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NFL Season Predictions: 10 Potential Sleeper Super Bowl Teams

Alex MerrillContributor IDecember 12, 2016

NFL Season Predictions: 10 Potential Sleeper Super Bowl Teams

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    Everyone has heard about the Saints, the Colts, the Vikings, the Ravens, and the Jets, all favored in some circles to end up in Dallas this February. 

    But what about the other 27 teams in the NFL?  Think that's it's unlikely that one unexpected team may end up hoisting the silver football?  

    Consider this:  Who thought a year ago that a New Orleans team, that had gone 8-8 the season previous giving up a zillion points a game would win the big game?  Okay, now put your hands down, Louisiana.

    How about the year before.  Anyone outside of Arizona betting the ranch on a superbowl appearance for the Cards?

    Or in 2007 when the Giants managed to squeak in there as a Wild Card team?

    I could go on, but perhaps you see my point.  Every year it seems one of the Superbowl teams is a surprise.  So that leads me to wonder, which team will be the surprise team in the Superbowl this year?  I will rank them 1-10 here, based on a combination of their chances of actually going and their level of anonymity to the average NFL fan.   

#10. Oakland Raiders

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    Before you laugh:

    Oakland's five wins last season were not all cream puffs, beating the Bengals, Steelers, Broncos, Eagles, and Chiefs.  Two of these teams were playoff teams and two more, the Broncos and Steelers should have been.  

    Bruce Gradkowski, Oakland's best QB last year (no respect given to Jamarcus "Purple Drink" Russell) went 3-4, posting an respectable 80.6 quarterback rating, throwing only three interceptions in that span in beating three quality opponents.

    But he has now been relegated to a back-up role by new arrival Jason Campbell, who, despite a poor win-loss record in Washington, threw for over 3,500 yards and 20 touchdowns with 15 interceptions.  

    With the addition of better quarterback play and the subtraction of epic draft bust Jamarcus Russell, this unit looks to be much improved.

    Defensively, the Raiders uncharacteristically made some good selections in the draft (perhaps Al Davis had slipped into a brief coma at the time), picking up stud middle linebacker Rolando McClain in the first round, and defensive end, Lamarr Houston, in the second round.  Together with Kamerion Wimberly, who had four sacks against the Bears in preseason, and John Henderson, this should be an improved unit, particularly in defending the pass

    But don't book your tickets to Dallas yet: 

    The Raider's run defense is still largely suspect and did little to allay these doubts, giving up long touchdown runs against the Bears and 49ers in the preseason with their first unit on the field.  

    Also, it seems that neither former first round pick Darren McFadden, nor Michael Bush, their top two running options, can stay healthy.  McFadden has been shelved with a balky hamstring, while Bush recently broke his thumb.  Even aside from injury, neither has impressed in the preseason.

    Most point to the downside of the Raiders as simply that they are the Raiders, but fortunes change fast in the NFL.  

    Overall:

    With senior leadership on the defense in Richard Seymour, Nnamdi Asomugha, and company, combined with some young talent seem to give the Raiders a formidable unit.  

    While the offense is a bit more of a question mark, the receivers and tight ends are a solid bunch, and could quickly find a rhythm with the veteran Campbell.  

    Could they find themselves in Dallas in February?  Stranger things have happened.   

#9. San Francisco 49ers

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    Before you laugh: 

    The Niners, by all accounts, had a solid draft, picking up two first round offensive lineman in Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis, who have impressed in preseason, apparently winning the starting jobs for week one.  The results have been positive for the niners, who are unbeaten in preseason play.  

    It will be a big year for former number one pick, Alex Smith, who has has an up and down career so far.  Smith will have the same offensive coordinator this year, Jimmy Raye, which will be the first time in seven years he has had an offensive coordinator in back to back seasons.  Smith has impressed recently in the preseason, posting a 9-15 107 yard performance against the Raiders, even without top passing options Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis.

    Frank Gore also looks poised for another monster season, apparent when he gashed the Raiders for 58 yards on two carries in the preseason.

    The defense also looks to be even more formidable, led by Pro Bowl linebackers Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes.  Running against this team will be again be difficult, as the team hasn't lost much from a season ago in which they ranked 6th against the run.  

