Chris Simms' Top Super Bowl Contenders in 2017
We all love to talk about which teams are Super Bowl contenders this time of year. I know I always have the conversation with my NFL friends, both guys who have been around the league for a while and younger players. The thing we've realized, though, is that there are only a handful of teams legitimately trying to win the Super Bowl each year.
I know the general perception is that every NFL team is trying to win it all every single year, but really, only a few teams are actually pushing their chips into the middle and going for a title. Some teams simply aren't talented enough to make the Super Bowl a goal, and there's an entirely different group of teams with entirely different agendas.
There are some teams whose goals are driven by ego or job security. You can't really tell me the Jacksonville Jaguars are trying to win the Super Bowl by bringing back Blake Bortles for a fourth year and giving him the fifth-year option. They can say whatever they want, but those were ego-driven decisions, not what was best for the football team or its championship aspirations.
The Jaguars are still trying to prove they selected a franchise quarterback in Bortles. That's a much more immediate goal than even thinking about winning the Super Bowl.
Of the teams that are truly trying to win it all, even fewer are actually in position to legitimately contend for a title as we speak. These are the teams we're here to examine today. So let's separate the contenders from the pretenders and those from the teams that really aren't even trying.
Best of the Rest
As I said before, I believe only a handful of teams are truly built to win a Super Bowl right now. However, there are some quality teams who could sneak into the big game and compete for a title if the right variables bounce their way. At the very least, these are squads that are actually trying to win now.
Before we break into our list of legitimate contenders, let's examine some teams I believe fall in the aforementioned category. I'm not willing to count any of them out, but I do have significant questions about each.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs may have one of the best rosters in the game. I can't put them on my list of legitimate contenders though, because of one thing: quarterback Alex Smith. I think this team was a year too late picking up a young quarterback, and I don't think it can win a Super Bowl with Smith under center.
Yes, Kansas City can probably get into the playoffs. It can probably earn a first-round bye. I just don't see this as a team that can win it all when Smith is a quarterback who can't make the exceptional throws or even the slam dunk throws in moments that count.
Go back and watch the film from last year's playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Chiefs could have won that game by 10 points if Smith had been able to hit some routine throws down the stretch. He couldn't, and that's why I can't call the Chiefs contenders.
You might be surprised to see the Tennessee Titans here, but I don't think they're far from being legitimate contenders. This is a team that had an improved defense in 2016 and the third-best running game in all of football.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota is an emerging talent, and the team put more weapons around him this offseason.
My issue is that I can't consider Tennessee a legitimate contender when this incarnation of the team has yet to even make it to the playoffs. That, combined with the leg injury Mariota suffered last season, has them a step below a team like the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders are in a very similar situation, but they did prove they can reach the postseason.
Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers have repeatedly shown they can reach the postseason. I love some of the additions the team made this offseason too. I just have a couple of issue with Green Bay.
The first is that, while the Packers added some nice young pieces to the secondary in the draft, they cannot be counted on to fix the defense from Day 1. I need to see that Green Bay can stop an opposing offense before calling the team a legit contender.
My second issue—and a longstanding one—is that the Packers have to stop relying on Aaron Rodgers to win every game on his own. Without Rodgers, this could have been one of the three or four worst teams in the NFL last season. As long as he's there, though, the Packers will always have a chance.
The Minnesota Vikings were extremely close to making it onto my legit contenders list. The Minnesota defense is, hands down, one of the best in football. The Vikings improved the offensive line, added running back Latavius Murray and drafted running back Dalvin Cook.
All of these things should make life easier on quarterback Sam Bradford, who had a sneaky good season in 2016.
My question here is whether or not the Vikings can put everything together and win a playoff game. The team struggled to produce big offensive plays last season and subsequently faded down the stretch, losing eight of their last 11 games. I just have to see a bit more consistency out of this team before calling it a contender.
The Detroit Lions appear to have finally put a strong offensive line in front of Matthew Stafford, and that's dangerous. If Ameer Abdullah can return and give this team an explosive rushing attack, watch out.
Detroit showed it can hang with most teams on the scoreboard last season, even without a strong running game.
My issue with Detroit is on the defensive side of the ball. There are some solid players there, and I have a lot of faith in coordinator Teryl Austin, but the team lacks true game-changing defenders. Detroit gave up 90 points in its final three regular-season games last year, costing it a division title. I need to know the Lions can get it done defensively, but they're close.
There's no question the Atlanta Falcons have a ton of talent. They rode that talent to the Super Bowl last season. I'm just not sure they can survive the Super Bowl hangover after losing in dramatic fashion.
There's also going to be an adjustment period now that former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. He really made the offense hum last season, and now the Falcons will be starting over.
The rest of the NFC South seemed to get better this offseason. With the departure of Shanahan, you could argue the Falcons got worse.
New Orleans Saints
I'm always going to give the combination of Drew Brees and Sean Payton a chance at a Super Bowl appearance. With the additions of Adrian Peterson and Alvin Kamara, this offense could be really special.
