Super Bowl Chances: The Top 10 Contenders in 2011

Bill WashinskiContributor IIIAugust 15, 2011

Super Bowl Chances: The Top 10 Contenders in 2011

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    NFL Free Agency and the Salary Cap went into effect in 1993—although initially the league’s two best teams – the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers – still remained at the top in 1994 and 1995, the reality is that Free Agency began to alter the NFL.

    Every single season, teams surprise and become contenders when simply not expected to and rapid rises to success are common – as Free Agency provides a method for teams to acquire game changing talent much faster than simply through the draft.  The 1999 St. Louis Rams and 2008 Arizona Cardinals are great examples of teams that unexpectedly won their Conferences.  In addition, it is extremely common for a team to win their Division in just as unexpected a way:  2008 Miami Dolphins (1-15 to 11-5) and 2010 Kansas City Chiefs (4-12 to 10-6)

    Nonetheless, those are still the exceptions rather than the rule – while “Real Dynasties” are a thing of the past – it’s impossible to keep a team completely together, there is unquestionable proof that teams can continue to win over an extended period with a core group of players. 

    In the AFC – Pittsburgh, New England and Indianapolis have combined to win the last 8 Lamar Hunt Trophies, and if you include Baltimore (another team with consistent success), that number increases to those 4 teams winning 10 of last 11 AFC Championships and 8 Lombardi Trophy wins.

    In the NFC – While there has not been the outright domination with multiple Super Bowl appearances and wins, only two teams (Rams & Giants) won the George Halas Trophy more than once over the last 13 years – the Eagles, Packers and Seahawks would qualify as the teams that not only consistently won but contended, with the Packers being the only one with a Lombardi.

    While it’s possible that a team can surprise, contend or even outright win the Super Bowl not listed in this slideshow – it’s far more likely that we’ll see at least one if not two unexpected division winners; the following list represented in declining order the likelihood of each team winning Super Bowl XLVI.

Honorable Mention

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    Teams not in the Top 10 - but it's not out of the realm

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Josh Freeman is going to be a superstar QB - but this team is not ready to seriously contend yet.

    Kansas City Chiefs - Matt Cassell played brilliantly in 2010, but Kansas City will need to do a little more to establish itself as a consistent contender.

    Chicago Bears - The Bears have one of the best defenses in the NFL and led them to the 2010 NFC Championship Game, but the 2011 Bears will have some struggles.

    New York Giants - The Giants are a solid team and solid organization, but solid won't be enough to leap frog the better NFC teams.

    Dallas Cowboys - After Tony Romo went down, the 2010 Cowboys really sunk, so it's easy to forget about the 2011 Cowboys.  There is talent, but until Jerry Jones boys stop trying to be the media darlings and completely focus on football, they will always underachieve.

Atlanta Falcons

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    Why the Falcons are legitimate contenders:

    The 2010 Falcons were very efficent, a play a style of football that is not as flashy as the high scoring teams that get on ESPN Highlights all the time, but is time proven consistent style of winning.  The Falcons run the ball very effectively behind one of the least appreciated Running Backs in the league in Michael Turner and have a true franchise QB in Matt Ryan who has characteristics of Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Aikman to his game.  This style has been implemented to immense success by the 78/79 Steelers, 92/93 Cowboys and 97/Broncos.  When executed at its best, this style controls the pace of the game, keeps the other team’s offense off the field and helps keep the defense rested – and when playing with a lead it can make the defense more effective as the opposition offense is forced to become one-dimensional.  The key to taking that style and turning it to elite success is by having a franchise QB that makes a team pay dearly for overcompensating to stop the run.


    While the Falcons are definitely improving and they did make a nice FA acquisition in Ray Edwards to assist the pass rush – the real improvement to the next level will have to come from internal improvements.  At this moment in compared to the elite teams in the NFL, the Falcons are a little behind in the talent and experience areas – as well as having to play in a very difficult division.  Good things are ahead for Atlanta – and while it’s possible a Super Bowl run is within their abilities – they still need a little more talent and seasoning to attain the next level.  They’ve proven they can beat good teams, but the next step is showing they can beat the great ones. Their 2010 success aside, every season features a team like the Falcons who rise from being good to having a phenomenal year yet are often early playoff casualties (2007 Cowboys, 2008 Titans) that experience setbacks the next year.

