Football is by far the most popular professional sport in America, with millions of loyal and passionate fans filling the stands and tuning in every Sunday to watch their favorite team. The game is exciting, the players beloved, and the coaches revered, but the main reason behind the success and popularity of the NFL is simple: hope (aka arsenic). The NFL does a better job than any other league at selling it, and it keeps the fans of every team coming back year after year. Bobcats and Royals fans have little reason to show their support for their team when they know they're stuck in the cellar, but Jets fans can dream of making the playoffs this year coming off of a miserable season just as the Dolphins and Lions have done within the past few years. While the NFL is definitely top heavy to an extent, every year there seems to be a few teams that come from nowhere to contend for playoff spots. Here are three teams I think could do just that this season.
The fact that Kansas City fans paid for a plane to fly a "Fire Pioli - Bench Cassel" banner over Arrowhead during a game last year tells you everything you need to know about the Chief's season. They were the worst team in the NFL in 2012, but that was due in large part to the lack of even a halfway decent starting QB. To put it delicately, Matt Cassel is absolutely positively horrible. He threw twelve picks in six games and Chiefs fans cheered when he was injured. Nothing makes me angrier than when teams overpay a backup quarterback to become their starter (see Kevin Kolb, Matt Flynn, and Cassel) and the Chiefs got what they deserved for such a stupid decision. And as much as it hurts me to say, Brady Quinn just is not an NFL caliber player (at the ND spring game this year, Quinn was hounded for autographs by countless fans in one of the more depressing scenes I've ever witnessed). In today's NFL, a solid quarterback is a necessity in order to achieve any semblance of success. By trading for Alex Smith, the Chiefs fill their biggest and most important void. Nobody will mistake Smith for Peyton Manning, but he was on pace to set an NFL record for completion percentage before a concussion cost him his job last season. People forget, Smith nearly brought San Fransisco to the Super Bowl two years ago, and he is a more than serviceable signal caller who will bring KC some much needed stability to the position. The rest of the Chiefs roster is actually pretty solid. They had the second most Pro Bowlers of any team in the league last year with six, and with the addition of first overall pick Eric Fisher, both OT positions should be solidified this season. Dwayne Bowe provides a big target for Smith, and Jamaal Charles is one of the best and most underrated backs in the league, so the Chiefs offense will be much improved (I tried for hours to come up with a way to work in the phrase "somewhere over Dwayne Bowe" here, but I just couldn't think of anything good. Sorry).
On the defensive side they have a tremendous safety in Eric Berry (he don't fooooooooooo wit no horses), and Derrick Johnson, Justin Houston, and Tamba Hali make up one of the best linebacking corps the league has to offer. The talent is there, and perhaps new coach Andy Reid can inject some life into a team and fan base that had little to cheer about a year ago. (Speaking of Andy Reid, the Chiefs have absolutely shattered the record for heaviest combined consecutive head coaches. He and Romeo Crennel have got to be pushing 800lbs. A few years ago, Reid literally requested he be made thinner in Madden. I fully expect Charlie Weiss replace Reid if this season goes badly).
Barring a Peyton Manning injury the Denver Broncos are going to win the AFC West by a wide margin, but if the ball bounces the Chiefs' way they could be in the Wild Card picture. Their schedule is manageable with the division being weak outside of Denver and very winnable games against the Jaguars, Titans, Browns, and Bills, so Chiefs fans definitely have reason to wean themselves off their depression meds heading into the season. Over/Under: 8.5 wins
The Rams bounced back from a miserable 2011 season to win seven games in 2012, but it was their sixth straight losing season and ninth consecutive season of missing the playoffs. There were definitely positives to be taken from the year as the Rams had quality wins against the 49ers, Redskins, and Seahawks, Sam Bradford had his best statistical season, and Gregg Williams really helped improve the defense. Wait, that last one didn't happen. Ultimately the Rams never got over the hump, and the offense finished 25th in the league in points. That should definitely change this season with the addition of first round draft pick Tavon Austin out of West Virginia. Since he entered the league, Bradford has arguably had the worst group of receivers in the league outside of Jacksonville. Danny Amendola is solid but always injured, and Bradford never really had a consistent threat he could trust. With Austin, the Rams get a slot receiver who has tremendous speed and playmaking ability down the field, but can also run short and intermediate routes efficiently. He is essentially a quicker version of Amendola without the health problems. Austin also has great hands and should give Bradford the go to receiver he has lacked thus far in his career. I truly believe Sam Bradford has the talent to be a top ten quarterback if not better, and the addition of Austin--as well as one of the best left tackles in the NFL in Jake Long--should help him take the next step in his development. Steven Jackson did depart for Atlanta in the offseason, but that's fine because two years ago when I drafted him in the first round of our fantasy draft he scored like twice the entire year and I was mocked mercilessly and I hate him for it. I'm not bitter. Anyway, as long as Sam Bradford plays well there is no reason the Rams offense should not be improved.