    But don't book your tickets to Dallas yet: 

    The Niner's secondary does not look much improved, despite the return of a healthy Nate Clements and the oft-victimized Shawntae Spencer.  The Niners will need to turn up the pressure on opposing quarterbacks to get stops in the passing game.

    On offense, most of the season's success will fall on Smith's shoulders.  He has yet to prove that he can A. stay healthy and B. be the type of game manager that the Niners need for their style of play.  Beyond Smith there is not much in the way of depth at the quarterback position.

    Gore is always an injury possibility as well, and there is little depth behind him with the abrupt retirement of Pastor Glen Coffee.

    Overall:

    If Smith can develop into the role of game manager, relying on the run game to kill the clock and possess the football, it will keep the defense fresh.  They offer a good combination of youth and veterans and are in a weak NFC West division that they could easily run away with and avoid major injury along the way. 

    With the upheaval in Arizona, many predict they will win the NFC West easily.  If true, that puts them a few upset wins away from Dallas.  

#8. San Diego Chargers

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    Before you laugh:

    A year ago, this team went 13-3 in a weak AFC West division.  This year, they return essentially the same squad, minus Ladanian Tomlinson, who was injury prone and aging, and holdouts Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeil.  

    Given the two ugly holdouts are at positions of great importance, there is talent behind those two on the roster.  At receiver, Malcom Floyd looks to become Philip River's main target, while Legedu Naanee has flashed great talent at times and will now be given a chance to shine in a starting role.  Josh Reed came over in the offseason and the Chargers also boast a few training camp upstarts.  

    Behind Marcus McNeil, the Chargers slid Brandyn Dombrowski over from right tackle to left, and he has been solid in preseason.  Jeromey Clary has taken his spot on the right, as the line has provided ample time for Rivers and opened up some lanes in the running game.

    Speaking of the run, rookie Ryan Mathews will look to take over for LT, after coming to the Chargers from Fresno State.  He appears to fit the bill, and has much younger legs than the former pro bowler.  

    The defense remains largely in tact from last year, ranking 11th in points against.  While not a gaudy statistic, combined with a top five offense and a clutch quarterback in Rivers, the Chargers will again be a formidable team. 

    But don't buy your tickets to Dallas yet:

    There is little depth on the offensive line beyond the starters, particularly at the tackle position, with McNeil holding out.  The group could well leave Rivers scrambling to save his life for most of the season.    

    The pass rush is a bit of a question mark, hinging mainly on the performance of Shaun "Light out" Merriman, who has not done much to earn his nickname in recent years, ever since a knee injury ended his season in 2008.  Shaun Philips is solid and Larry English showed some potential in his rookie season, but neither can do it alone.  

    On top of issues of depth, the potential for distraction of the locker room resulting from two high profile hold outs is enormous.  Rumblings amongst the players combined with disappointing playoff results is a dangerous combination for team chemistry.

    Overall: 

    Any time you assemble this much talent and experience with a pro bowl quarterback and a solid head coach, you have a chance to win it all.  This is not to say that the Chargers don't have significant hurdles to get there, including the aforementioned chemistry issues, depth, and the early exit playoff bugaboo.  

    But in a weak AFC West division and your first six games against dubious teams such as Kansas City, Jacksonville, and Seattle, look for the Chargers to build some early momentum...  

    Momentum that may carry them all the way to the big game.  

#7. New York Giants

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    Before you laugh: 

    The Giants are only a few years removed from a Superbowl victory over the New England Patriots, and much of their personnel remains in tact.  Many forget that the Giants began the 2009 season by winning their first five games, but lost 8 out of the final 11 games to finish at .500 and out of the playoffs.

    At a closer look, the season was marred by injuries, including those to Eli Manning, Kenny Philips, Justin Tuck, and Antonio Pierce, all critical players on the team.  With the healthy return of these players, minus of course the retired Pierce, the Giants should again be competitive in the NFC East.  

    Eli Manning looks to continue his strong play.  While many mistakenly imagine that 2009 was an off year for Manning, he actually posted the highest QB rating of his career at 93.1.  He also threw for the most yardage (4,021), most touchdowns (27), and highest completion percentage (62.3).  His solid performance may, in part be due, to an emerging young receiving core led by Steve Smith, who caught over a hundred passes a year ago.