Ryan Ramczyk should help improve the offensive line. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore should help bolster the defense. My question here is whether or not the Saints defense has improved enough to close out games. The team produced an NFL-best 426.0 yards per game last season. If New Orleans can be even average on defense, it'll be a contender.
But I must see that improvement from the Saints defense before I'm willing to give this team my Super Bowl stamp.
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer had a worse season in 2016 than many people think. If he can return to form, though, this team is probably right in the thick of the NFC title race.
Even after losing defensive staples like Calais Campbell and Tony Jefferson, Arizona still possesses one of the better defenses in football. With weapons like David Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown, the offense is equally dangerous.
I simply have to see Palmer bounce back and then perform well in the playoffs before I'll consider Arizona a true Super Bowl team.
New England Patriots
Let's start our true contenders list off with the team I think is going to win the Super Bowl for the third time in four years. That's the New England Patriots.
Do I really need to keep explaining why this one is going to happen? All I should have to mention is Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Brady is an all-time talent, and Belichick simply does things a different way. We talked in the opening about how some teams make ego-driven decisions. Belichick is rarely going to be that guy. He'll have no problem cutting a second-round pick in order to play an undrafted free agent if that's what's best for the team.
As long as those two are at the helm, the Patriots are going to be legitimate contenders.
But what's really scary is that this team got better during the offseason. New England didn't have much of a draft, but that's because Belichick avoided the guesswork and added proven NFL talent. Guys like Stephon Gilmore, Brandin Cooks, Lawrence Guy, Dwayne Allen, Mike Gillislee and Kony Ealy have all proven something at the pro level already. There's no rookie development to endure with them this season.
To me, the Patriots were the only team last year that was totally complete with elite talent in all four phases: offense, defense, special teams and coaching. On paper, the Patriots are even better now, and they certainly aren't going anywhere.
For me to believe you're a legitimate contender in the AFC, I have to believe you can go into New England in January and beat Brady and the Patriots. The Steelers couldn't do that last year, but they also didn't have superstar running back Le'Veon Bell for most of the game.
Assuming Bell doesn't hold out the entire season, he should be back and we'll finally be able to see all the Killer Bs together—Bell, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant. They help form an offense that is as explosive and dangerous as any in football. Let's not overlook the fact the Steelers allowed just 21 sacks in 2016, second-fewest in the NFL.
Defensively, Pittsburgh's biggest question is the secondary. However, the team has made some great moves over the past couple years to address it. Guys like Artie Burns and Sean Davis are coming up the pipeline and beginning to prove themselves. Adding Coty Sensabaugh was a smart move, and I love the drafting of Cameron Sutton out of Tennessee. This group is going to be fine.
We know the front seven of Pittsburgh's defense is special, there's no doubt about that. The question has been the team's secondary and its ability to play man defense against a team like New England. The Steelers now have the personnel in place and are preparing to play a lot more man defense in 2017.
This is a team that is angry, hungry and sick of losing to the Patriots. I expect the Steelers to have a big year altogether, and I expect them to challenge New England for home-field advantage in the AFC.
This might surprise some people, but to me, the Baltimore Ravens are a team that can win the Super Bowl. First of all, they had the seventh-best defense in football last season (322.1 yards per game allowed). I can honestly say the Ravens have some team speed again, and this might be the best group of skill-position guys Joe Flacco has ever had around him.
In other words, the Ravens are a complete football team.
That defense that was already good last year got even better. The team added pieces in the secondary like Tony Jefferson, Brandon Carr and rookie Marlon Humphrey.
Baltimore's offense has a chance to be a really explosive group. Guys like Jeremy Maclin, Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman can stretch the field vertically. Tight end Benjamin Watson should be healthy after missing all of last season. The team has some promising young running backs, plus it added pass-catcher extraordinaire Danny Woodhead to its backfield.
Let's not forget that Baltimore replaced Marc Trestman with Marty Mornhinweg as offensive coordinator last year. Mornhinweg has now had a full offseason to put his stamp on his side of the ball, so there should be some real improvement there.
This is a team I always felt could be a sleeping giant last season. With the additions the Ravens have made in the offseason, they're now a team that can legitimately compete for a Super Bowl. To get to the Super Bowl in the AFC, you have to be able to go through New England. Baltimore is one of the few teams that has shown it can go into New England and win during the Brady-Belichick era.
New York Giants
This is probably a far less surprising entry for most people. I thought the New York Giants were capable of making a run at the Super Bowl last year, had they been able to get out of Green Bay against Rodgers and Co. They definitely would have been one of the toughest matchups for the Patriots.
The defense in New York is legit. With guys like Landon Collins, Janoris Jenkins and Eli Apple, the Giants have one of the best secondaries in all of football. They also have one of the best defensive fronts. Damon Harrison eats up opposing ball-carriers, and the tandem of Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon almost isn't fair to opposing quarterbacks.
The two problems last season were an unimaginative offense and play from quarterback Eli Manning that was probably even worse than people realize. Both issues should be resolved.
