10 Franchises with a Decent Shot at Their First Championship

Andrew Gould@AndrewGould4Featured ColumnistJanuary 3, 2017

10 Franchises with a Decent Shot at Their First Championship

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    Matt Ryan leads the Atlanta Falcons into their first NFL playoff appearance since 2012.
    Matt Ryan leads the Atlanta Falcons into their first NFL playoff appearance since 2012.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    For all the talk of teams snapping title droughts, a large portion of sports franchises have never enjoyed the jubilation of winning a championship.

    These organizations have not existed for over a century like the Chicago Cubs—who won their first World Series since 1908 in 2016—but that doesn't make any difference for a fan who has followed a ringless team for his or her entire life.

    They can't even scour the archives for remnants of prior prestige. They can only hope their rise to glory eventually comes.

    Unfortunately for the Brooklyn Nets, San Diego Padres, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns and Arizona Coyotes, their trophy cases will remain empty for a while longer. Yet several other squads are on the cusp of crashing a championship picture.

    Three NFL teams have a chance to make history early in 2017, but only one posits a valid claim to Super Bowl contention. Meanwhile, the NHL's two youngest franchises are playing their best hockey ever, and a couple of NBA clubs pose an outside threat of ruining the highly anticipated Finals rematch between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors.

    The following teams can all view 2017 as a fresh chance to claim their franchise's first championship.

Honorable Mentions

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    Matthew Stafford's Detroit Lions have a chance to reach their first Super Bowl this year.
    Matthew Stafford's Detroit Lions have a chance to reach their first Super Bowl this year.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Detroit Lions

    The Detroit Lions backed into the NFL playoffs despite losing their last three games to fellow NFC postseason participants. They finished with a minus-13 point differential and 0-6 record against teams with nine or more victories.

    They must beat the Seattle Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys on the road to reach the NFC Championship Game, which they would also play on the road. Considering they went 3-5 away from Ford Field, don't expect any miracles.

    Houston Texans

    According to the Houston Texans' official Twitter page, head coach Bill O'Brien declared Brock Osweiler his starting quarterback for Saturday's AFC Wild Card Round clash with the Oakland Raiders. Since they don't have the Denver Broncos' defense, they're not going to the Super Bowl with such a poor passing offense.

    Maybe they will beat the Derek Carr-less Oakland Raiders, but they'd then get squashed on the road by the New England Patriots or Kansas City Chiefs. 

    Seattle Mariners

    The Seattle Mariners expected to factor prominently in MLB's postseason picture when signing Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz in subsequent years. Yet they have not made the playoffs since 2001's record-setting 116-win campaign, which ended in an American League Championship Series exit.

    For that drought to end, ace Felix Hernandez must reverse 2016's regression and considerably improve last year's 3.82 ERA.

Atlanta Falcons

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    Matt Ryan led the NFL in quarterback rating and yards per pass attempt.
    Matt Ryan led the NFL in quarterback rating and yards per pass attempt.Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    It turns out NFC teams beside the Dallas Cowboys exist. Their biggest threat, the Atlanta Falcons, enters the playoffs with the NFL's premier scoring offense and rightful MVP.

    There are many choices circling around the MVP picture, but the correct answer is Matt Ryan. It's weird this is a debate, as his 9.26 yards per pass attempt comfortably led all quarterbacks. So did his 117.2 quarterback rating, which matches the mark Tom Brady posted during his 50-touchdown 2007 campaign for the 16-0 New England Patriots.

    Although the schedule lightened during their four-game winning streak to close the season, they first circumvented a brutal slate. They played four of their first dozen games against fellow playoff teams, not including the 9-7 Denver Broncos and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a trip to the Superdome and matchups against last year's NFC Championship Game participants (Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals.)

    Four years ago, Atlanta squandered a Super Bowl bid by blowing a 17-0 lead to the San Francisco 49ers. It can return to the conference title game with one victory inside the Georgia Dome, likely against the Seattle Seahawks.

    The defense remains a weakness, but it may not matter. A juggernaut offense is guaranteed to play all of its playoff games inside a dome, which should lead to some thrilling shootouts. 

    Bleacher Report's Mike Tanier rightfully labeled the current Falcons "a team you don't want to take lightly in the playoffs." They're not getting the same national recognition as the Cowboys and red-hot Green Bay Packers, but they're every bit as good.

Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Cam Atkinson has tallied 17 points during the Columbus Blue Jackets' 15-game winning streak.
    Cam Atkinson has tallied 17 points during the Columbus Blue Jackets' 15-game winning streak.Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

    No team ended 2016 as hot as the Columbus Blue Jackets, who catapulted to first place in the Eastern Conference with a 15-game winning streak. After steamrolling unscathed through December, they stand two victories shy of matching the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins' all-time record.

    Led by 17 points from Cam Atkinson, the Blue Jackets have scored 61 goals, lifting their season average to an NHL-best 3.5 goals per contest. They can inch one step closer to history by beating Connor McDavid's Edmonton Oilers Tuesday night.

    In order to obtain victory No. 15, they needed to cool down the league's second-hottest team. The Minnesota Wild, who joined the NHL alongside Columbus in 2000, entered the New Year's Eve matchup brandishing 12 straight wins. According to ESPN Stats & Info, it was the first time two teams collided with a dozen or more consecutive wins in any major North America professional team sport.

    The Blue Jackets have never enjoyed anything near this level of exceptional success. In 15 seasons, they have reached the Stanley Cup playoffs twice, and they were booted in the opening round both times.

    Now they wield the league's most points (56) and highest goal differential (plus-50) at 26-5-4. Remarkably deep lines and a career year from goalie Sergei Bobrovsky have them looking like a legitimate contender to win far more than their first playoff series this year.

Houston Astros

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    Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa will lead the upgraded Houston Astros to 2017 contention.
    Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa will lead the upgraded Houston Astros to 2017 contention.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    After an arduous rebuilding process, the Houston Astros are gearing up for a serious 2017 push.

    Following six straight losing seasons, their fortunes lifted sooner than anticipated when they reached and won the 2015 American League Wild Card Game. Despite falling out of the playoffs last year, they witnessed George Springer stay healthy and Jose Altuve ascend into an MVP-caliber slugger.

    Shortstop Carlos Correa has the brightest future of them all, but Alex Bregman didn't look too shabby either, posting a .478 slugging percentage in his first 217 MLB plate appearances.

    Nurturing no delusions of contending, the front office previously assembled penny-saving rosters with cheap newcomers and placeholding veterans. That strategy has changed with a pennant in sight. They have loaded up on veteran power bats by bringing aboard Brian McCann, Josh Reddick and 2004 playoff hero Carlos Beltran.

    If Cuban veteran Yulieski Gurriel pans out, the Astros will spring to the top of MLB's offensive leaderboards. Only the Chicago Cubs can match their lineup depth and young core.

    The starting rotation will make or break Houston's championship aspirations. Dallas Keuchel won't match 2015's Cy Young Award-winning season, but he should find common ground between that year's 2.48 ERA and 2016's 4.55 clip. If young hurlers Lance McCullers and Joe Musgrove don't provide durability, general manager Jeff Luhnow will need to acquire an impact arm before the summer's trade deadline.

    They must overcome two other teams hungry for their first World Series win—Mariners and Texas Rangers—to claim their first AL West crown, but this group gives the Astros their best chance at a championship in over a decade.

Liverpool (Premier League)

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    Liverpool is second to Chelsea on the 2016-17 English Premier League table.
    Liverpool is second to Chelsea on the 2016-17 English Premier League table.Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

    It's probably cheating to include one of the most successful clubs in sports history. Liverpool have amassed eight League Cup crowns and 18 Football League First Division titles, but they have yet to win the English Premier League since it formed in 1992.

    Leiciester City became the highly improbable sixth club to capture an EPL title, but the prestigious Reds have instead settled for three runner-up finishes. Placing second on the table behind Chelsea, they're currently in line for a fourth.

    The Blues have won a commanding 16 of their 19 fixtures, but Liverpool have plenty of time to erase a five-point deficit. Fueled by the league's top scoring attack, they handed Chelsea one of their two losses back in September, scoring twice on a squad which have surrendered 13 goals all season.

    Less star-reliant than their top adversaries, their deep, speedy attack has given the EPL fits all year. On New Year's Eve, however, they thrived under a different style to defeat third-place Manchester City. Yahoo Sports' Shahan Ahmed commended the performance:

    The ability to shut down the opposition, change into a defensive side and protect a 1-0 lead against a team managed by Pep Guardiola deserves recognition, and it elevates Liverpool’s title challenge. Only allowing two shots on target, both of which came in the span of a couple minutes, against a team that averages over two goals per match sends a message that Liverpool is far more than an attacking side that bags goals. This team can defend, too.