    The running backs, particularly bruiser Brandon Jacobs, appear to be healthy, and ready to return to the physical smash-mouth style that propelled them to success in recent years. 

    The defense will be bolstered greatly by the healthy return of Justin Tuck.  Several rookies in phenom Jason Pierre-Paul and Linval Joseph will battle for playing time on the defensive line, again a strength for the team. Keith Bullock, who was signed in free agency, will likely get reps at outside linebacker.  

    But don't book your tickets to Dallas yet:

    Early on, it doesn't seem like the Giants have yet shaken the injury bug.  Manning was bloodied on a freak play in which his helmet came off in preseason.  Injuries to Sinorice Moss, Dominik Hixon, Aaron Ross, and Shaun O'Hara have left the Giants thin at several positions such as returner and offensive line.

    Little has been done to improve a porous offensive line.  While many imagined wholesale changes in the off-season, the coaching staff clung to the notion that second year tackle William Beatty would step up into a starting role.  Beatty has struggled in camp thus far, and with O'Hara's health ailing, the offensive line has more questions than ever.  

    Also, the defense has several new pieces joining the team this year in Keith Bullock and Antrel Rolle (and even returning Kenny Philips).  Neither have dazzled in preseason, and it's yet to be determined how they can contribute.  

    Overall:

    There is still a ton of talent up and down this roster, and the coaching staff, led by Tom Coughlin, is still among the best in the league.  While the NFC East is likely the most competitive in the league, the Giants have a solid chance of going 4-2 or even 5-1 in the division with questions surrounding the core of both the Eagles and the Redskins. 

    The key for the Giants, as it is with many teams, is health.  If Kenny Philips and Aaron Ross can stay healthy, the Giants may have the strongest secondary in the division, key in an age of pass-happy offenses.

    Could they find themselves in Dallas more that once this season?  Chances are better than you might think.   

#6. Houston Texans

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    Before you laugh: 

    Houston won their last four games last year, barely missing out on the playoffs only based on a few tiebreaker scenarios.  With high profile wins against Miami, New England, and Cincinnati, Houston appears poised to make a run at a playoff bid this year.  

    Think that Houston can't overtake the Colts?  Last year they came within a Kris Brown 42-yard field goal of beating the Colts in Indianapolis?  The home game against the Colts was decided by only a touchdown return by Clint Session.  For years Houston has been knocking on the Colt's door. With the Colts experiencing some turnover and significant injuries in the secondary, this very well could be the year they break through.

    Their success this year will likely be linked to the play of quarterback Matt Schaub.  Last year, Schaub had a superb season leading the NFL with 4,770 yards, and tossing 29 touchdowns, for a 98.6 rating, his career high. Receiver Andre Johnson caught 9 of those TD passes and led the league in receiving yardage with a ridiculous 1,569 yards.  Second year RB Arian Foster has looked unstoppable in the preseason, and his short stocky stature and use in the running game has drawn comparisons to Ray Rice.   

    The defense returns Pro Bowler's Mario Williams and Demo Ryans, and has added some intriguing young players in CB Kareem Jackson, who will start, Darryl Sharpton, who had an impressive preseason, and Earl Mitchell.  All three will play significant minutes for the unit, which looks to be much improved.

    Don't book your tickets to Dallas yet:

    As any fantasy football manager can tell you, last season was the first season that Schaub stayed healthy for 16 games.  It's doubtful that he has permanently escaped the injury bug.  Andre Johnson is also a huge injury risk.  Beyond these two there is little depth at QB and WR.

    There are some kindergarten classes with more experience than their secondary, as the team looks to start two second cornerbacks, one as the nickel corner, and rookie Jackson.  Offensive ROY and perhaps their best pass rusher, Brian Cushing, will be suspended for the first four games of the year, which the team can ill-afford to drop.  

    Even so, the defense has really only added three players, all rookies, which will figure prominently in this year's unit, and the defense was marginal at best in 2009.

    Overall:   

    WIth an young explosive offense that ranked 4th in the league last year and some promising young talent of the defense, the sky (well... dome) is the limit for this squad.  

    If healthy, they could easily build on the momentum they had built from last season into 2010, perhaps even overtaking the beleagured Colts in the AFC South.  

