Every team goes into the season thinking it has a good chance at winning a Super Bowl. Well, maybe every team outside of Cleveland. After a few weeks, it becomes evident which teams are contenders and which teams are not. That happens because each squad’s inefficiencies are exposed, revealing the one thing that will prevent them it winning a Super Bowl. For some teams, there’s more than one aspect that will lead to their downfall. But for most, there’s a single reason they won’t win a ring.
Arizona Cardinals: Carson Palmer
Whether it’s injuries or uncharacteristically bad play in big moments, Palmer always seems to find a way to falter down the stretch. This Cardinals team is stacked across the board, from wide receiver to running back to the secondary, but Palmer needs to take his game to another level in order for it to get over the hump. Unfortunately, it’s hard to bank on him to do so, which hurts Arizona’s Super Bowl hopes.
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Atlanta Falcons: lack of a pass rush
The Falcons have had one of the worst pass rushes in the NFL for the past few seasons. Vic Beasley, the team’s first-round pick last year, hasn’t been able to get any pressure on quarterbacks thus far. Atlanta brought in Dwight Freeney to help in that department, but he’s well past his prime and will have little impact this season. The Falcons need to get after the quarterback better if they want to compete.
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Baltimore Ravens: the defense
The Ravens have some weapons on offense – Steve Smith, Breshad Perriman, Justin Forsett – but the defense needs an infusion of playmakers at just about every spot. Cornerback is particularly thin, with Jimmy Smith being the top player, and the pass rush and linebacking corps are aging and declining. The Ravens play in a difficult division, which will only expose their defensive inefficiencies. Defenses win championships, and the Ravens are a long way from their dominant days.
Buffalo Bills: the receivers behind Sammy Watkins
The Bills had a solid No. 2 receiver in Chris Hogan, but he’s now with the Patriots. Robert Woods has the spot now, but he saw his role greatly decrease last season, partly because of his declining production and Hogan’s presence. The Bills are going to run the ball a lot in 2016, but Tyrod Taylor needs more weapons around him.
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Carolina Panthers: a downgraded secondary
Josh Norman, Charles Tillman, Roman Harper: three key contributors lost by the Panthers this offseason. Will Carolina be able to overcome these losses? That remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt its pass defense will be worse after being a huge strength last season. It could very well be the team’s downfall.
Chicago Bears: the offensive line
After allowing 34 sacks last season and overwhelming pressure on Jay Cutler in 2015, the Bears have gone on to allow 10 sacks this preseason – second most in the NFL. Chicago drafted Cody Whitehair in the second round, and Kyle Long is moving inside to guard, both of which should help. But it’s not going to be enough to shore up concerns in pass protection. Cutler needs more time to throw.
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Cincinnati Bengals: a lack of discipline
The Bengals would have topped the Steelers in the playoffs had it not been for boneheaded plays by Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones. Both players are still in Cincinnati, which causes concern for the team’s discipline on that side of the ball. The Bengals need to avoid crushing penalties, something they haven’t done in recent years.
Cleveland Browns: a lack of talent everywhere
The Browns are a bad team. Whether Robert Griffin III plays well or like he did at the end of his tenure in Washington, the Browns aren’t going anywhere – and they know it. They’re rebuilding on both sides of the ball, and there’s a serious lack of talent at every position but left tackle. Their only hope is that receiver Josh Gordon returns to his 2013 form.
Dallas Cowboys: Tony Romo’s injury
The Cowboys were Super Bowl contenders before Romo went down with a broken bone in his back last week. Now, it’s up to Dak Prescott to lead Dallas to wins until Romo returns – if he does at all. The Cowboys can still make the playoffs, but Romo’s injury has derailed their season.
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Denver Broncos: the quarterback position
Trevor Siemian is the starter, but he leaves plenty to be desired at quarterback. Sure, the Broncos had terrible quarterback play in 2015, but this could be even worse. First-round pick Paxton Lynch has to develop quickly in order to bring a spark to the offense. Otherwise, teams are going to load the box against the run.
