8 Darkhorse Teams That Could Make Super Bowl Runs
Prior to every NFL season, pundits nationwide publish their Super Bowl predictions, proclaiming their expertise above all. But at the conclusion of every season, those experts look like idiots.
The Packers may have been a trendy pick, but who suspected the Steelers would march back into prominence after the Big Ben fiasco? Who could have predicted the 2007 Giants or 2009 Cardinals would make championship appearances?
It all ties into that saying you hear television analysts use ad nauseam, "There's so much parity in the NFL these days."
But it's true. Teams go from worst to first every season.
Finding the next 2007 New York Giants or 2009 Arizona Cardinals team might seem impossible, but all it takes is a little open-mindedness.
Kansas City Chiefs
Tim Umphrey/Getty Images
Last season, the Chiefs catapulted from worst to first, capturing their first AFC West title since 2003. Behind the league's best rushing attack, Kansas City employed an old fashioned brand of football that only figures to grow more potent in 2011.
For starters, the Chiefs will benefit from continuity. Head coach Todd Haley and quarterback Matt Cassel both enter their second seasons at the helm, and the nucleus of the team remains intact.
Second, K.C. made a slew of crucial personnel moves this summer. They locked up sack artist Tamba Hali to a long-term deal and signed Steve Breaston and drafted Jonathan Baldwin to complement Dwayne Bowe.
The Chiefs' 27th ranked passing game should make significant strides, and their 14th ranked pass defense should improve as Eric Berry matures.
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
They're only a quarterback away.
That mantra has tortured virtually every Miami Dolphins team since Dan Marino retired 11 years ago.
The latest quarterback to join the fraternity of failed Marino replacements is Chad Henne, but even though he was a monumental disappointment in 2010, the 'Fins could still contend with him at the helm in 2011.
Because the Dolphins have meddled in mediocrity for so long, few recognize how talented their defense is (ranked sixth in the league last season, returning all starters) and how many weapons assemble their offense (Reggie Bush, Daniel Thomas, Brandon Marshall, Davone Bess, Clyde Gates).
So, if Henne can progress from last season, the Dolphins could easily make a playoff run.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
Standard logic would suggest that the NFL's second youngest team should rank amongst its most hapless. Yet the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who collectively average just 25.10 years of age, are already budding contenders.
Tampa Bay boasts an incredibly bright nucleus of talent that includes: Josh Freeman, LaGarrette Blount, Mike Williams, Gerald McCoy, Aqib Talib, Adrian Clayborn and DaQuan Bowers. With such a surplus of talent, the Bucs will be perennial Super Bowl contenders for years to come, this year included.
Freeman, Blount, and Williams are blossoming into stars, Mark Dominik just locked up offensive lineman Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood to long term deals, and the Bucs completely revamped a futile defensive line by drafting Clayborn and Bowers.
Even in a brutally competitive NFC South, Tampa Bay could contend for a championship bid.
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
The push for an NFL franchise in Los Angeles is heating up, and amongst the teams allegedly up for relocation is the Minnesota Vikings. The city of Minneapolis has remained hesitant and reluctant to approve a new stadium.
So, the pressure on the Vikings to win now and maintain substantial support is immense.
Even though this team must overcome a mountain of questions (Can Chris Cooke rebound from last year? Can Cedric Griffin stay healthy? Can Remi Ayodele replace Pat Williams? Can Percy Harvin be a number one receiver? Will Michael Jenkins make sufficient contributions?) and trudge through an intimidating division, they could still contend.
Minnesota is only two years removed from an NFC Championship appearance, and Donovan McNabb is only two years removed from a 3,500-yard, 20-touchdown season. If he can recover his touch and rely on a heavy dose of Adrian Peterson, the Vikings will be a dangerous squad in 2011.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Is this the year?
We ask the same question every single season. The Houston Texans make an annual playoff push toward the end of a season, garner a ton of national attention but fail to maintain any momentum into the ensuing year.
Houston always boasts a lethal aerial attack, but it has never been able to compensate for a lackluster defense. That might change this season. Wade Phillips will take over as defensive coordinator, Johnathan Joseph will bolster a dismal secondary and J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed will help the Texans transition into a 3-4.
If Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson stay healthy and this defense can make a seamless transition into the 3-4, then the Texans could easily make a Super Bowl run from a weak division.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
With Kurt Warner, the Arizona Cardinals were Super Bowl contenders. Without Kurt Warner, they were bottom feeders.
Now that Kevin Kolb is behind center, the Cardinals have a potential replacement. So will that equate to a Super Bowl run? It's entirely possible.
We won't be able to gauge Kolb's abilities until the regular season begins, but Arizona still has a two-headed monster at running back, a stout front seven and one of the most exciting prospects in the 2011 draft, Patrick Peterson.
Losing Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Steve Breaston hurts the Cards' outlook, but if their replacements step up, there's no telling how far this team can go.
Leon Halip/Getty Images
The Lions are everybody's favorite sleeper pick this season, and for good reason. Matthew Stafford will return from a slew of injuries to an offense replenished with explosive youngsters.
Meanwhile, Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh will form one of the scariest duos in the NFL.
However, injuries have already started to undermine this team's playoff aspirations. Second-round pick Mikel Leshoure is out for the season, and Fairley is expected to miss most of training camp with a foot injury.
But if the offensive line and secondary can make strides from last season, then the Lions offensive attack might prove overwhelming for opposing defenses.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
For the first time in recent memory, things are rather quiet in Jerry World.
Despite an intense pursuit of Nnamdi Asomugha, the Dallas Cowboys failed to land any blue chip free agents. Instead, Jerry Jones was busy cutting dead weight like Roy Williams and Marion Barber to get his team under the cap.
Now, the 2011 Cowboys are beginning to take shape, and although their secondary's outlook remains bleak, the rest of this roster is absolutely playoff caliber.
Tony Romo has a clean bill of health, Felix Jones will finally receive an opportunity to carry the bulk, Dez Bryant is yearning to breakout and Tyron Smith bolsters an offensive line that looks stable and solid.
The Cowboys flambouyant approach to free agency has burned them in the past, but with a low-key summer, this team might be ready to make a serious Super Bowl run.