For some teams, the road to the Super Bowl is seemingly an easy one. The New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Indianapolis Colts have been Super Bowl contenders for as long as most fans can remember.
But for most teams, becoming an perennial contender is not so easy. In a league dominated by superstar quarterbacks and stifling defenses, some teams are just one piece—or even one more year of experience—away becoming legitimate contenders.
Nearly every season, there is one or two teams who make a run a year or two before they are expected. Unfortunately for the fans of the teams to follow, it seems as if they may have to wait another year.
Here are five teams who are still one year away from contending for a Super Bowl.
After years of futility, the Detroit Lions have made leaps and bounds, mostly through the NFL Draft. Though the Lions finished just 6-10 (3rd in NFC North) in 2010, they were competitive in nearly every game, something that cannot be said about past seasons.
The Lions have built a young, strong foundation upon which to build a contender. If quarterback Matthew Stafford can stay healthy, they will be all the more closer to contending for the division title.
Detroit has also drafted running back Jahvid Best (555 yards rushing, 487 receiving, 6 total TDs) and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (10 sacks) in last year's draft alone, along with Pro Bowl wide receiver Calvin Johnson (1120 yards, 12 TDs).
The addition of defensive tackle Nick Fairley in this year's draft will only help increase Suh's production, and should instantly make the Lion's defensive front one of the league's toughest to handle.
However, it seems as if they Lions are a year or two away from making a statement as a legitimate NFC contender. If they are able to put the pieces together and remain healthy, the Detroit Lions could be a force in the NFC North in the years to come.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were one of the biggest surprises in the NFL in 2010, going 10-6 a year after winning just three games.
Behind undrafted running back LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for 1007 yards and 6 touchdowns, and quarterback Josh Freeman emerging as a star in the making (3451 yards passing, 25 touchdowns), the Buccaneers surprised nearly everyone on their schedule.
Although they did not make the playoffs, it is apparent that the Bucs are close to contending in the NFC.
While the Bucs will certainly not be overlooked by anybody next season, their return to the playoffs may have to wait another year.
With a young roster full of emerging stars, including quarterback Matt Cassel (3116 yards passing, 27 TDs, 7 INTs), running back Jamaal Charles (1467 yards rushing, 10 TDs), and wide receiver Dwayne Bowe (1162 yards receiving, 15 TDs), the Chiefs' offense will likely be a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future.
But can the Chiefs become Super Bowl contenders? Surely, they will compete and look to defend their division crown. However, the Kansas City Chiefs do not seem quite ready to overtake the powers that be in the AFC.
The Kansas City Chiefs aren't the only team in the AFC West who look to have a bright future.
The Oakland Raiders have become the face of dysfunction in the NFL over the past several seasons. When they seemed to be making a turn for the better, the Raiders always seemed to fall apart midway through the season.
However, the Raiders surprised everyone in 2010. While their 8-8 record was certainly and improvement, it was their 6-0 record in the division which turned the most heads.
Running back Darren McFadden came into his own in 2010, rushing for 1157 yards and 7 touchdowns after two mediocre years to begin his career in Oakland. The Raiders also boasted the league's second-best pass defense, allowing just 189.2 yards per game through the air.
While the Raiders are finally on the upswing, the Raiders may be a few pieces away from contending. Quarterback Jason Campbell—or whomever is their starting quarterback once the league returns—will have to play much more consistent football if the Raiders want to reestablish themselves as contenders in the AFC.
The St. Louis Rams were arguably the most surprising team in the NFC in 2010. With a rookie quarterback and coming off a league-worst 1-15 season, things did not look great for the Rams leading into the 2010 season.
However, as Chris Berman proclaims: "That's why they play the game."
The Rams went 7-9 in 2010, good enough to finish tied for first with the Seattle Seahawks, only to lose a playoff birth and a home playoff game on a tiebreaker.
Nevertheless, the future looks bright for Bradford & Company.
In his rookie campaign, Bradford started all 16 games, passing for 3512 yards and 15 touchdowns. He quickly became the face of the franchise, seemingly igniting a team that desperately needed some glimpse of hope after several dismal seasons.
While Bradford and the rest of the Rams will be fun to watch, it is not likely that they will be competing for much more than an NFC West crown in 2011. However, if 2010 was any indication, the St. Louis Rams may be closer to contending in the NFC than most expect.