    The trip from Houston to Dallas would not be long.   

#5. Philadelphia Eagles

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    Before you laugh:

    The Eagles appear to have an extremely solid draft class for the defense, as first round pick, Brandon Graham has nailed down the left end spot and second round safety Nate Allen will start at safety.  Both have been impressive in preseason.  Pairing Graham with Trent Cole off the edge will likely generate heat on the opposing quarterback, an aspect of the Eagles defense which notably tailed off at the end of last season.  

    The defense will also get a huge boost as the beastly middle linebacker Stewart Bradley returns after missing all of 2009 with a torn ligament in his knee.  The Eagles missed Bradley's inside presence and high motor play last year defensively as they finished 19th in scoring defense.  

    The greatest turnover will be in the offense, where Kevin Kolb will take over for stalwart Donavan McNabb.  Kolb, who offers more throwing accuracy than McNabb ever did, will stay in the pocket more often, and allow the team to shift to a more traditional West Coast offense.  The shift will provide explosive young receivers such DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin to accumulate YAC.  Tight End Brent Celek will also be a reliable target in the middle.

    All indications are that this offense will be as explosive or even more so than in 2009 when it ranked fifth in scoring offense.

    But don't book your tickets to Dallas yet:

    The offense, led by Kolb, has failed to inspire much confidence in the preseason, failing to throw a single touchdown pass and posting a miserable 63.7 passer rating.  His inexperience has shown in the preseason so far, as he has struggled to recognize blitz packages and find his hot routes.  His performance has not been helped by injuries to both Jackson and Maclin, who may not be able to hold up over an entire season.  

    While the offensive line is strong in some places, such as left tackle, starting center Jamaal Jackson tore his ACL last winter and is still not 100% healthy.  It is yet to be determined if he can play effectively this season, but there is not much in the way of depth behind him.  

    Though talented and fast, the defense offers little in the way of experience, and only rookie Allen has been added to a secondary that gave up almost 3,500 yards through the air last season.

    Overall:

    All things considered, this Eagles team could really make a push in January.  A fast, young defense, and an offense filled with explosive play-makers, give them a chance to run off a late string of wins, even in a very strong division in the NFC East.

    With question marks among the their divisional foes, such as the Dallas offensive line, the Giant's injury situation, and the Skins new regime, the Eagles have a solid chance to win this division and perhaps contend for a first round bye in the NFC.    

#4. New England Patriots

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    Quarterback Tom Brady celebrates a preseason touchdown with rookie TE Rob GronkowskiJim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Before you laugh:

    The Patriots had a terrific draft, yielding at least three starters in corner back Devin McCourty, tight end Rob Gronkowski, and middle linebacker Brandon Spikes.  With up and coming receivers such as Brandon Tate and Julian Edleman to pair with Pro Bowl receivers Randy Moss and a shockingly healthy Wes Welker, Brady looks to have his most talented receiving core since 2007.  

    The offensive line remains largely in tact, bolstered by the development of starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer.  The tight end position was completely remade, as the Patriots dropped Ben Watson and Chris Baker for Veteran Algae Crumpler and rookies Gronkowski and the athletic Aaron Hernandez.  Coach Bill Belichick has raved about all three throughout the preseason. 

    Defensively, the team will look from a boost from a young secondary, featuring rookie McCourty and second year players Darius Butler and Patrick Chung.  The middle linebacker core appears to be a strength on the team as well, with former DROY Jerod Mayo and impressive rookie Spikes who wrestled the starting position away from incumbent Gary Guyton.    

    But don't book you tickets to Dallas yet:

    The Patriots pass rush, which was less than impressive last year in netting only 31 sacks of opposing quarterbacks, has not added much.  In the preseason, Sam Bradford and Eli Manning shredded the Patriots defense with all day to throw the ball.  

    The Patriots are also thin at defensive line and corner back, where they lost starters Ty Warren and Leigh Bodden to season ending injury in the preseason.  The depth behind them at both positions is weak.  

    With the holdout of Logan Mankins, who seems to content to sit out as long as it takes, the Patriots are also thin along the offensive line, particularly inside.  While Dan Connolly has filled in well for Mankins at left guard, one injury to the interior lineman could spell trouble.  The swing tackle is penciled in as Quinn Ojinnaka, hardly an impressive situation.

