2011 NFL Playoffs logo2011 NFL Playoffs

Super Bowl XLVI: 5 Dark Horses Who Could Crash the Big Party

Andrew McCluskeyCorrespondent IAugust 24, 2011

Super Bowl XLVI: 5 Dark Horses Who Could Crash the Big Party

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    The Cinderella story.

    As sports fans, we all know what it is like to have that special spot in our hearts for those teams that go against the experts and odds to become champions.

    Who doesn't love the underdog?

    Thanks to the way the NFL is structured, the underdogs and the breakout teams are allowed to make an impact from year to year. Every year there are a handful of teams that exceed expectations. Then, the questions of whether or not they can make it to the big game start popping up here and there.

    Picking out which teams will fit that mold is where it gets fun.

    Everyone has their underdog or sleeper. Here are five of mine.

Detroit Lions

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    The Lions are a popular dark horse heading into the 2011 regular season.

    It is hard to believe that just a few short years ago the Lions were the laughing stock of the NFL. Their general manager, Matt Millen, had run the team into the ground and paper bags were just as common to see as Lions jerseys.

    Now, a new head coach and smart drafting has led to a bright future.

    An offense highlighted by Matthew Stafford and his freak-of-nature wide receiver Calvin Johnson should have Lions fans excited. Not to mention another freak of nature on the other side of the ball named Ndamukong Suh.

    The defense is expected to improve drastically this year and could be the driving force behind the Lions success. Additions like rookie Nick Fairley will go a long way towards achieving that goal.

    The key to the Lions success is staying healthy.

    Stafford has yet to put together a full season. He is certainly talented enough to be the starting quarterback for this team, but they can't win without him on the field.

    In his rookie season, running back Jahvid Best has also shown a tendency to get hurt and now is banged up this preseason. Rookie Mikel Leshoure was drafted for a more dynamic backfield, but suffered a season-ending injury already.

    The Lions are still very young and haven't maximized their potential yet. If their defense can take a few strides forward and health is on their side, don't count them out.

Kansas City Chiefs

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    It is hard to label the team that won the AFC West last year as a dark horse.

    Yet the general opinion by the experts is that the San Diego Chargers will take control of the division again. I'm not so sure.

    Coach Todd Haley and general manager Scott Pioli brought a huge change to Kansas City. They have turned the team in to a winning club with huge potential for the future.

    Running back Jamaal Charles broke out last year, becoming one of the premiere backs in the NFL. The defense took steps forward, but still has a ways to go before we start calling them a top defense.

    Matt Cassel proved to a lot of people that he could play quarterback at the NFL level.

    There are still holes on this team, but if they can continue to progress their young talent, this team could be poised to make a big move this year.

    They were able to barely hold off the Chargers last season and made an early exit in the postseason. The Chiefs are going to need to see Cassel become a bigger part of the offense and have their defense continue to improve.

    If they can pull it off, they will have a chance to make a deeper playoff run this year and potentially find their way to the big game.

Houston Texans

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    The Texans have been the team that everyone has been waiting on to take that next step.

    It looks like the stars could be aligning this year. Arian Foster's arrival as an elite running back has elevated that offense to borderline elite.

    Matt Schaub, when healthy, is a top 10 quarterback. With weapons like Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels to throw to, this team should put up a ton of points.

    The defense is getting a makeover with Wade Phillips' arrival. They will be switching to a 3-4, which will certainly give defensive star Mario Williams a new set of responsibilities.

    Questions remain on how the limited time with the new defense will impact their effectiveness early in the season. We won't know until Week 1 whether or not this will be a factor.

    Maybe most importantly of all, Peyton Manning's injury could impact the Texans' ability to win the division. The Colts have dominated the AFC South for years, but with Manning potentially out for the start of the season the Texans could capitalize.

    If the defense pans out, don't be surprised to see Houston taking that division with ease.

    That is one of the last offenses I would want to run into in the postseason.

St. Louis Rams

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    Yes, you are reading this correctly—a team from the NFC West has a shot to make the Super Bowl!

    The Rams just missed out on making the playoffs, with a 7-9 record, last season. They head into 2011 hoping that quarterback Sam Bradford can get them back into the green.

    Josh McDaniels was brought in to be the offensive coordinator. McDaniels has been labeled as a quarterback guru who has had success with Tom Brady, Matt Cassel and Kyle Orton.

    It will be very interesting to see what he can do with a talent like Bradford.

    I would expect them to open up the passing game a little more, which will actually benefit veteran running back Steven Jackson. While their wide receiving core isn't dazzling, it is clear that Bradford is talented enough to put up numbers with them.

    The defense was mediocre last year, but I would expect them to continue to improve; there is some solid young talent there.

    The Rams will not take the league by storm. However, if they are able to take a weak NFC West division and just get their foot in the door, they could make some serious noise.

    Anything can happen in the NFL playoffs.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers already broke out last year, but they were held back by a tough NFC South.

    With another year under the belt of quarterback Josh Freeman and head coach Raheem Morris, I would anticipate improvement for the Bucs. Freeman is a big-armed quarterback that is surrounded by some very talented options in LeGarrette Blount and Mike Williams.

    This offense has a ton of upside if they can continue to progress.

    The defense is where Tampa Bay is going to have to improve if they want to take the next step. They were a very impressive seventh against the pass last year, but a lowly 28th against the run.

    The Buccaneers recognized these needs at the draft by selecting Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers in hopes of beefing up against the run.

    I would expect that Tampa Bay may struggle with a tougher schedule this year, but this team is for real. If the young offensive talent can prove that last season wasn't a fluke, I would put money on them being in the mix for at least the Wild Card.

    If the Buccaneers can improve against the run, the sky will be the limit. Morris and his players know this.

    Expect the NFC South to be one of the most exciting divisions in the league. Tampa Bay has a chance to get their shot at the playoffs this year and, given the chance, they will be sure to make it count.

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