Detroit Lions: the lack of a rushing attack
Quick: name the Lions’ starting running back. Most people probably can’t do that, and that’s more of a knock on Detroit than it is on fans. Ameer Abdullah is the presumed starter, with Theo Riddick and a handful of others behind him. The Lions lack a true three-down back, though Abdullah does bring an explosiveness as a receiver.
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Green Bay Packers: Eddie Lacy and the run game
Outside of Jordy Nelson’s injury last season, Lacy’s conditioning was the biggest culprit in Green Bay’s disappointing year. He was out of shape and lacked the explosivess after contact he showed in his first two seasons. Lacy has lost weight this offseason, so that should help, but Green Bay’s running game remains a question mark.
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Houston Texans: Brock Osweiler
The Texans gave Osweiler a lot of money -- $72 million to be exact. He won’t play up to that standard in 2016 and will be a big reason the Texans falter. He didn’t show much in Denver last season despite having great weapons around him, and Houston fans should expect much of the same this season. He’s not the franchise quarterback they think they’re getting.
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Indianapolis Colts: offensive line play
Quarterback Andrew Luck was in harm’s way too often last season, which led to injuries that ended his year early. A lack of protection forced him to leave the pocket on a regular basis. The Colts drafted four offensive linemen and added another undrafted rookie, and two of those players have a good chance to start. Still, the additions likely won’t be enough to help an unspectacular run game or give Luck the time he needs to throw.
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Jacksonville Jaguars: inexperience
The Jaguars are young. Talented, yes; but also young. Youth is a great asset for the future, but the Jaguars aren’t ready to seriously compete yet. Blake Bortles has more growing to do, and Myles Jack, Jalen Ramsey and Dante Fowler – cornerstones of the defense – are all (essentially) rookies and are bound to make several mistakes along the way.
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Kansas City Chiefs: Alex Smith’s limitations
Smith is what he is: a game-manager. He’s a good one at that, but he’s not the type of quarterback you win a Super Bowl with. He’ll need to rely heavily on Kansas City’s ground game and defense in order to win games. The Chiefs made the playoffs without running back Jamaal Charles last season, but it wasn’t thanks to Smith’s arm. The defense was great, as were Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware.
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Los Angeles Rams: questions at quarterback
Who will start more games this season: Case Keenum or No. 1 overall draft pick Jared Goff? When you have to ask yourself that sort of question, you’re not a Super Bowl contender. Maybe in a few years, but not in 2016 – even with that daunting defensive front. Goff and Keenum have both been unspectacular in the preseason, with the former looking overwhelmed by the speed of the NFL.
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Miami Dolphins: they can’t defend the pass
The Dolphins have arguably the worst cornerbacks of any team in the NFL. Byron Maxwell was adisaster with the Eagles last year and has looked every bit the same in the preseason. Tony Lippett (it’s OK to ask ‘Who?’) is the starter opposite Maxwell, with second-rounder Xavien Howard still working his back from injury. The Dolphins are going to finish at the bottom of the league in pass defense this season.
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Minnesota Vikings: Teddy Bridgewater
Despite the Vikings’ efforts to surround Teddy Bridgewater with weapons, he remains a quarterback who can’t push the ball downfield with the best. The Vikings are going to run the ball early and often this season, but if Bridgewater can’t scare opposing defenses out of loading the box, Adrian Peterson’s running lanes are going to be narrow.
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New England Patriots: injuries
The Patriots seem to deal with more than their share of injuries each year. The ailments have already begun to pile up, with Dion Lewis out eight to 10 weeks and Shaq Mason and Sebastian Vollmer also sidelined for undetermined periods of time. The Patriots boast as much talent as the best teams, but injuries could be a lingering problem this season – especially on the offensive line, where they’ve struggled lately.
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New Orleans Saints: pass defense struggles
The Saints had one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL last season, allowing the most passing touchdowns in NFL history. What did they do to improve that area of their defense? Not much. Rookie Vonn Bell could unseat free agent bust Jairus Byrd as the starting free safety, but that's about as far as the additions go. The pass defense will be better than it was in 2015 (how can it not be?), but it remains the team’s biggest weakness.
