How the Cowboys (or Ravens, Jaguars or Even the Chargers) Can Win Super Bowl LI

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJuly 19, 2016

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) warms up before an NFL football game against the New York Giants, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)
Associated Press

It's easy to project how great teams like the Patriots, Seahawks, Steelers or Panthers might win the Super Bowl. 

It's not too hard to project how a pretty good team could win the Super Bowl, either. If Andrew Luck bounces back…If all the Vikings' young talent develops…If the Bengals find the right combination of meditation and yoga to get them through the playoffs…and so on.

It's a real challenge, however, to project how a bad team wins the Super Bowl. Yet teams with terrible records one year sometimes win the Super Bowl the following season, like the 1999 Rams or the 2001 Patriots. Others fall short but make a fine run of it, shocking the football world with 11 or 12 wins that no one saw coming. It's worth taking a long look at the league's bottom feeders in search of potential Cinderellas.

So let's rummage through the seven teams that went 5-11 or worse last year and develop a three-stage plan that could catapult each into Super Bowl contention. Some of the plans are semi-serious. Others fall into the sci-fi/fantasy genre. All of them provide a ray of midsummer hope for fans who suffered through a miserable 2015 season.

Well, most of them provide a ray of summer hope.

(Note: Teams listed in order of their Super Bowl odds, per Odds Shark).

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How the Dallas Cowboys Win the Super Bowl

2015 Record: 4-12

2016 Super Bowl Odds: 18-1

Stage 1: A magical sack genie grants the Cowboys three wishes. The genie turns suspended defensive ends Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory into more responsible employees, mid-tier prospects Benson Mayowa and Charles Tapper into Harvey Martin and Randy White, and erases Greg Hardy's number from Jerry Jones' smartphone before the boss gets any bright ideas.

Stage 2: Tony Romo and Ezekiel Elliott discover the joys of the 75-25 run-pass ratio. Each week, Romo completes eight of 10 passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns, while Elliott rushes 30 times for 150 yards and the offensive linemen pick linebackers out of their teeth. This is only possible because the magical pass-rush genie ensures that opponents won't sit on the ball for 42 minutes per game.

Stage 3: Typical NFC East stuff happens. The Giants get injured, the Redskins get weird and the Eagles start wondering where all the money went the moment Nelson Agholor drops a pass from Chase Daniel (who is filling in for Sam Bradford while Carson Wentz wears a baseball cap). The Cowboys suddenly find themselves 6-0 in the division.

Plausibility: Moderately high. The Cowboys are a high-volatility team that could repeat their 2014 success with a healthy Romo but could completely collapse again if they must rely on backup quarterbacks and a third-rate pass rush. Any record between 12-4 and 4-12 is possible.


How the Baltimore Ravens Win the Super Bowl

DENVER, CO - SEPTEMBER 13:  Head coach John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens looks on before a game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on September 13, 2015 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

2015 Record: 5-11

2016 Super Bowl Odds: 33-1

Stage 1: Everyone gets healthy. Things will look a lot better for the Ravens when Jimmy Clausen isn't throwing to primary receiver Jeremy Butler.

Stage 2: Monster supplemental-pick harvest matures. The Ravens don't get better by signing free agents or drafting players. They get better by drafting players three years ago! A bumper crop of mid-round draft picks from 2013 through 2015 ripens and makes a big impact this year. Za'Darius Smith records a dozen sacks. Terrence Brooks blossoms under tutelage from Eric Weddle. Crockett Gillmore becomes the next Shannon Sharpe. And so on.

Stage 3: Lots and lots of 19-16 final scores. Even the best Ravens teams don't really look all that good on paper. Baltimore has a schedule of NFC and AFC East opponents it can slog through, with Justin Tucker earning his new contract with four field goals per week and division games turning into their usual trench wars.

Plausibility: Moderate. The soon-to-be-released Football Outsiders Almanac 2016 gives the Ravens a 30 percent chance of winning 11 games. Few teams are as battle-tested in the playoffs as the Ravens, if they find a way to get there.


How the Jacksonville Jaguars Win the Super Bowl

JACKSONVILLE, FL - NOVEMBER 19: Blake Bortles #5 throws to Allen Hurns #88 of the Jacksonville Jaguars during the second half of the game against the Tennessee Titans at EverBank Field on November 19, 2015 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Rob Foldy/Ge
Rob Foldy/Getty Images

2015 Record: 5-11

2016 Super Bowl Odds: 40-1

Stage 1: The offense continues developing. The Jaguars offense is teeming with skill-position contributors under 25 years old: Blake Bortles, Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, T.J. Yeldon, Marqise Lee, Rashad Greene and others. If Bortles cuts down on turnovers and the offensive line coalesces, this could be one of the NFL's top offenses. Seriously.

Stage 2: AFC South remains AFC Southy. See: the Titans.

Stage 3: The Jaguars actually catch a break. Last year, top draft pick Dante Fowler Jr. got injured in his first minicamp practice, and prized free agent Julius Thomas suffered a hand injury in the preseason. Maybe this is the year when things like that don't happen to top pick Jalen Ramsey and free agent Malik Jackson. Maybe Myles Jack turns out to be a healthy second-round steal, giving the Jaguars five blue-chip newcomers (Fowler, Thomas, Ramsey, Jackson and Jack, plus some red chips like Chris Ivory) that they didn't really have last year. That kind of roster turbocharge could lift them deep into the playoff picture. All it will take is a break or twothe kind the Jaguars haven't gotten in years.

Plausibility: Moderate to low. The Jaguars are not a bad bet to creep up to 9-7 and lose a Wild Card Game. Part of the problem is just imagining anything good happening to the Jaguars.


