We’ve seen it in recent years in the NFL. With the advent of free agency and the salary cap, parity is all the rage in today’s NFL. Over the past seven seasons, several surprise teams have come from seemingly nowhere to run through the playoffs and walk off with the Lombardi Trophy, leading stunned football fans everywhere to wonder if what they’d just seen was real. The Rams, Ravens and even the Patriots have all left the league in their wakes recently, which means that every season there is optimism in every NFL city.
This “prediction” column may look ridiculous in six months, much as the ones that predicted potential greatness for the Arizona Cardinals last season did. However, circumstances are in place for each team below to put together a season that will once again have football fans everywhere shaking their heads.
The Browns overachieved last year to win six games. However, even with the Steelers in the division, the Bengals have an injured QB and the Ravens face similar uncertainty at the QB position. Not to mention, Romeo Crennel has proven that he can coach and the team gets both TE Kellen Winslow II and WR Braylon Edwards back to team with bruising RB Rueben Droughns, promising QB Charlie Frye and a defense that’s being built in the mold of the Patriots. Even if the Browns don’t win the division, the Steelers showed last year that a wild card can go all the way.
Talent has never been a problem with the Raiders. The team has high draft picks and huge amounts of talent on offense, including WRs Randy Moss and Jerry Porter, RB LaMont Jordan and OL Robert Gallery, who’s moving to his natural left tackle position. The Raiders also added talent to their defense in the draft with DB Michael Huff and LB Thomas Howard. If the Raiders can play with consistency and discipline, two things respected coach Art Shell should bring to the table, the Raiders have a chance. Within the division, the Chargers have a new QB to break in, the Broncos have questions on their roster and until the Chiefs prove they have a good defense, they will be beatable.
Green Bay Packers
Don’t laugh – even though the Packers suffered through a dismal 4-12 record last season, their defense ranked 7th in the NFL and QB Brett Favre returns for at least one more season. The Packers added even more talent to their defense with free agent additions DT Ryan Pickett and CB Charles Woodson, and drafted LB A.J. Hawk, who should step in immediately and make that defense even more formidable. If the Packers can produce good offensive line play, they have the advantage of having the Vikings and Lions in their division, and who out there really thought the Bears were a threat to win it all last year? The same question about the Bears remains, as they did almost nothing to improve a putrid offense from last season. The NFC has no dominant team, so don’t be too shocked to see Green Bay, if breaks go their way and they manage to avoid the injury bug that ravaged their team last year, surprise some folks.
New Orleans Saints
After bottoming out in every way imaginable in 2005, no team rebounded in a more positive manner since the season ended than the Saints. They brought in a respected young coach in Sean Payton, added a winning QB in Drew Brees, and somehow got their Christmas present early when RB/WR/KR/Unique offensive weapon Reggie Bush inexplicably fell into their laps in the draft. The Saints play in a tough division, but even without the recent acquisitions, the team has never lacked talent on either side of the ball. If it all clicks, look out – the Saints could feature a punishing defense with a high-octane offense that will make them a team nobody wants to face in the playoffs. Not to mention, can you imagine the frenzy that will exist in New Orleans if the Saints are contenders?
Perhaps we’re gluttons for punishment. The Cardinals were the popular choice to surprise last year, and they fell far short of those expectations with a 5-11 record. However, they could fulfill their promise of 2005 this year if certain things go their way. First, QB Kurt Warner must stay healthy. Even if he doesn’t, new QB Matt Leinart is as NFL-ready as any QB who has come into the league in some time. Remember how Ben Roethlisberger did when pressed into duty a couple of seasons ago? The team also added RB Edgerrin James to a talented stable of receivers including Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. The team has played well on defense over the past couple of years and has one of the best kickers in the game in Neil Rackers. That could prove important, as many of the recent “surprise” teams have won more than their share of close games on their way to the title.
Perhaps none of these teams will make the playoffs this year, but that would go against the recent norm. In today’s NFL, one or two difference makers on a roster can take a team from also-ran to contender almost immediately. The teams above seem to fit that equation, and each of them also has scheduling and/or divisional advantages that should have them poised to break out in a big way with a little luck, which every team needs to win the title.