    Teams that match-up well – Super Bowl Chances

    Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles - Of the Falcons 4 (total) losses, 3 came to 2 of the most dangerous and accurate QBs in the NFL – Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers.  Rodger’s playoff game vs. Atlanta both was and wasn’t a fluke.   Rodgers is immensely talented, but that performance is impossible to sustain and the Falcons were in the path of Hurricane Aaron, giving them no chance.  In the wake of that game, it's easy to forget that Atlanta beat Green Bay in 2010 - although Rodgers still had a great day. At the moment, the Falcons have that feel of being able to beat the good teams but there is still something they will have to prove about consistently beating the great ones.

San Diego Chargers

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    Why the Chargers are legitimate contenders:

    The Chargers had both the #1 offense and #1 defense in 2010 (in terms of yardage), amazing for a team that did not make the playoffs.  A combination of furious rallies that came up just short and big plays both in turnovers and special teams kept the Chargers from making the playoffs – but this is a team that has proven the ability to win (5 AFC West Titles and no losing seasons since 2004).  Phillip Rivers is consistent, accurate and one of the best QBs in the league (3 straight 4,000 yard seasons).


    Despite the Chargers regular season success, the post-season hasn’t been as prolific.  The Chargers have ended the Colts runs at the Super Bowl in 2007 and 2008 (even when the Colts had better records), however the only other team the Chargers have defeated in those 5 playoff appearances were the Titans (a 3rd place team that backed into the playoffs in 2007).  If the 13-3 Chargers of 2009 could have beaten a 9-7 upstart Jets team, they would have gotten those very same Colts in the AFC Championship – and given their history of success vs. the Colts that could have been their year, but their inability to perform in the playoffs in the same way they do in the regular season is the major reason to doubt the Chargers as Super Bowl contenders.

    Teams that match-up well – Super Bowl Chances

    Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens – the Chargers are a prolific offensive team and can go against anyone in a shoot-out and beat them, but when they face physical teams that can run the ball on them and hit them hard, the Chargers struggle.  Rivers is exceptionally accurate, but not very mobile – teams that get pressure on him can disrupt him.  If the Chargers can get a path to the Super Bowl that avoids these great defensive teams, the Chargers offense can carry them to the Super Bowl.

Baltimore Ravens

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    Why the Ravens are legitimate contenders:

    The Ravens are the only team in the NFL to win a playoff game each of the last three seasons – they are a strong organization with great leadership in the locker room.  QB Joe Flacco has shown improvement in his 3 years as QB – Ray Rice has emerged as a multi-dimensional (and probably best) offensive threat.  The Ravens defense has been their bread and butter since winning the Super Bowl in 2000 and remains one of the league's fiercest and hardest hitting defenses - with 2 First Ballot Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed still performing at a high level despite their age, a testament to their commitment and preparation.


    The Ravens have been so very close – but have not been able to overcome the Pittsburgh Steelers.  While every game is close, it is the Steelers that have come out on top and the Ravens have not beaten the Steelers in a game Ben Roethlisberger has started since 2006.  Roethlisberger’s ability to extend the play combined with his familiarity with the Ravens defense enables him to find the holes in a Ravens defense that doesn’t have many.  Despite Flacco’s success, he has yet to establish himself as a QB that can carry the team to wins on days where the defense is off or come up with the clutch drives and scores. 

    Teams that match-up well – Super Bowl Chances

    Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colts - The Ravens defense is brutally physical on opposing offenses and can run the ball down most team’s throats.  Against most teams, that running game can overwhelm their opponents – the way they did vs. New England in giving the Patriots their first home playoff loss of the Belichick era.  But the Steelers are a team that the Ravens don’t have the same success running on and Flacco struggles against the Steelers.  The Colts offense is the only offense in the league that has the Ravens number – as Peyton Manning is extremely efficient to absolutely carving them up.  For the Ravens to reach the Super Bowl, they must first overcome the Steelers and get the bye week and Flacco must play better.