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New York Giants: an unfixed secondary
Like the Saints, the Giants had a great deal of trouble defending the pass in 2015. They added rookie Eli Apple and Janoris Jenkins in free agency, but they can’t fix the entire secondary at once – particularly with their inconsistent play. It’s hard to win in the NFL if you can’t defend opposing passing games, and the Giants won’t be able to yet again this season.
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New York Jets: Ryan Fitzpatrick
Fitzpatrick came close to leading the Jets to a playoff berth, but the team fell just short thanks to a Week 17 loss in which Fitzpatrick played horribly. He’s a bottom-tier quarterback who has to rely on the talent around him to succeed. Fortunately, the Jets have that in Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, but Fitzpatrick likley will regress this season after a career year in 2015.
Oakland Raiders: youth
The Raiders improved as much as any team this offseason, adding pieces on both offense and defense. There’s still a great deal of youth, though, and a lack of experience. Quarterback Derek Carr and wide receiver Amari Cooper are still developing and are a few years away from being considered elite at their respective positions. The Raiders are further along than the Jaguars, but they’re still a few years away.
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Philadelphia Eagles: unknowns in the secondary
The Eagles traded Byron Maxwell this offseason, which wasn’t necessarily a bad move. But the trade left Philadelphia with a gaping hole at cornerback. That vacancy will be filled by Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks, neither of whom is particularly intriguing. The lack of talent at the top of the depth chart is concerning and will doom the Eagles down the stretch.
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Pittsburgh Steelers: secondary concerns
Just like the other Pennsylvania team, the Steelers lack serious playmakers in the secondary. William Gay and Ross Cockrell are slated to be the starters right now while rookie Artie Burns is buried on the depth chart after a quad injury limited him in the preseason. In a division with the Ravens and Bengals, the Steelers have to prove they can defend the pass in order to make a run at a Super Bowl. If they can't, they’ll be done in early January.
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San Diego Chargers: the offensive line
The Chargers allowed 40 sacks last season, which was 12th-most in the NFL. In order for San Diego to win games in 2016, Philip Rivers needs time in the pocket. He’s not the most athletic quarterback by any means and won’t make plays with his legs, so protection is paramount. Unfortunately, Rivers won’t see an improved offensive line this season, which could make for yet another long year. San Diego can’t win a title with its current offensive line.
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San Francisco 49ers: a mess at quarterback
The 49ers have the worst quarterback situation in the NFL. There’s no doubt about that after seeing their most recent preseason game. There’s absolutely no chance San Francisco wins a Super Bowl with Blaine Gabbert or Colin Kaepernick at the helm, let alone with their horrendous wide receiver group. Quarterback is the team’s biggest issue, but it’s far from the only one.
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Seattle Seahawks: an inability to replace Marshawn Lynch
The Seahawks have the bodies to replace retired running back Marshawn Lynch, it’s just unknown if they have the talent to do so. Christine Michael and Thomas Rawls are the top candidates to fill his shoes, and a combination of the two is capable of just that. There’s just too much uncertainty surrounding both players, though, given their inexperience. The Seahawks have to get back to their old ways of establishing the run early and often.
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Tampa Bay Buccaneers: the offensive line
The Buccaneers lost Logan Mankins to retirement, and he was their best offensive lineman a year ago. Replacing him will be difficult, and quarterback Jameis Winston could be in for a lot of pressure up the middle this season. Fortunately, Winston has the athleticism and poise to know when to leave the pocket, but he’d prefer to have time to stand in and find his open receivers. The Bucs need their young line to step up and play well from the start, but that's unlikely.
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Tennessee Titans: the cornerback position
Teams facing the Titans should throw the ball, then throw the ball, then throw it some more. Tennessee has a significant lack of talent at cornerback, and it’s going to make it hard for it to defend the pass – especially against pass-happy division rivals like the Jaguars and Colts. Starting corners Jason McCourty and Perrish Cox will need to hope the Jaguars can develop a pass rush to bail them out.
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Washington Redskins: the running game
Alfred Morris jumped ship and joined the rival Cowboys this offseason, leaving Washington with the fumble-prone Matt Jones as the starting running back. Jones is currently battling a shoulder injury and is expected back by Week 1, but that won't solve the problem. The Redskins had success when Morris was carrying the ball 20 times a game, but Jones is far from the player Morris is.