The two most important components needed to build a great defense are a solid corner and a great pass rusher, and the Rams have both. Chris Long is one of the best in the league at his position, and the same can be said about Cortland Finnegan. Additionally, James Laurinitis has developed into a very good player at MLB, so the Rams have a good defensive core. Defense wasn't the problem in St. Louis in 2012, and the unit should be solid again this coming season.
The NFC West will be one of the better divisions in the NFL with San Fransisco and Seattle, but the Rams only lost one division game last year. The rest of the schedule is pretty tough, with games against the Falcons, Texans, Colts, Bears, and Saints, so the Rams will definitely have their work cut out for them. I really do expect Bradford to take a big step forward this year though, and I think anything less than nine wins would be a disappointment for St. Louis. Over/under: 9.5 wins
The Panthers 2012 season was a tale of two halves. They started 2-6 and questions about Cam Newton's attitude and leadership ability abounded, but they rebounded in the second half to win five of their last six to finish 7-9. Newton looked much better later in the season and the Panthers should be able to build on their strong finish. Statistically Newton's 2012 season was similar to his rookie year, and he will need to be more consistent in 2013 if the Panthers are going to improve. He has all the tools to be a fantastic pocket passer, plus he's an extremely talented runner. Newton is not Michael Vick, he is a legitimate quarterback who scrambles as a second option. With all of the QB talent that came into the league last year, Newton was forgotten to an extent, but he is still among the best young QBs in the game. The Panthers' receiving corps isn't great, but Steve Smith, Greg Olsen, and Brandon LaFell are viable options. Wait, I just tried to tell you Brandon LaFell was good at football, I'm really sorry. The other two are actually good, I promise. Plus Greg Olsen made this rap at Miami (listen to the first few seconds, but his part starts around 6:08). And while Carolina's running backs certainly haven't lived up to their contracts, Newton's running ability is enough to keep the defense on its toes. I expect him to make big strides in his third season: I don't think 4300yds passing, 800yds rushing, and 35 combined TDs is unrealistic, and if that is the case the Panthers will be in good shape on offense.
On defense, two players will be key for the Panthers this season. Jon Beason was one of--if not the--best linebackers in the game just a few years ago, and he will attempt to return to form after an injury-riddled 2012 season. If he can do that, it will provide Carolina's defense with a huge boost. Additionally, first round pick Star Lotulelei has the potential to be a huge steal for the Panthers. Lotulelei was considered a contender to be the top pick in the draft before a heart issue prevented him from working out at the combine and caused him to slip to number twelve. With the health issue behind him, it will be interesting to see if the DT can fulfill his potential and provide Carolina with a huge run stopper in the middle. Ron Riveria is a tremendous defensive coach, and I expect the Panther's D to improve and possibly crack the top six or seven in the league in 2013.
The NFC South is going to be a much improved division in 2013. The Falcons are among the best teams in the league, and the Saints and Bucs should both be much stronger than they were last year. That being said, when the Panthers lost last year, they barely lost. They were an awful (and unlucky) 1-7 in games decided by one touchdown or less, meaning improvements can definitely be expected this season record wise. They have one of the best young quarterbacks in the league to go along with a strong defense, and I firmly believe they will make a push for the postseason this year. Over/Under: 9.5 wins