On the surface, this past year's Super Bowl seemed like a matchup of heavyweights.
The San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs dominated during regular-season play, with San Francisco's defense and heavy rushing attack pitted against Kansas City's high-powered offense.
But it is easy to forget just how those teams got to the "Big Game."
San Francisco was lost when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo suffered a knee injury in 2018, going just 4-12 on the year. But the Niners used their first-round pick to draft a dominant defensive force in Nick Bosa and also found value in undrafted running back Raheem Mostert.
The Chiefs came within one possession of the Super Bowl in 2018 after losing to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, and they were AFC favorites in 2019. But star quarterback Patrick Mahomes suffered an injury in the second quarter of a Week 7 game against the Denver Broncos, casting some doubt over the team's status as Super Bowl contenders.
However, backup quarterback Matt Moore helped the Chiefs hold on against the Broncos, and they went 1-1 in the following two games, including a win over the Minnesota Vikings. Mahomes would return in Week 10, only for his team to lose to the Tennessee Titans. But Kansas City would then rattle off nine straight wins to claim the Lombardi Trophy.
Teams often have to overcome long odds to be crowned champions. The Niners barely held on to the NFC West title in the final week of the season. Kansas City had to overcome multiple deficits in the playoffs, including against the Titans, a team that nearly made it to the Super Bowl after going 9-7 during the regular season.
Needless to say, contenders can rise and fall in the NFL. Some teams can ride momentum from the Wild Card Round all the way to a championship.
Here are a few dark-horse Super Bowl contenders who might surprise in 2020.
The Steelers were in an excellent position to reach the playoffs last season despite the absence of longtime starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Pittsburgh's defense dominated all season, galvanized by the early acquisition of All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Steelers rattled off three straight wins to head into Week 15 at 8-5, but they then lost three straight and crashed out of the playoff picture.
But the Steelers are primed to contend with Roethlisberger back under center this fall.
Pittsburgh ranked third in terms of defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) on the defensive side of the football last season, per Football Outsiders. The Steelers lost nose tackle Javon Hargrave in the offseason but did get a full year from Fitzpatrick. Not to mention, the team still has an elite front seven anchored by T.J. Watt and Devin Bush, who excelled in his rookie season.
There is also talent on the offensive side of the ball. Wide receiver Diontae Johnson had a strong rookie campaign, and James Washington averaged 16.7 yards per reception.
If JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner can stay healthy and have bounce-back years, the Steelers could push the Baltimore Ravens for the AFC North title.
The Colts seemed to be a team on the rise prior to Andrew Luck's abrupt retirement 12 months ago, but they missed the playoffs as Jacoby Brissett struggled to replicate Luck's play at quarterback.
However, the Colts made two consequential moves at positions of critical importance. They signed veteran quarterback Philip Rivers to a one-year deal and also acquired star defensive tackle DeForest Buckner from the Niners.
Rivers went 5-11 and threw 20 interceptions with the Los Angeles Chargers last season, but he still threw for over 4,600 yards and completed an even 66 percent of his pass attempts. The 38-year-old now has the luxury of playing behind one of the best offensive lines in football, and the Colts' balanced rushing attack should take some of the pressure off the veteran as he looks for an elusive Super Bowl ring.
The Colts paid a high price for Buckner, giving up their 2019 first-round pick. However, he is a force up front. The 26-year-old had 7.5 sacks and 14 quarterback hits last year, and he was named to the Pro Bowl in 2018. He draws extra blockers inside, which might allow the likes of Justin Houston more opportunities to get to opposing quarterbacks. Buckner is also a plus defender against the run.
Indianapolis also added young offensive weapons in wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. and Jonathan Taylor via the draft, and it is still high on youngsters such as Parris Campbell.
Buckner might be the game-changer the Colts (17th in DVOA last year) need on the defensive side of the ball. Should Rivers prove capable of moving the ball and leading a more dynamic passing game, Indianapolis (+2500) could emerge as contenders in a fairly mediocre AFC South division.
The Arizona Cardinals are a big long shot this season.
However, the Cardinals had a huge offseason. They acquired three-time All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins from the Houston Texans. They also signed inside linebacker De'Vondre Campbell and edge-rusher Devon Kennard, as well as defensive tackle Jordan Phillips. This should make for a much deeper front seven, with All-Pro Chandler Jones leading the way.
The Cardinals also used their first-round selection to draft hybrid safety Isaiah Simmons out of Clemson. Simmons can make plays both in coverage and in the backfield, and Arizona might choose to deploy much like the New York Jets did with Jamal Adams last year. The secondary will also benefit from a full year of Patrick Peterson after the former All-Pro missed time serving a suspension last year.
Hopkins is a massive addition to the offense. Aside from being one of the best receivers in football, the 28-year-old is also likely to draw some coverage away from Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk.
Plus, the Cardinals get a full year from running back Kenyan Drake, who averaged 5.2 yards per carry in eight games with Arizona last year. Drake is also a capable pass-catcher out of the backfield.
Quarterback Kyler Murray suddenly has a wealth of options, and he also has more familiarity with second-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury. It would not be a surprise to see the Cardinals become one of the most explosive offenses in the league.
The Cardinals will be in for a dogfight in the NFC West. There are also still questions as to the development of the offensive line and overall growth of the defense.
However, this is a team that could most certainly turn heads in 2020.