NFL Predictions for 2010 Season: Dark Horse Teams

Colby Lanham@Colby1226Correspondent IAugust 9, 2010

NFL Predictions for 2010 Season: Dark Horse Teams

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    Heading into 2010, there are so many factors that have a profound effect on how far a team performs. Whether it be injury, contract holdouts, or what have you, these factors can have bigger impact than one may think. Every year comes a team out of the blue that bursts onto the scene in a totally unexpected way.

    A prime example of this were the New York Jets last year, making it all the way to the AFC Championship. What other teams are under the radar, and possibly have that chance to make the playoffs in a surprising fashion? What teams have that dark horse potential to do more than given credit for? We shall bring these possibilities into the light.

Miami Dolphins

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    One underrated team that has one of the biggest opportunities to surprise are the Miami Dolphins.

    They have a great potential future in Chad Henne, who performed well after Pennington's injury ended his season in 2009. The Dolphins have more weapons for Henne, acquiring Brandon Marshall from the Denver Broncos. They shall also return Ronnie Brown from injury as well.

    Added to that, they focused on having a defensive-oriented draft this year, and having more youth on defense, releasing well-known veterans in linebackers Joey Porter and Akin Ayodele, and safety Gibril Wilson, while also losing Jason Ferguson and Zach Thomas to retirement.

    What are the knocks against this potential dark horse team?

    Well, first and foremost is the defense, in all areas. Someone must step up at linebacker, a pass rush mush be obtained, and the secondary must maintain better coverage. The Dolphins have hired Mike Nolan, the former Denver Broncos defensive coordinator, to help fix their 3-4 defense.

    The other keys will be Henne's maturation through a full 16-game schedule, and the Dolphins running game production, as Williams is over 30, the declining age of running backs. Also, while the Dolphins have Marshall, a more legit No. 2 guy must emerge.

    With all this, the Dolphins can be back into the postseason.

Philadelphia Eagles

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    The 2010 Eagles are now something they haven't been in 10 years: No McNabb at the helm. The younger Kevin Kolb has now been given the reins as the starting quarterback.

    Westbrook has also been given the boot, and the load has been transferred to second-year back Lesean McCoy. On top of that, McNabb is in their division. And they're in the NFC East too? How can they possibly compete against the Cowboys or the Giants without McNabb?

    Well, Kolb is being underestimated by many. He has the tools to become a great quarterback, but he has a lot of pressure being under McNabb's shadow. But he showed us a possible glimpse of the future last year with over 300 yards passing in his first two games against the Kansas City Chiefs and the New Orleans Saints.

    More knocks against the Eagles? Besides competing in a tough division, the Eagles' defense was inconsistent at times, struggling to find their pass rush.

    The loss of Brian Dawkins to the Denver Broncos hurt the free safety position, and they drafted the talented Nate Allen in the second round of the NFL Draft, hoping he will finally be the replacement they require. With the loss of Westbrook, and McCoy as the starter, there will be a competition for the reserve spots. Those spots are important because nowadays, two, even three running backs are used frequently.

    If they can get their defense together, this team can get on the path towards the postseason.

Atlanta Falcons

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    The team that for the first time, posted back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history, the Atlanta Falcons, are another dark horse.

    It's harder to get noticed when your young franchise quarterback competes against the likes of Drew Brees. But while things didn't swing their way in 2009, this team is good.

    Why are they worthy of dark horse status? Well, on top of a bright future in Matt Ryan, they shall bring back a healthier host of running backs in Michael Turner, Jerious Norwood, and a capable Jason Sneliing. The receiving weapons for Ryan are there, with receivers Mike Jenkins and Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White. Let's not forget future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez.

    What is their Achilles heel? They have had poorer defensive production as of late. They have lacked significant pass rush ability, despite having John Abraham. They have also had secondary troubles, which should improve with the addition of Dunta Robinson.