New York Jets

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    Why the Jets are legitimate contenders:

    The Jets don’t have a long track record of success – the Rex Ryan years have only existed since 2009, but in that time he’s transformed them from a mediocre team to a legitimate contender.  They have beaten the Steelers, Patriots, Colts and Chargers in big games.  In 2010, they shut down Aaron Rodgers in a loss (holding them to 9 points) and lost by 1 point to the Ravens.  They have a brash attitude, reflecting their head coach, and a lot of confidence and the fact they have hung with the best teams in the league shows they aren’t a fluke, but a team on the rise.


    The Jets talk can work against them as much as for them – teams that play on emotion can go both up and down, especially with the style that Rex Ryan leads by (as opposed to Bill Cowher).  But the real question comes to Mark Sanchez – who has shown flashes of brilliance but has been inconsistent.  He’s similar to Joe Flacco – for the Jets to reach an elite status, Sanchez must ascend.

    Teams that match-up well – Super Bowl Chances

    Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens – The Jets defense and in particular their secondary has proven it can shut down any QB – so teams like Indianapolis, New England, Green Bay, San Diego and New Orleans with their precision QBs find the Jets a tough team to execute on.  But the Steelers and Ravens are even fiercer on defense than the Jets and bring the running game.  The Jets took out the Colts/Manning and Patriots/Brady in the playoffs, but their quest to defeat the 3rd AFC Super Power ended when the Steelers came out running - outrushing the Jets 135 yards to 1 in the First Half of the AFC Championship. The Jets offense is not their strong suit – so their best path to the Super Bowl will come by having to shut down the passing teams that they can out-physical. 

New Orleans Saints

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    Why the Saints are legitimate contenders:

    The Saints are only a year removed from being the Super Bowl Champions and Drew Brees has flirted with breaking Dan Marino’s single season passing record several times.    The Saints were active in free agency – not so much in name star power but in finding quality players that could help an improving defense become more physical.  The Saints suffered a little of the Super Bowl hangover, after back-to-back seasons of being the #1 offense in the NFL, they dropped to #11 in 2010, finished 2nd in the NFC South and suffered an embarrassing playoff loss to Seattle.  That really wasn’t that bad considering the franchise is unaccustomed to success (and how to handle it).  With the Super Bowl winning hype now on Green Bay, if the Saints return to form on offense they will be a tough out.


    Although Reggie Bush certainly did not materialize as the player many envisioned him when made the #2 pick, the Saints and Sean Peyton did utilize him and at types he was a dynamic weapon that made big plays.  Darren Sproles is a similar type player and may be able to fill that role, but it is yet to be seen.  The Saints defense is also a wild card – in 2009 they relied heavily on turnovers – something that cannot be consistently relied upon to be championship caliber.  How the new FA acquisitions perform will be a huge factor in how good the Saints are in 2011 – they need to be far more physical and not allow for anything remotely close to what Marshawn Lynch did to them in the playoffs to happen again.  Brees threw 22 interceptions in 2010 – and it’s not the first time he’s thrown in the high teens.  That number will have to come down.

    Teams that match-up well – Super Bowl Chances

    Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers – The Saints are very good, but they aren’t as good on offense as the Packers (Rodgers has more weapons) and the Eagles have more play makers around Vick.  The defense playing more physical and gelling is a must.  The Saints are capable of matching up to any NFC Team and winning the Conference – but they’ll need more big plays to go their way to beat the Eagles and Packers.

Indianapolis Colts

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    Why the Colts are legitimate contenders:

    The Colts suffered through a season burdened heavily by injuries and had a down year – with the word “down” being relative.  The 10 win season broke their streak of 7 consecutive seasons with 12 or more wins.  They are only a year removed from being AFC Champions in a season that the only thing that kept them from going 16-0 was their own management’s decision. The Colts have made the playoffs 9 consecutive years; have a strong core with great veterans (the best regular season QB of all time) and leadership that know how to win – 2 Super Bowl appearances in 4 years.  The Colts have been too good for too long to not respect their chances.