    Overall:

    With Tom Brady a year removed from a devastating knee injury and healthy after damaging his ribs, shoulder and finger last season, the Patriots offensive appears poised for a terrific season.  Brady seems determined and nonplussed by the criticism on the distractions from his outside life.  

    Belichick, the grisly veteran coach has seen it all, and again brings great depth, talent, and size into the regular season.

    With the pairing of these two first ballot hall of famers, anything is possible, certainly another Superbowl appearance.  

#3. Dallas Cowboys

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    The Dallas sideline during their last preseason game against the Miami DolphinsRonald Martinez/Getty Images

    Before you laugh:

    Pro bowler DeMarcus Ware had 11 sacks last season, which led the team, all while battling ankle, neck, and wrist injuries.  He is now 100% healthy and poised to return to a one man demolition crew, a scary thought for the rest of the NFL.  But last season, one could argue he was the Cowboy's second best lineback behind Anthony Spencer, particularly down the stretch when Spencer was credited with 4 sacks in his last three games against strong opposition in the Saints, Redskins, and Eagles, not to mention a sack in each of the playoff games he was in.  

    With Ware back healthy to pair with Spencer, bolstered by a strong defensive line and superb play at cornerback, it will no be a fun time playing quarterback against this team.

    The offense returns Tony Romo, who posted a career high 97.6 quarterback rating in throwing for almost 4,500 yards.  The entire receiving core returns, with sensational rookie Dez Bryant supplanting Patrick Crayton, simply put, an upgrade.  The team will likely match the same offensive output, which put them at second in the league for yards per game with a shade under 400.  

    But don't make plans to STAY HOME! just yet:

    The offensive has looked atrocious in the preseason, only posting one offensive touchdown.  Romo has been harassed from the get-go, causing turnovers and poor performance on third down.  The poor play is the result of some turnover on the offensive line, who lost future hall of famer Flozell Adams in the offseason.  While his replacement, Doug Free has performed reasonably well in his place at left tackle,  Marc Colombo just had knee surgery and starting guard Kyle Kosier also has a bum knee.  

    While the Cowboys have an excellent trio of cornerbacks in the stables, the safety position is dubious at best, starting the banged up Gerald Sensabaugh and Alan Ball whose tackling is questionable.

    Dez Bryant flashed electric playmaking at the beginning of preseason but has been on the shelve with a high ankle sprain for several weeks, missing valuable time.  It is yet to be seen how well he will recover from the injury, but behind the return game behind him remains mediocre should he struggle to stay on the field.  

    Overall:

    With a tremendous amount of talent at key positions such as wide receiver, quarterback, outside linebacker, and cornerback, it would not be wise to underestimate the Cowboys.  

    The return to health of key players as well as an injection of youth at a few positions has the Cowboys poised to make a push for the playoffs, even in a difficult NFC East.  

    Jerry Jones isn't dreaming when imagining a home Superbowl matchup for the Boys.   

#2. Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Mike Tomlin looks on during Pittsburg's last preseason tune-up against the Carolina PanthersJared Wickerham/Getty Images

    Before you laugh:

    While much has been made of Ben Roethlisberger's suspension (recently reduced to four games by the commissioner), the Steelers play a soft schedule in those first four games, facing only one playoff team from last year in Baltimore.  They could easily go 2-2 or 3-1 in the those first four games to set up a nice situation when Roethlisberger returns after the bye week.

    They will commit themselves again to the ground game behind workhorse back Rashard Mendenhall, who rushed for over 1,100 hundred yards and seven touchdowns in his sophomore campaign.  The offensive line will be bolstered by first round pick Maurkice Pouncey, who has ripped the starting center position away from Justin Hartwig in preseason.

    On the other side of the ball, the Steelers may have the best defensive line in the NFL with LE Aaron Smith, RE Brett Keisel, and NT Casey Hampton.  Second year player Ziggy Hood has also had an impressive camp.  Having James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley as your edge rushers must allow you to sleep well at night to if you follow the gold and black.  

