2021 NFL Predictions: Dark-Horse Super Bowl Picks Certain to Surprise

Keegan PopeContributor IIIAugust 13, 2021

2021 NFL Predictions: Dark-Horse Super Bowl Picks Certain to Surprise

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    It's a little hard to consider any team quarterbacked by Tom Brady a legitimate underdog or sleeper. Although it differed between each sportsbook, the odds Brady and the Buccaneers would take home Super Bowl 55 put them as one of the five or six favorites to win it all. After an underachieving regular season, Tampa Bay entered the NFC Wild Card Round as the No. 5 seed with little expectation of making it past the divisional round. 

    We know how that ended.

    As the Bucs prepare to run it back in 2021—they'll have all 22 starters back from last year's championship team—they are a close second to Kansas City among the favorites to bring home Super Bowl 56, with Buffalo, Green Bay and Baltimore a ways behind them. 

    But who could sneak up and surprise everyone? The pool is relatively small if you consider that only one team, the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles, has won a Super Bowl without an elite-caliber quarterback in the last two decades. Teams like Denver, Minnesota and Tennessee might be trendy sleeper picks, but none of the three have a quarterback you'd count among the top 10 or 12 in the league. 

Dallas Cowboys

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    Michael Owen Baker/Associated Press

    It seems awfully strange to call the Cowboys a sleeper pick considering the offensive talent on the roster, but Dallas' preseason Super Bowl odds sit at +3000, per DraftKings, the joint 10th-best in the league.

    Pretty much everything depends on the health of Dak Prescott, who was in the midst of a career year last season before an ankle injury derailed the Cowboys. If he's healthy—and that's still a big if—Dallas has more than enough talent to win the NFC. 

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Justin Berl/Associated Press

    Can 39-year-old Ben Roethlisberger keep fighting off Father Time? That's the biggest question as to whether Pittsburgh can be a legitimate Super Bowl contender this season.

    After starting last season 11-0 and trending as a team that could potentially dethrone Kansas City in the AFC, the Steelers imploded down the stretch, losing four of their last five regular-season games before falling to division rival Cleveland in the wild-card round. 

    As Roethlisberger went (or didn't), so did the Steelers. Save for a three-touchdown performance against Indianapolis in Week 15, Big Ben struggled mightily toward the end of the season, including a four-interception performance in the wild-card loss to the Browns. Still, he finished last season with 33 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions, and his quarterback rating was the highest it's been since 2018.

    Pittsburgh returns its key receivers from last year, and after letting running back James Conner go, the Steelers grabbed Alabama stud running back Najee Harris with the 24th pick in the draft. He should be able to take some of the production load off of Big Ben, and if both can remain healthy, the Steelers have a chance to be dangerous again. 

Los Angeles Chargers

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Chargers don't technically have an elite quarterback. At least not yet. Justin Herbert looks to be the league's next star after an eye-popping rookie season in which he threw for 4,336 yards, 31 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions.

    Los Angeles struggled to a 7-9 finish, but the quarterback play was at times brilliant. The team didn't make any game-changing moves in free agency, but it did spend a first-round draft pick on tackle Rashawn Slater to protect Herbert. 

    The defense should be improved with a fully healthy Joey Bosa, and for a team that lost six games last season by seven points or less, the little improvements could make them a legit contender in the AFC West. 

Arizona Cardinals

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    The Cardinals were a team that simply couldn't put it all together last season. Their defense finished 12th in points allowed but ranked in the bottom-third of the league against the run.

    The offense, led by an electric Kyler Murray, finished in the top 10 in every rushing category and No. 6 in yards per game but just 13th in total scoring. Like Los Angeles, the Cardinals struggled in close contests, going just 3-4 in games decided by seven points or less. That left them on the outside looking in as Seattle won the division and the Rams took the final NFC wild-card spot.

    This offseason, though, Arizona brought in former Cincinnati star wideout A.J. Green to complement DeAndre Hopkins, as well as rookie speedster Rondale Moore and ex-Steeler James Conner at running back.

    Murray has continued his ascendance into the upper echelon of quarterbacks, and he took 21 fewer sacks last season than he did in 2019 as a rookie. His dual-threat, along with the weapons he'll have at his disposal, makes Arizona's offense supremely dangerous and a group that could potentially lead them to the top of the NFC.