For my first article on B/R, I decided to make an article discussing the top 5 NFL squads that I feel have the most to prove this upcoming season in terms of how great their fans and the media expect them to be.
My case in point: The 2008 Cleveland Browns. I understand a lot of people didn't expect them to have a season as surprisingly great as they did, but most people didn't expect them to slide to 4-12 from a 10-6 record the previous year. I did, however. I saw that Derek Anderson had himself a gunslinging, - outlier-type campaign, that Braylon Edwards showed unusually solid hands, and that the struggles of the Baltimore Ravens helped them rise to the top of an easy division that year, aside from the ever-present Pittsburgh Steelers.
In order for a team to make this list, they first have to somewhat widely be considered a "legitimate contender" to make the playoffs; if they aren't, then they wouldn't have to prove to me, or to anybody else, that they mean business come playoff time because they aren't "good" in the first place. Make sense?
Alright... and so, without further ado, "5 NFL Teams That Need To Prove They're The Real Deal."
2008 regular season record: 12-4
2009 projected record: 10-6
As a Philadelphia Eagles fan at heart, I was happy that the Eagles would have 2 first round picks for the 2009 NFL Draft. It's probably because of this that I expected (or hoped) the Panthers to have a down season last year, as that would mean a mid-round selection for Philly. Carolina, however, had other plans, compiling a solid record of 12-4. They would go on to lose in a heartbreaker to the Arizona Cardinals in the divisional round of the playoffs.
What they need to prove: that they have a passing game aside quarterback Jake Delhomme and wide receiver Steve Smith. Aside from their 30 year old stud wideout, this team possesses WR targets like Dwayne Jarrett, Muhsin Muhammed, and Ryne Robinson, with Jeff King at TE: uninspiring names, in my opinion. In addition, the Panthers were 19th in passing yards per game last season.
On another note, can DeAngelo Williams recreate his miraculous 2008 season? Before last year, he was a somewhat talented back who never seemed to really live up to his potential. Is his talent, and production, for real? Jonathan Stewart should provide the team with a great 1-2 punch, however, so the Panthers at least resemble the running squad they were last season.
In abrupt closing, Carolina's defense ranked 18th last year in terms of yards allowed per game, which belongs to a team that finishes around 8-8 every year.
2008 regular season record: 11-5
2009 projected record: 10-6
The Atlanta Falcons finally silenced critics who said they couldn't rise up out of a tumultuous NFC South division, signing career backup Michael Turner and drafting Matty "Ice" Ryan en route to an 11-5 record. Matt Ryan showed poise on the gridiron, finding a new favorite target in Roddy White and an underrated offensive line and a fantastic running game to draw extras defenders into the box, opening things up downfield. This offseason, the Falcons acquired Hall of Fame TE Tony Gonzalez.
What they need to prove: that Michael Turner can survive being the league's most durable, overworked... well, workhorse, for consecutive seasons. The heralded "Curse of 370" has to be true to some extent, unless Michael Turner is the second coming of the LT, the running back he spelled in San Diego.
Can Matt Ryan survive a sophomore slump? I think he can, personally, but he'll just need to show the rest of the league that he can handle the pressures of being a starting NFL quarterback if the team goes through a losing streak.
On defense, the Falcons finished 24th overall in YPG allowed. Atlanta needs defensive playmakers John Abraham, Curtis Lofton, and Mike Peterson to give the squad a voice in the NFC, let alone the NFL.
2008 regular season record: 9-7
2009 projected record: 9-7
Ahh, the Arizona Cardinals. Those pesky Cardinals, that darned Larry Fitzgerald, his 8237465 TD game against the Eagles that knocked us out of the playoffs... but I digress. Seriously, the Cardinals finally showed that with even an average defense, their high-flying offense could carry them through games.
What they need to prove: that Kurt Warner can keep his body going. One of the NFL's oldest superstars have a resurrected career, Warner will need to keep producing at an insanely high level to hold back Matt Leinart from beginning his career. If opponents double team WRs, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, the only running threats the Cardinals have are low-YPC option Tim Hightower and the unproven rookie Chris Wells. If I'm playing the Cards, I'm making them beat me on the ground.