    Twenty-four years without a title is far too long for Liverpool, who can finally end their Premier League drought in 2017.

Los Angeles Clippers

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    Chris Paul may have one last chance to lead the Los Angeles Clippers to a title push.
    Chris Paul may have one last chance to lead the Los Angeles Clippers to a title push.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Rewind to Thanksgiving, and the 14-2 Los Angeles Clippers looked like Golden State's biggest obstacle. Now, as free agency for Blake Griffin and possibly Chris Paul looms, they need to worry about starting the postseason on the road.

    They have since gone 9-12, snapping a six-game losing streak against the Phoenix Suns Monday night. Griffin, who underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, hasn't played since Dec. 18. Paul sat out six of the last seven games.

    Without their two stars, Los Angeles has tumbled into a four-team battle for the Western Conference's No. 4 seed. If healthy, the club would instead fight the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets for the second slot, but Griffin may require as much as another month to heal.

    At full strength, their championship odds are slim at best. These Clippers have yet to reach the conference finals, and this latest snide has exposed their non-existent depth. While head coach Doc Rivers is a likely Hall of Famer, general manager Doc Rivers has loaded his bench with unappealing veterans.

    But at least his son, Austin, has a value over replacement player (VORP) above 0.0 (0.1) for the first time in his five-year career, per Basketball-Reference.com.

    All this aside, Paul, Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick flashed a championship ceiling during their brief time together to start the 2016-17 season. Having already bested the Spurs and Cavaliers. they're among a very short list of second-tier teams capable of an improbable Finals run.

Minnesota Wild

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    Minnesota Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk leads the NHL in save percentage and goals allowed average.
    Minnesota Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk leads the NHL in save percentage and goals allowed average.Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    When the Blue Jackets and Wild put their winning streaks on the line against each other, the remarkable run had to end for one of the NHL's most pleasant surprises. Minnesota suffered its first defeat since Dec. 2, but it may have a better chance of sustaining its breakthrough into the New Year.

    Having made the last four postseasons, the Wild are less of a surprise than their expansion brothers. Their smothering defense, which ranked eighth in goals allowed last season, has relinquished a league-low 2.1 goals per bout over their 23-9-4 start.

    Their title chances aren't dependent on Devan Dubnyk maintaining his Vezina-caliber goaltending. The 30-year-old currently boasts an NHL-best 94.1 save percentage, and Bruce Boudreau's club should expect some regression. But not too much, as he has netted a 92.8 percentage in 135 career games with the Wild.

    While defense is their backbone and title ticket, they also rate fourth in scoring. Seven players, led by centers Eric Staal and Charlie Coyle with 30 apiece, have accumulated over 20 points this season.

    Minnesota also faces less competition than Columbus, who still must fend off the Penguins and New York Rangers to stay atop the Metropolitan Division. It's the only Western Conference squad with a scoring margin above 15.

    Minnesota has not seen a men's team—the Minnesota Lynx have won three of the last six WNBA titles—earn a championship since the Twins took the World Series in 1991. The Vikings have yet to win a Super Bowl, and the Timberwolves need a few more years before they can chase their first title. Like Cleveland last year, Minnesota needs a win.

San Jose Sharks

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    Brent Burns leads all defensemen with 35 points this season.
    Brent Burns leads all defensemen with 35 points this season.Rocky W. Widner/NHL/Getty Images

    The San Jose Sharks nearly gave 2016 another feel-good sports story. Despite reaching 16 of the last 18 postseasons, they earned their first Stanley Cup Finals bid in franchise history. Before they could convert their success into a trophy, the Penguins plucked them in six games.

    They have returned with a vengeance, leading the Pacific Division with the NHL's fourth-best scoring defense. Although they have tallied a below-average 2.5 goals per game, the Sharks rank second behind the Boston Bruins in Corsi, according to NHL.com.

    It's child's play compared to Columbus and Minnesota, but San Jose has won eight of its last 10 games. Four of those triumphs needed overtime, with two earned after shootouts.

    Even if such close wins are unsustainable in bunches, it's still encouraging to see the Sharks score twice in 20 of their last 21 bouts. Joe Thornton hasn't found the net since Nov. 8, but the unselfish 37-year-old center accumulated 12 assists in 13 December games. 

    The Sharks will likely notch another playoff appearance in 2017. With star defenseman Brent Burns leading the way, they may get another crack at finishing the job.