    Jim Caldwell’s popularity with the players aside – to date there is more of a George Seifert feel than Mike Tomlin feel to him.  The difference may be subtle, but eventually will prove important when it comes time to leading the team through adversity as opposed to just letting the machine run.  He cannot make the poor decisions – like the time out call vs. Jets in playoffs – if the Colts are to navigate through a very competitive AFC.  Also, while Peyton Manning has not missed a game since he was a freshman at Tennessee, he’s 35 years old now and coming off a neck injury that the lockout prevented the team doctors who know him from treating him.  The last time Manning missed a pre-season (2008), the Colts got out of the gate slowly (3-4).  Although the Colts ran the table the rest of the regular season – it was further proof that no team relies as much on their starting QB as the Colts do with Manning.  They have never had a dominant defense nor have they ever replaced Edgerrin James with a complimenting running game.  If Manning struggles at all with his health even to start the year, it could set the Colts back.

    Teams that match-up well – Super Bowl Chances

    Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Jets, San Diego Chargers – The Steelers and the Jets bring a physical defense and challenge the Colts weaknesses, but in different ways.  The Steelers blitzing schemes are able to pressure Manning, where the Jets superior pass coverage can take away his options.  These are games that can go either way with no distinct advantage.  The Chargers are a team that just seems to have the Colts number, from ending their run at a perfect season in 2005, to knocking them out of the playoffs in 2007 and 2008.  Ironically, where the defense oriented Steelers and Jets challenge Indianapolis – the Ravens seem to be at the mercy of Peyton Manning.  Also, the Patriots vs. Colts is a toss up in the best non-divisional rivalry in the NFL since Cowboys/49ers.  While the Colts are a legit Super Bowl contender – there is something to the fact that Peyton Manning does not duplicate his regular season success in the post season and the Colts are not able to overcome sub-par games by Manning to win in the playoffs.

Philadelphia Eagles

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    Why the Eagles are legitimate contenders:

    Since Andy Reid was named Head Coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1999, he has combined with Joe Banner to build the best current organization in the NFL that has not won a Super Bowl.  Reid has been to the NFC Championship 5 times, including 4 in a row – only to lose all but one.  Although many would look at the negative side of that, the consistency of success proves that the organization knows what it is doing.  The Eagles made decisions that many questioned – the drafting of Kolb, acquisition of Vick, trading of McNabb within the division – and they all have all turned out to be extremely successful.  The 2011 off-season has been a dream come true for Eagles fans and Reid’s transformation and development of Vick validates his reputation as being the best coach to develop QBs.  The 2010 Eagles were already a very good team, 2011 promises to be even better.


    As proven time and again, in particular by the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys, big splashes into free agency and acquiring big names do not result in winning Super Bowls.  The Eagles series of additions looks great on paper, but the game is not played on paper and the chemistry of the Eagles is still not yet known.  The DeSean Jackson holdout is one such example of the law of unintended consequences:  he saw all the money being spent on players outside the organization and wanted his.  Assante Samuel has never been known as the perfect teammate – will there be an issue for the CB that has to play out of their normal position and cover the slot?  Despite Vince Young’s success, most teams didn’t want to touch him – although Reid fixed Vick, he had a year with him first – it’s easy to envision Vick not playing all 16 games with his style and do you really trust Vince Young?  He already created a monster when he even said the words “dream team”.  What happens if the Eagles struggle at all?  The scrutiny in Philadelphia is bad enough, if the Eagles under perform, that “dream team” comment made by Young will come back to haunt – the media is good about that kind of thing.

    Teams that match-up well – Super Bowl Chances

    Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons – This one is really difficult to project as its unknown just how good the Eagles will be.  For the Eagles to take the next step, they need to do more than lose in the Wild Card round.  The Falcons had the best record in the NFC – how will the Eagles, who are relatively weak at LB, do against a strong running team?  The Packers are the defending champions and although the Eagles played them tough, they knocked them out of the playoffs last year.  How that secondary performs against Aaron Rodgers and even Drew Brees will be interesting to see should it happen in the playoffs.  The Eagles definitely have the ability to win the NFC.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Why the Steelers are legitimate contenders:

    The Steelers have arguably top to bottom, the best organization in football.  From the ownership to front office to coaching to players – the Steelers are the most successful NFL team since the merger and second only to the Patriots in post season success in the Free Agency Era.  The current core of Steelers players can date back to going 15-1 in 2004 and winning 3 out of 4 AFC Championships and 2 Super Bowls.  The strength of the team is in the defense – a unit that since Dick LeBeau took over in 2004, has finished #1 or #2 (either points or yards) 4 times.  Offensively – the Steelers feature arguably the leagues best QB/RB tandem in Ben Roethlisberger/Rashard Mendenhall and have consistently shown that they can win in any number of ways – whether it be a shoot-out, by grinding it out and running, in a low scoring defensive battle or with a late 4th Quarter rally.