Will disgruntled WR Anquan Boldin play his hardest this season if he doesn't get a restructured contract? Some would say that he will try extra-hard this season to prove what he's worth, but anyone who watched the playoffs this past year knows that Boldin and the Cardinals front office aren't on the same page.
Their defense really improved during the 2nd half of the season and through their playoff run, and Arizona does plays in a fairly weak division, but the inconsistency of the Cardinals throughout the past decade really gives me reason to pause.
2008 regular season record: 11-5
2009 projected record: 7-9
The Miami Dolphins (my second favorite team in the NFL, by the way) turned a lot of heads in 2008, putting together a fantastic 11-5 campaign under new management Bill Parcells and Tony Sparano and unveiling a "new" formation into everyday NFL playbook vocabulary... "the Wildcat!" Ronnie Brown became one of the most versatile players in the league and Chad Pennington was named the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year again.
What they need to prove: that they weren't just the product of an easier-than-normal division, a "gimmick" offensive formation, and an easy schedule. The Patriots had a down year last year (by New England's standards, anyway), and the Dolphins took advantage of that by racking up touchdown after touchdown on the Patriots suddenly-ancient defense.
The Wildcat won't catch any team by surprise this year, so their offense will need to find more creative, and possibly more conventional, ways to move down the field. In addition, the Dolphins are also expected to have a much harder schedule this time around.
There is also a lack of star power on the Dolphins, offensively. RB Ronnie Brown, WR Ted Ginn Jr., and OT Jake Long... and that's about it. I love the Dolphins, but Ginn really needs to step up his receiving production to levels that the Dolphins envisioned him to be capable of.
On defense, Miami was 25th in the league in passing YPG allowed last season, but a pair of rookie defensive backs, Vontae Davis and Sean Smith, should shore up the secondary. Linebackers Channing Crowder and Joey Porter will continue to provide the Dolphins with solid defense against opponents' rushing attacks.
2008 regular season record: 13-3
2009 projected record: 8-8
Finally escaping the shadow of the Indianapolis Colts in a tough AFC South division, the Tennessee Titans exploded onto the NFL scene, utilizing Smash and Dash members, lightning-fast rookie Chris Johnson and bulldozing LenDale White, to power their way into the upper crust of the AFC's elite teams. Despite this, an earlier-than-expected exit in the 2008 playoffs soon followed.
What they need to prove: that they can pass when they need to and survive defensively without Albert Haynesworth.
With geriatric Kerry Collins and severely-underwhelming Vince Young at quarterback, the Titans are limited in the amount of versatility they can provide the offense. Rookie wideout Kenny Britt was drafted to help Justin Gage and the former #3 receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Nate Washington, spread the field. They will probably improve from the 27th ranked YPG passing team in the league as more and more teams stack the box against them, but they'll have to prove to me, many others, and the rest of the league that they aren't completely one-dimensional, offensively.
LenDale White also bulked down this season... in order to gain more playing time, I guess. Did he not realized how he excelled at pounding rival defensive lines into submission? I guess he knows what he's doing. Can Chris Johnson be the savior Tennessee has been looking for? As his role on the offensivee increases, can he become a workhouse back, or will his body not be able to handle the load season after season?
The presence of Albert Haynesworth led the Titans to have the 6th ranked rushing defense in the NFL. How will they respond, now that the face of the defense has moved to D.C.? Tennessee had a great year defending against the pass, as Cortland Finnegan proved to be a dominant force in a secondary loaded with talent.
Above all... can they live up to the expectations that everybody has stacked upon them? The Indianapolis Colts and the Jacksonville Jaguars will be playing like they have something to prove, as both clubs find themselves severely underrated going into the 2009 NFL season. And the Houston Texans finally look to break away from the mediocrity that has plagued them throughout the franchise's short history and into the playoffs with an explosive offense and an improving defense.
In conclusion, I firmly believe that the 2009 Tennessee Titans will be this year's version of the 2008 Cleveland Browns.
Until next time... so long, B/R nation!