius Heyward-Bey and Louis Murphy, and a new-found favorite target of Russell in tight end Zach Miller.
Throw in a versatile backfield with Darren McFadden, Justin Fargas, and Michael Bush, the Raiders offense, along with the rest of the team, should be vastly improved this season.
Like the Raiders, the Ravens are underrated for different reasons than the rest of the teams on this list (Baltimore is the only team on this list to make the playoffs last season). While the other teams on this list are not being acknowledged or flying under the radar, many people think that because of offseason moves, the Ravens are going to regress and struggle this season.
Two of the reasons they will regress are because of the departures of Rex Ryan and Bart Scott. Simply put, the Ravens have lost defensive coordinators better than Rex Ryan and they have lost defensive players better than Bart Scott.
And every time, people say that the team is going to struggle and every year, the defense remains strong.
Bart Scott is just a product of playing alongside Ray Lewis. Like Ed Hartwell, Jamie Sharper (the best of this bunch), and to a degree, Adalius Thomas before him, Scott is helped greatly by playing next to Ray and like the others, he will likely not be the same guy in New York when expected to be the leader and best player on the linebacking corps.
The Ravens have had a great defense before Rex Ryan was the coordinator and they will continue to have a great defense after he leaves. In 2002, the team's defensive coordinator, Marvin Lewis, left. People said that the defense would struggle without Lewis who led made the Ravens the number 1 ranked defense in the league (something Rex Ryan never did by the way). Yet, since he left, the Ravens defense has still been great.
Second-year quarterback Joe Flacco has made tremendous improvements in the offseason in being more of a quarterback and not a game manger, and he should be helped with weapons in Mark Clayton, Demetrius Williams, Ray Rice, and Todd Heap.
Baltimore also had one of the best and most versatile backfields in 2008 with Le'Ron McClain, Willis McGahee, and Ray Rice. This season, McClain is set to play more fullback, Rice is going to be more of a feature back, and rookie Cedric Peerman might make an impact in the running game.
The Packers are the sleepers of the NFC North. "The Bears will win it because they have Jay Cutler!" "The Vikings will win it because they're getting Brett Favre!" "The Lions will win it because they drafted Matt Stafford!"
OK, maybe you don't hear the last one as much, but the truth is that the Packers will win it because they are the best team in the division. Aaron Rodgers performed amazingly well in his first year as a starter and with one of the better receiving corps in the league, he is set to be even better this season.
The question about the Pack is on defense. Switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 is no easy task and there are some questions. Namely with Aaron Kampman, possibly the best player on Green Bay's defense, who has played defensive end his entire career and may have trouble as a 3-4 linebacker. He will be a great pass-rusher from the linebacker spot, but his all-around linebacker skills are yet to be seen.
Still, Green Bay has the talent to make it work. They drafted a prototypical 3-4 nose tackle in B.J. Raji and two very talented inside backers in Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk. Throw in one of the best free safeties in the league in Nick Collins and possibly the best cornerback tandem in Charles Woodson and Al Harris, and you have a potentially scary defense.
The one team that surprised everyone with their struggles in 2008 will surprise everyone with their success in 2009.
The Seahawks struggled in 2008 chiefly because of injury problems. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and defensive end Patrick Kerney missed nine games each, guard Rob Simms missed 15 games, and the receiving corps became decimated, leading to practice squad players and receivers who were jobless the week before becoming starters.
Now, all of the aforementioned players are healthy, and the wide receiving corps got a major boost with the signing of T.J. Houshmandazadeh and the drafting of Penn State's Deon Butler. With a healthy Deion Branch and an emerging young tight end in John Carlson, Matt Hasselbeck suddenly has an elite receiving corps.
On defense, the Seahawks look like they will have the best linebacking corps they have had in years. Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupa is an All-Pro, weak side linebacker LeRoy Hill is a hard-hitting stud, and rookie Aaron Curry is one of the best linebacker prospects in recent history.
Marcus Trufant is a top-tier NFL cornerback, but the one weakness on Seattle's D is who will play across from him. Ken Lucas and Josh Wilson are good, but not great number 2 corners and whoever wins the starting spot needs to step it up.
Regardless, with all the players back from injury and new players who fit needs, the Seahawks are set to be a contender in 2009. Even if you don't know it yet.