    The Steelers have 3 major weaknesses: the offensive line, the offensive coordinator and the secondary.  Roethlisberger's penchant for extending the play notwithstanding, outside of Pouncey the Steelers OL is very big, slow and unathletic and result in Ben taking too many hits (broke both his foot and nose by end of 2010).  OC Bruce Arians has been close to being fired - he's stubborn and the Steelers offense is remarkably inconsistent for the talent that exists at the skill positions.  At times, the offense looks like a Chinese Fire Drill and other times it's as good as any in the league - and it can look that way during the course of the same game.  Too often - Roethlisberger has to take the Steelers into a hurry-up mode to attempt a 4th quarter rally on a game the Steelers offense has been ineffective for 3 quarters and the defense has kept them in.  Most notably, the Steelers secondary can be beat – although ironically it usually does a good job – save for when they have to face the most accurate and efficient offenses, like that of the Patriots and Packers.

    Teams that match-up well – Super Bowl Chances

    New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts – Tom Brady simply dissects the Steelers defense at this point as if he knows every aspect of it and the Steelers defense is almost completely at his mercy.  It’s not a coincidence that the Steelers 3 Super Bowl appearances have seen them not play the Patriots in the playoffs on those years.  This is amazing considering that the Steelers defense is so frequently dominating other teams – but in the end with the complex schemes and pass rushes, it takes a very skilled hand to do what Brady does to the Steelers.  En route to their two Super Bowl wins this decade; they shut down both Peyton Manning and Phillip Rivers, two of the best QBs in the league.  It’s the Steelers pass rush – and a healthy Troy Polamalu who can cover for his teammates short comings.  The Steelers reached Super Bowl XLV by beating Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez and would have been able to beat any team in the NFC besides the Packers.  The Steelers chances at another Super Bowl are solid – but are also likely the last run for the team given the age of most of the defense. 

New England Patriots

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    Why the Patriots are legitimate contenders:

    Over the last decade, no team as won more than the Brady/Belichick Patriots, but 2010 was supposed to be a “rebuilding” year as the many of the players that made up their dynasty years and 16-0 season began to get old and either retire, be traded or released and a youth movement had begun.  Instead, he Patriots were a league best 14-2 in 2010 and Tom Brady was voted the unanimous MVP, the only time in history that has been accomplished.  As per what great coaches do, Belichick adapted his talent to a very controlled short passing game and after an embarrassing loss to the Browns – were near unstoppable the rest of 2010.  They won their final 8 games, defeating the Colts and all 4 teams that would play in the respective conference championships – and in particular dominating the Steelers, Jets and Bears.  Ironically, the Packers without Aaron Rodgers were the only competitive game. 


    Ironically, it may have been that Tom Brady was so good in 2010 that it was bad for the Patriots.  The Patriots did have weaknesses despite their impressive season – the major one was the defense.  After Peyton Hillis rumbled for 184 yards down the throats of the Patriots defense; embarrassing the Pats 34-14.  Facing the Steelers on Sunday Night the next week, they came out focused, dissecting Pittsburgh and nary looked back the rest of the year.  They were so effective that they would only trail in a football game 6 times the rest of the season (3 of which happened in one game to the Packers).  The success of the offense resulted in making opponents one-dimensional and forced into passing to catch up.  However, the Patriots defense was no longer the dominant unit it once was – and was a bend-but-don't-break unit that surrendered the 3rd most passing yards in the league (finished #25 overall) but finished #8 in scoring defense.  Another weakness is that the Patriots did not rush the passer well, even when they knew the opponent was forced to pass. Although the Patriots do have some promising young talent on defense - there is a ways to go before it can measure up to the success of past Patriot defenses (a reason why Haynesworth and others were brought in).  Also, even though Benjarvis Green-Ellis rushed for 1008 yards, the running game was more a result of the respect for the passing game - and as evidenced by the Jets ability to slow Brady down in the playoffs - remains to be proven if it can truly compliment the passing game.