    Peria Jerry, a 2009 first-round defensive tackle, returns from his season-ending injury a year ago. They will count on third-round defensive tackle Corey Peters to contribute. They also shored up their linebacking corps by drafting Sean Weatherspoon in the first round of 2010.

    The Falcons' season shall be shaped by the performance of their defense and their ability to rush the quarterback.

Tennessee Titans

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    One of the less talked about stories of the AFC was the return of Vince Young after the team's terrible 0-6 start to the 2009 season.

    Young reclaimed his starting job and made the Pro Bowl (albeit due to others not playing). Chris Johnson's record-breaking season vaulted him into one of the best in the running back business, and now, Young shall enter camp entrenched as the starter.

    Why the Tennessee Titans as dark horses?

    Well, for one, they haven't received enough press other than Chris Johnson. They are flying under the radar due to their division where they must compete with the Texans and Colts twice a year. With a questionable Texans defense, the Titans can possibly make a push for a spot back into the postseason.

    But what holds this team back?

    There needs to be a little more wide receiver production, and Vince Young must continue his progress and maturation as an NFL quarterback. While Chris Johnson has stepped up his game, he must have good production from the backup running backs.There will be plenty of competition among Javon Ringer, Stafon Johnson, and LeGarrette Blount.

    There are also secondary issues that must be patched up and fixed, as the pass rush was addressed with the addition of Derrick Morgan.

    The season shall be driven by two focuses: The progression of Vince Young, and a hopefully improved secondary.

Washington Redskins

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    Wow. Who'd thought the Washington Redskins would be on this list? After all that's happened, why do they deserve a spot? Well, it's not because of what didn't happen, but rather, what did happen.

    First of all, Donovan McNabb. The long-time Eagles quarterback was traded, surprisingly within the division, to the Redskins for high draft picks. Just having McNabb is a big step forward for the franchise.

    They also made a good move in hiring Shanahan, and he has given the franchise a busy 2010 offseason.

    Besides McNabb, the Redskins have started building their offensive line by drafting rookie tackle Trent Williams fourth overall, and trading for the Saints' Pro Bowl tackle, Jammal Brown. They also managed to sign veteran backs in Larry Johnson and Willie Parker to compete with Portis in camp. This team has more potential offensively than one may think.

    What can possibly hold this team back?

    Well, first off, there is the conversion to the 3-4 defensive scheme, and the adjustments 4-3 players must make; it takes time to adjust into an entirely new system. On top of that, the defense hasn't had too much production and needs to step it up in every aspect.

    There are still problems on offense, as well.

    While the Redskins do have good veteran running backs, all are getting older, and there is little youth on the running back roster. The pass catching must also improve and with the loss of Antwan Randle El, Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas must emerge as better receiving threats. The offensive line, even with the new additions, must prove itself.

Arizona Cardinals

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    The team being put down this year by everybody are the Arizona Cardinals, and with valid reasons. What with the retirement of Kurt Warner, the loss of Karlos Dansby, a force on defense, and Anquan Boldin, a hard-nosed Pro Bowl-caliber wide receiver. But don't count out the Cards just yet, as the NFC West is wide open.

    This year is Leinart's time to shine. He was given his draft status to start for the Cardinals in the future. It's taken a while, but it would seem Leinart will be able to go through 16 full games as the starter, with veteran Derek Anderson and rookie John Skelton behind him.

    Let's not forget the Cardinals' underrated running game. Beanie Wells is the bigger feature back, but shares time with Tim Hightower, and capable backup Larod Stephens Howling. Look for them to make a bigger impact with the loss of Anquan Boldin.

    Leinart isn't lacking at receiver weapons either. He still has Larry Fitzgerald as a No. 1 guy, and Breaston and Doucet must step up to take on a bigger role in the offense. Look for third-rounder Andre Roberts to contribute as well.

    The roadblock the Cardinals must face is their defense. Dansby had playmaking impact on their defense, and the loss of solid safety Rolle hurts the secondary.

    The key to heading to the postseason for the third straight year shall not be their offense, but their defense.