    But before you book your tickets to Dallas:

    The secondary desperately needs a return to health from Troy Polamalu, who essentially missed all of last season with a knee injury.  In his absence the secondary really struggled, so much so that it was forced to trade for familiar corner back Bryant McFadden.  McFadden has had a poor showing in preseason and is banged up, so may split time with marginal contributions of William Gay.  It seems to Steelers will have to rely on their front seven to pressure opposing quarterbacks once again.  

    The receiving core is solid but not spectacular by any means.  The trusty Hines Ward returns, as does another familiar face, Antwaan Randle El, who spent several seasons in Washington.  But the receiver in the spot light will be second year player Mike Wallace, the team's most explosive young option.  Beyond these three there is not much depth, as a void was left by the departure of Santonio Holmes.

    Overall:

    With a Pro Bowl quarterback itching to redeem his image with a terrific showing on the field and a defense only a year removed from a dominating 2008, the Steelers are an extremely dangerous team.  A 2-2 start with Big Ben on the shelf may be all he needs to get this team to the playoffs and beyond.

    The defense has not lost too many parts from its Superbowl winning squad and could easily regain its destructive form.  Though in a difficult division in the AFC North, with hopefuls Cincinnati and Baltimore, this team could be booking reservations for Dallas come February.  

#1. Green Bay Packers

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    Aaron Rodgers on the sidelines in a preseason game against the ColtsJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Before you laugh:

    The team returns almost all of the team from a year ago in which they finished 3rd in the league in scoring offensive, and, this might surprise you, 7th in scoring defense.  It's difficult to remember, after the 51 point drubbing in the wild card match-up against the Cardinals, but this defense actually dominated at times last season, five times holding the opposition to 10 points or under.  

    Aaron Rodgers has absolutely ripped it up in the preseason, along the way bludgeoning the Colts with 3 touchdowns and 195 passing yards in one half of play.  His receiving core again looks stacked, starters Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, and grown man-child Jermichael Finley are impressive and top backups Jordy Nelson, James Jones, and Donald Lee are also solid.  

    The offensive line returns in tact, and first round pick Brian Beluga has found it difficult to crack the starting lineup, although this may be due to an nagging injury has been fighting in preseason.  

    The defense again looks strong, returning second year Pro Bowler Clay Matthews who will only get better in his second year.  The inside backers also are excellent in A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett.  Throw in B.J. Raji and it is clear that the Packer's defense is stout up the middle, key for a 3-4 defense.  

     But don't book your tickets to Dallas yet:

    The secondary has been gutted by injuries early on, and will start without corner-back Al Harris and safety Atari Bigby, both on PUP, and thus out for at least the first six weeks.  The depth behind them is questionable and has been victimized by opposing quarterbacks throughout the preseason.  

    Also, essentially everyone in the line-backing corps is dealing with some kind of nagging injury.  This includes Matthews who has been out since the first week of preseason with a balky hamstring, which doesn't inspire much confidence.  

    Also, the depth behind Mike Neal on the defensive line is questionable after the year long suspension of Doug Jolly, latest victim to the "purple drank."  The Pack may be looking to pick up a reserve retread off the waiver wire once cuts are complete.  

    The offense is difficult to criticize, apart from perhaps the age of their starting tackles in Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, leaving them prone to injury.  Clifton seems to get hurt every year.  Also, there is a concern of fumblitis for the backs, as Ryan Grant coughed up a couple of critical balls last season while top backup Brandon Jackson let one hit the turf in an otherwise sparkling preseason.

    Overall:  

    With an electric offense, capable of putting up 35-40 points in every game, this club should not be taken lightly, and will probably overtake the Vikings in the NFC North, given Brett Farve's age and the status of his receivers.  The defense is young and athletic and filled with talent at nearly every position.

    The team will look to build on its 11 win season from last year and purge the bad taste left in their mouths after an embarrassing performance defensively against the Cardinals.  

    Will they be looking to polish in silver in February?  If I were you, Packer's fans, I'd bet my cheese hat on it.  

Thoughts?

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    A Saint's Superbowl ringChris Graythen/Getty Images

    I went out on a limb with some of these teams, so some are just as likely to go 5-11 (ahem, Raiders...)

    But I'm willing to bet that one of these unheralded teams will end up in Dallas in February.  

    What are your thoughts? Did I leave anyone off of this list?  

    Please leave your thoughts below

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