    Teams that match-up well – Super Bowl Chances

    New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens, Indianapolis Colts, San Diego Chargers – The Ravens and Jets eliminated the Patriots on their home field in back to back years in executing similar game plans – controlling the line of scrimmage, running the ball, making no mistakes and playing incredible pass defense.  If you are able to stop Tom Brady, the Patriots are not a team that “finds ways to win” anymore.  The Colts and Chargers possess an offense capable of keeping up with the Patriots in order to win, although in the playoffs Tom Brady has proven to be more capable than Manning or Rivers.  Because of the acquisitions of Haynesworth and Ochocinco, there are some who are saying the 2011 Patriots will be better than the 2007 team – which is nonsense.  They aren’t even as good as the 2004 team – but the Patriots can still beat any team in the AFC as long as Brady is healthy. 

    Teams that match-up well – Super Bowl Chances

    New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens, Indianapolis Colts, San Diego Chargers – The Ravens and Jets eliminated the Patriots on their home field in back to back years in executing similar game plans – controlling the line of scrimmage, running the ball, making no mistakes and playing incredible pass defense.  If you are able to stop Tom Brady, the Patriots are not a team that “finds ways to win” anymore.  The Colts and Chargers possess an offense capable of keeping up with the Patriots in order to win, although in the playoffs Tom Brady has proven to be more capable than Manning or Rivers.  Because of the acquisitions of Haynesworth and Ochocinco, there are some who are saying the 2011 Patriots will be better than the 2007 team – which is nonsense.  They aren’t even as good as the 2004 team – but the Patriots can still beat any team in the AFC as long as Brady is healthy. 

Green Bay Packers

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    Why the Packers are legitimate contenders:

    What is most amazing is that the Detroit Lions snapped a 26 game losing streak – thanks in large part to a questionable offensive pass interference call – thus defeating the Tampa Bay Bucs in OT – otherwise the Packers would have watched Super Bowl XLV on TV. But like the New England Patriots being beneficiaries of a fumble being called an incomplete pass – the Packers didn’t apologize for good fortune and went on to defeat the team that won the Super Bowl just two seasons prior.  And now the Packers are the defending champions with one of the best young rosters in the league and are set to replace the Patriots as the consensus best team in the league.  In fact, the Patriots barely managed to defeat the Packers in 2010 when the played – and the Packers were without Aaron Rodgers.  The Packers only finished 10-6 due to a series of injuries, including a concussion to Aaron Rodgers and the NFC will definitely be going through Green Bay for the foreseeable future.


    No team in the NFL is flawless, the Packers were successfully run on by the Steelers in the Super Bowl and had it not been for the Steelers turnovers, the Steelers could have outright won – and they even faced the possibility of a Roethlisberger led comeback like he did to the Cardinals in 2008 and to the Packers themselves in 2009.  That’s not to say the Packers did not earn the victory because they did.  It’s only to point out that they, just like every other team, can be defeated.  Very often, teams coming off great years look like they’ll cruise through the following season.  Basically, the Packers greatest adversary in 2011 will be the Packers themselves.  They can say anything and everything they want to say, about being the hunters instead of the hunted, etc.  But it doesn’t work out that way and especially not in the Free Agency Era.  The Packers can repeat, but they will find out just how difficult it is in 2011.

    Teams that match-up well – Super Bowl Chances

    New Orleans Saints, Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles - The Packers are a team that has the offensive explosion of the Patriots combined with the defensive dominance of the Steelers - they are young and have the make-up of a team that will contend for Super Bowls for the next 5-7 years.  The rest of the NFC is going to throw everything they have at them and it's well known that repeating is hard, a lot of things have to go your way just to win one Super Bowl, to say nothing of two.  The Packers will win another Super Bowl, it may or may not happen in 2011, and they will be the team of the early 2010's


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