Texas Rangers

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    The Texas Rangers will need a healthy Yu Darvish in order to contend in 2017.
    The Texas Rangers will need a healthy Yu Darvish in order to contend in 2017.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Barring a major upset, someone from the AL West will receive a chance to conquer the postseason for the first time ever. The Rangers are not quite a finished product, but they're one or two offseason moves away from contending again.

    After waiting 35 years for their franchise's first playoff appearance, the Rangers have recently come painstakingly close to ending their drought. They fell short in consecutive World Series trips, losing a late Game 6 lead to the St. Louis Cardinals before suffering a heartbreaking Game 7 defeat in 2011.

    They have won back-to-back division titles, only to lose to the Toronto Blue Jays both times in the American League Division Series. While they will procure full seasons from midseason acquisitions Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez, they also lost Beltran, Mitch Moreland and Ian Desmond.

    Even if they think young slugger Joey Gallo is ready to repair his major league strikeout woes, the Rangers still need a first baseman or designated hitter. Reuniting with Mike Napoli, who belted 34 home runs for the Cleveland Indians last year, would fill that void. According to MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan, they are "moving closer to a deal" with the 35-year-old.

    Yet their title plans hinge on a healthy Yu Darvish, who recorded 132 strikeouts over 100.1 innings upon returning from Tommy John surgery in late May. If healthy—he hasn't pitched a full season since 2013—the 30-year-old ace gives Texas' rotation a formidable one-two punch alongside Cole Hamels. 

    Gallo, Rougned Odor, Nomar Mazara and Jurickson Profar should develop an intense rivalry with Houston's star position players over the years, and they're both poised to one day bring the Commissioner's Trophy to Texas. The Rangers, however, know as well as anyone that nothing is guaranteed during MLB's chaotic postseason.

Toronto Raptors

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    DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are leading the Toronto Raptors to an Eastern Conference Finals rematch with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
    DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are leading the Toronto Raptors to an Eastern Conference Finals rematch with the Cleveland Cavaliers.Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    There's a giant roadblock to the Toronto Raptors bringing the Larry O'Brien Trophy to Canada. His name is LeBron James. 

    Shift him to the Western Conference, and the Raptors could rule the East. They would get squashed by the Warriors or James' new club a la Jason Kidd's then-New Jersey Nets, but maybe Draymond Green goes on another kicking spree and accidentally boots one of his teammates instead of Kyle Lowry.

    They have elevated to the conference's clear second-best squad. Going solely off the 2016-17 season returns—which is dangerous since the Cavs have already rested James three times—they're not far from the top spot.

    The Raptors boast the NBA's second-best average point differential (plus-7.9) behind the Golden State Warriors' ludicrous plus-12.6 mark. They lead the East in points per game (111.2) and even top Golden State with 116.2 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference.com.

    In addition to fostering a special friendship, Lowry and DeMar DeRozan should both make this year's All-Star team. The backcourt tandem ranks No. 5 and 16, respectively in win shares, but the shooting guard has the upper hand with the league's sixth-best scoring average (27.5).

    While the Raptors are a long shot to win the Finals, they're also a strong bet to stay alive as one of the final four teams standing.

Washington Nationals

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    The Washington Nationals won the NL East despite significant regression from superstar Bryce Harper.
    The Washington Nationals won the NL East despite significant regression from superstar Bryce Harper.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    In 12 seasons since relocating to the nation's capital, the Washington Nationals have never won a playoff series. Including their 36 years as the Montreal Expos—MLB’s 1994's strike stripped away their best chance—the number jumps to one.

    The current Nationals, however, are far from punchlines, winning the National League East in three of the past five seasons with at least 95 victories each time. A loaded roster, led by 2015 NL MVP Bryce Harper and 2016 NL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, redeemed a disappointing 2015 under new manager Dusty Baker, only to lose three one-run games in the opening round.

    They made a bold win-now move by trading three of their top pitching prospects for outfielder Adam Eaton, who registered a .361 or .362 on-base percentage in all three seasons with the Chicago White Sox. Even if they overpaid from a long-term purview, his presence atop the batting order unquestionably upgrades the 2017 club.

    The move embodies a front office eager to produce a championship. After parting ways with Jonathan Papelbon and losing free-agent closer Mark Melancon to the San Francisco Giants, the bullpen stands out as a glaring but fixable weakness.

    Washington won 95 games despite Harper dropping .295 points off his OPS. If he bounces back alongside Eaton, Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy and Trea Turner, they'll ride a dangerous lineup and strong rotation into another playoff opportunity. From there, it's anyone's guess if their talent translates into October victories.