The NFL is the one sport where a team could have missed the playoffs last season and this season they are legit title contenders. Just three seasons ago the New York Giants went from out of the playoffs to winning the Super Bowl. In the NFL teams have found a way to not allow losing seasons to dictate what their expectations are the following year.
Every year, some team that was not highly thought of in the preseason makes a playoff push. No one thought the San Diego Chargers would get in the playoffs, let alone make it to the Divisional Round. Surprises are sure to happen. Here are the top five teams that may shock people this season:
1) St. Louis Rams
The entire league knows the Rams defense is ready for to make a name for itself. They probably have the best front-four in the league. The question surrounding this team is can Sam Bradford stay healthy, and if so, is he the answer at quarterback? When healthy Bradford has shown signs but there haven’t been enough.
This offseason the Rams went and signed Kenny Britt. If he is healthy mentally and physically, he can bring a much needed go to weapon to the Rams offense. Jared Cook is an above average tight end that should continue to help the offense control the middle of the field.
The problem is the Rams schedule appears difficult on paper. They open with three winnable games against the Minnesota Vikings, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Dallas Cowboys. However, after that eight of the rest of their 13 games are against playoff teams from a season ago.
Last season was everyone’s fault but Robert Griffin III. It was Mike Shanahan’s fault. It was Kyle Shanahan’s fault. Some people even went as far to blame RGIII’s dad, Robert Griffin II. RGIII seemed to be absolved of any responsibility, rightly or wrongly. This year, he has no excuses. The Shanahan regime is gone. RGIII is now well over a year removed from his knee injury. The team signed DeSean Jackson to make the offense even more explosive. RGIII must show up and show out. Being mediocre just won’t do.
In a normal year, Washington would not be on the list because their defense is still not up to par. However, the NFC East appears to be down. The Cowboys defense is in shambles, the Giants offensive line leaves much to be desired, and the division champion Philadelphia Eagles lost their most explosive wide receiver.
3. Arizona Cardinals
The defense lost Karlos Dansby and that hurts. Daryl Washington being suspended only amplified the linebacker problem. Nevertheless, the defense still is talented and the offense should be even better than a season ago.
Andre Ellington looks like he could turn into a Pro-Bowl caliber player. If the Cardinals can find balance on offense, that will only make Carson Palmer more effective. The under-the radar player who is going to help the offense more than many people realize is Ted Ginn Jr. Ginn by no means is a great receiver, but defenses have to respect his speed. With Ginn demanding safeties attention, that should mean more big play opportunities for Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald.
4. Chicago Bears
The Bears on offense are scary. Alshon Jeffery is becoming a true No. 1 receiver. Brandon Marshall still plays at No. 1 receiver level. Matt Forte can do anything asked of a running back and do it well. Jay Cutler is talented. Those are things everyone agrees on. Then come the litany of questions. Is Charles Tillman still a dominant cornerback? Will Marc Trestman’s offense continue to evolve? Was bringing in Jared Allen a smart move? Is there enough talent at the safety position?
In today’s NFL a franchise quarterback is supposed to cover up a teams decencies. Look how bad the Arizona Cardinals look when Kurt Warner retired, or how the Indianapolis Colts fell apart when Peyton Manning got injured. Cutler is supposed to be a franchise guy, he is getting paid like one, and therefore he has to come up large this season. If he is able to have an MVP year as Marshall suggested on Wednesday to NFL Network’s Michael Irvin, then the Bears have a shot.
5. Cleveland Browns
The Browns have quietly assembled a solid roster. The signing of Ben Tate should stabilize the running game. The team overpaid to bring in Karlos Dansby but he will help the defense to improve. They already had one of the top cornerbacks in the league in Joe Haden. Adding Justin Gilbert to the mix was a luxury and in time the two could from the best duo in the league.
Yet, the NFL is still a quarterback driven league. If the team wants to go anywhere this season they will need for Brian Hoyer to regain his form of a season ago prior to his injury. Hoyer appeared to be the leader the Browns sorely needed, but it was just a three game sample. This is the same franchise that had Derek Anderson go to a Pro Bowl one season and then never return to that form again.
Losing Josh Gordon is a huge blow. He was on his way to being a top-three receiver in the league. After the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots there is a large drop off in the quality of teams in the AFC. There is no reason that the Browns cannot at least put themselves in the Wild Card mix. As we have seen in the past, all a team has to do is get in, then anything can happen.
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