Manning should have no excuses this season. The team seems to have found a quality running back in Paul Perkins. It added D.J. Fluker to help bolster the offensive line. Pass-catchers like Brandon Marshall and rookie tight end Evan Engram should prevent the offense from being a one-man show the way it was in 2016.
Like the Packers often asked Rodgers to win games for them last year, the Giants asked the same of wideout Odell Beckham Jr. With Marshall and Engram on the team—and a more seasoned Sterling Shepard—there should be no more simplistic offense centered solely around Beckham.
The Giants are a team I can look at and go, "Offense: legit, defense: legit, special teams: pretty damn good when you have guys like Beckham returning punts."
I'll be shocked if New York doesn't win the NFC East, and I think the Giants will be playing for a first-round bye in 2017.
I know the Dallas Cowboys haven't had the best offseason this year. Running back Ezekiel Elliott has been mired in off-field drama, rookie Jourdan Lewis is headed to trial for domestic violence, and the team lost pieces like Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne. Yet, I still think the Cowboys are legitimate contenders.
Let's start off examining the one area in which the Cowboys are elite, more so than any other team in the NFL. I'm talking about the offensive line. That line is capable of laying a Super Bowl foundation because it helps the quarterback, the running game and, by extension, the defense. Dallas ranked second in time of possession last year (31:55 per game), which helped keep the defense fresh.
Even if Elliott is suspended for a couple of games, the Cowboys will be able to grind out wins with guys like Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris. Dak Prescott is capable of making things happen from under center, but even with backup running backs, he shouldn't face tremendous pressure.
While the Dallas defense isn't a top-tier unit, it was more than serviceable in 2016. In fact, it allowed just 19.1 points per game, fifth-fewest in football. While the defense did lose some pieces, I love what the team added in the draft.
Rookie Chidobe Awuzie has the potential to be a special cornerback, as does Lewis if he can stay out of trouble. Defensive end Taco Charlton is a three-down ass-kicker who should make his presence felt right away. Let's not forget the team added Jaylon Smith last year. If he is able to play at some point this season, the Cowboys could have a special pair of linebackers between him and Sean Lee.
Dallas is a team that can win with ball control, and it can use that formula to win a Super Bowl.
A team that used to win with ball control and a strong defense is the Seattle Seahawks. Now, though, this is a squad that can be explosive behind the leadership of a more mature and experienced Russell Wilson. It's also still pretty darn good defensively.
Now, I know this isn't the same team that whipped the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl a few years back. However, the core of that defense—Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett, Earl Thomas—is still in place. Offensively, the team might be even better.
The offensive line is certainly in better shape than it was this time last year. The Seahawks added Luke Joeckel and Oday Aboushi, while George Fant and Germain Ifedi have more experience under their belts. That line was their one big weakness last year.
Ever since winning the Super Bowl, the Seahawks have been quietly rebuilding their roster with young talent. The defense is still special—certainly one of the top five in the game—and there are some legitimate weapons on offense. Everyone knows about guys like Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham, but players like Paul Richardson and Luke Willson have become solid pieces too. Add in special teams receiving threat Tyler Lockett and running back Eddie Lacy, and you're looking at a pretty complete team.
Plus, the Seahawks are always going to be a threat as long as Wilson is healthy. If he's at 100 percent, Seattle is not only great defensively with a dangerous special teams unit, but it also has a top-five quarterback with weapons.
On top of everything, the Seahawks have postseason experience. This is a team no one wants to face in the postseason. There's an expression that it's not the X's and O's that makes a team but the Jimmys and the Joes. Well, Seattle's Jimmys and Joes are fearless on a big stage in a big game with the lights on.
The Oakland Raiders offense is awesome. We know that. The only real question there is whether or not quarterback Derek Carr will be firing on all cylinders to start the season coming off a broken leg.
The question with Oakland last year was its defense, which was ranked 26th in the NFL (375.1 yards per game allowed). Fortunately, the team took some steps in the offseason to rectify that issue. The team selected one of the three best corners in the draft in Gareon Conley. It also took Obi Melifonwu, a future star defensive back who should have been a first-rounder, and added free agent Jelani Jenkins, a guy who fits what the team likes to do on defense.
Perhaps most importantly, the Raiders hired John Pagano as assistant head coach. He's one of the top defensive minds in the league, and he should help Oakland's defense take a big step forward.
The Raiders didn't rest on offense, either. They added Marshawn Lynch to help strengthen the running game and tight end Jared Cook to complement Clive Walford. As long as Carr—who easily could have been named league MVP last season—is healthy, this should be one of the top offenses in the game.
Oakland even managed to add some explosiveness to its return game by signing Cordarrelle Patterson in free agency.
Overall, Oakland is a team that is strong in all phases. This is a young and determined squad that won't be outmuscled and won't be fazed by big moments. If the Raiders can somehow beat the Patriots in Mexico City this year, they could have a legitimate shot at earning home-field advantage in the playoffs.