How the San Diego Chargers Win the Super Bowl

David Zalubowski/Associated Press/Associated Press

2015 Record: 4-12

2016 Super Bowl Odds: 66-1

Stage 1: The Chargers stop acting like it's 1997 and sign their first-round pick. Joey Bosa still isn't signed. Seriously: What year is this?

Stage 2: Players ignore the coaching staff and begin taking orders directly from Philip Rivers. Head coach Mike McCoy and coordinators Ken Whisenhunt and John Pagano are the staff you assemble when you want to keep expectations low. Pagano keeps stockpiling early draft picks and turning them into defenses that record about 30 sacks and 10 interceptions per year. Whisenhunt is always exactly as good as his quarterback. Why not eliminate the middle men and let Rivers call the shots? He's experienced, aggressive, ornery and sometimes seems like the only one in the organization not twiddling his thumbs and waiting for the moving vans to arrive.

Stage 3: Flex scheduling saves the day. Let's assume that the Broncos have completely bollixed their quarterback situation, the Chiefs run a two-minute drill so long that it carries on for six games and the Raiders somehow squander all of their young talent for another year. That leaves the Chargers' greatest foe of all: the guy in the scheduling department who keeps sending them to the East Coast for 1 p.m. games. The Chargers face the Panthers and Browns late in the season in what will feel to them like early-morning games. But because the Chargers played so well early in the year, both games will be flexed (the Browns will ascend to reality-TV hate-watch status by then), allowing a wide-awake Rivers and finally signed Bosa to dominate!

Plausibility: Moderate. The Chargers have a franchise quarterback and a decent young-talent nucleus. The Broncos' quarterback situation makes anything possible. The Chargers seem built to max out at about 9-7, but the franchise has surprised us with sudden 13-win seasons before.


How the Tennessee Titans Win the Super Bowl

Charles Krupa/Associated Press/Associated Press

2015 Record: 3-13

2016 Super Bowl Odds: 66-1

Stage 1: Marcus Mariota takes the next step. Mariota showed flashes of excellence last year. He also spent a lot of time throwing short passes against prevent defenses in 38-10 losses before getting hurt. It's hard to tell where he stands development-wise, but a breakout season is certainly possible.

Stage 2: Best. Offseason. Ever. The Titans wheeled-and-dealed their way through the offseason, parlaying the first overall pick and gobs of cap space into…well, it's hard to say. It felt a little like the Titans went shopping for a summer cookout and came home with 10 shopping bags full of string cheese. Did they really need both DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry at running back? With so many extra picks after trading down, why didn't they get a little more sizzle at positions like edge-rusher, cornerback or wide receiver?

Maybe the Titans were drafting to rebuild their infrastructure for the future. But maybe they have a plan to take the league by storm this year, with Murray and Henry rushing for 2,000 yards behind Jack Conklin and Taylor Lewan.

Stage 3: AFC South remains AFC Southy. If the Colts keep battling themselves, the Texans' offensive renovation project implodes and the Jaguars face one of their usual rotten-luck streaks, the Titans could go 11-5 with talent that would only get them to 7-9 in a better division.

Plausibility: Low. The Titans appear to be on a two- or three-year plan to reach contention.


How the San Francisco 49ers Win the Super Bowl

Ben Margot/Associated Press/Associated Press

2015 Record: 5-11

2016 Super Bowl Odds: 100-1

Stage 1: Colin Kaepernick wins the quarterback job. With all due respect to Blaine Gabbert and his many supporters, the likeliest quarterback to help the 49ers win a Super Bowl would be the one who, three-and-a-half years ago, almost won a Super Bowl.

Stage 2: The Chip Kelly Effect yields short-term results. Kelly's uptempo tactics can catch early opponents off guard and unprepared. The 49ers could easily beat the Bills in Week 6, for example, simply by racking up 12-men-on-the-field penalties while the Ryan brothers argue about how to make defensive substitutions. The long-term Kelly effect involves predictable game plans and a demoralized locker room, so the 49ers need to milk the short-term effect for all it's worth.

Stage 3: Disaster strikes the NFC West. The Seahawks' offensive line disintegrates. That's feasible. The Cardinals get old at a few critical positions. That's also feasible. The Rams limp to a 7-9 record, blame the franchise move and the rookie quarterback, and rebrand the wasted season as a successful testament to Jeff Fisher's leadership. That's not just feasible, it's the only possible outcome.

Plausibility: Very low. Those Vegas odds are wonky. Football Outsiders Almanac gives the 49ers just a 2 percent chance to win 11 or more games, which also seems a little high for a talent-poor team undergoing a major philosophical shift in a division with two powerhouses.


How the Cleveland Browns Win the Super Bowl

Tony Dejak/Associated Press/Associated Press

2015 Record: 3-13

2016 Super Bowl Odds: 100-1

Stage 1: The Steelers and Bengals cripple each other. We're talking poleaxes, chainsaws, medieval melees, war hammer tactics, razor wire, brawls in the parking lot and players sneaking into each other's hotels and doing The Raid-type stuff. After Week 2, both teams are down to their third-stringers. After Week 15, they call up the Bearcats and Panthers from the college ranks to finish their seasons.

Stage 2: The Ravens suffer another epic injury rash. This also probably involves at least one Mad Max: Fury Road-like encounter with the Steelers.

Stage 3: A meteor shower wipes out all the other serious contenders. Look, the Browns cannot win the Super Bowl this year. They probably can't be expected to reasonably compete for another two years. I tried, heaven knows I tried, but there's no way to write even a tongue-in-cheek scenario that doesn't sound ridiculous.

Plausibility: Infinitesimal. And, no, I don't think stranger things have ever happened.


Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @MikeTanier.

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