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Who will be the sleeper team of 2009?

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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com and the national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel's "FOX Report Weekend." He's the co-author of Victor Cruz's New York Times' best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. Feel free to e-mail him at peterschrager@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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It's mid-August, which means a few things for fans of the NFL ... 1. Detailed attention on fantasy football draft preparation. (Note: I'm very big on Maurice Jones-Drew, Steve Slaton and Greg Olsen this year, not as big on this slimmed-down version of LenDale White, Tim Hightower or Braylon Edwards)
2. Preseason injuries. (Note: We've already had a few and there's more to come) 3. Loads and loads and loads of talking head preseason "Sleeper" predictions! Yes, it's "sleeper" season. Over the next three weeks every talking head in sports will come out of his/her bunker, reveal their "sleeper" pick, and then go the rest of the year pretending like it never happened. Go ahead and ask my man Adam Schein. He's had the Bills in the playoffs every year since Bill Clinton was in office! Alex Marvez had the Lions going to the playoffs in '08. I'm serious! I'm just as guilty as anyone. Last year, I "guaranteed" the Houston Texans would be hosting a wild-card game come January. Of course, no prediction's too out there when it comes to the National Football League. Unlike any other American professional sports league, the NFL offers the opportunity for sleeper squads to emerge. Call it parity, call it what you will — but the numbers don't lie. Since 1996, 78 teams have made the playoffs after not qualifying the previous season — exactly 50% of the 156 playoff teams over that span. 2008 also marked the 13th consecutive season with at least five new playoff teams in the field of 12. This only makes predicting the right sleeper team all the tougher. But I think I've got it down this time. Using a detailed formula I've been working on since last year's Texans misfire, I've narrowed things down and singled out the one team that will take the NFL by storm in '09.

The Sleeper Formula

Nonplayoff Team in '08 + infusion of new talent and personnel + stable coaching staff + relatively low-key offseason in regards to media attention + fan base in need of a winner + manageable schedule + skeptics far and wide.

Process of Elimination

Picking 2009's official Peter Schrager Sleeper Team is not just a shot in the dark or dart at a board. It's a scientific process filled with beakers, flasks and late nights guided by candlelight and Grande Lattes. There were 20 non-playoff teams last season. If the numbers hold true, five or six will make the postseason in '09. But only one can be THE SLEEPER TEAM of '09. Here are the 19 teams that won't be:

The "E's ≠ MC²"

These teams have absolutely zero shot at the playoffs this season. Kansas City Chiefs: Totally new coaching staff and a revamped defense, but still a few too many missing pieces. Give Scott Pioli a couple of years and this team will be back in the playoffs every year like it was in the late '90s. They're just not there yet. Detroit Lions: They'll be much improved in '09. I love the coaching staff and the additions of veteran guys like Jon Jansen, Julian Peterson and Larry Foote —but they won't win more than six or seven games. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Still $30 million under the salary cap, there are questions at quarterback not to mention a completely new coaching staff and defense. Solid bet of the summer? Jon Gruden will have a far better year in the ESPN booth than the Bucs will have on the field in '09. Cleveland Browns: Eric Mangini and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll take over a team that failed to score an offensive touchdown in the last six games of '08. Cleveland's defense will be better in '09, but that might not be enough. No Kellen Winslow, Jr., a 30-year-old Jamal Lewis nearing 2,500 career carries, no depth at any skill positions other than quarterback and four games against the Steelers and Ravens that certainly don't help. St. Louis Rams: I like new coach Steve Spagnuolo and the safety combo of Oshiomogho Atogwe and James Butler. That's about it. Oakland Raiders: The Raiders haven't been to the playoffs since their embarrassing 48-21 Super Bowl loss to the Bucs in 2002. Things are looking better though, or at least were looking better until Tom Cable allegedly went Mike Tyson on one of his fellow assistants (with his fists, not with any ear-biting or face tattoos). I think the Oakland offense should be much improved in '09. They'll be better — but still aren't quite a playoff contender.

The Control, Alt, Deletes

These teams have undergone extreme makeovers and should be much improved in '09, but still will not be playing postseason football come January. Cincinnati Bengals: I'd be lying if I said I didn't like what I've seen and heard of Bengals camp in Georgetown, Ky., thus far. The Bengals seem to be shedding that "Bungles" image this summer. They're probably still a playmaker or two short on offense, though. Jacksonville Jaguars: One of the most disappointing teams in the entire NFL last season, no one — and I mean no one — has the Jaguars doing anything in '09. This, more than a healthy defensive line and new crop of receivers, has me very intrigued. If they were in the AFC West, maybe, but they're not coming out of the AFC South. Not this year, at least.

The Enigmatic Enzymes

These teams should be lightning rods of excitement, controversy and media attention in '09. That doesn't mean they'll be playing plus-.500 football. Denver Broncos: Kyle Orton's 3-interception performance in Denver's preseason opener didn't do much to ease the nerves of Bronco fans second-guessing the Jay Cutler trade. The defense has a lot of new pieces — specifically Brian Dawkins and Andre Goodman in the backfield — but are still too thin across the board. Year One of the McDaniels era may not be an entirely smooth one. New York Jets: It's tough not to love the new attitude and energy Rex Ryan brings to New York's defense. Along with former Ravens Bart Scott and Jim Leonhard, Ryan's 3-4 D should be flying across the field and terrorizing opponents. I'm sold. As for the offense? I'm the complete opposite of sold. Green Bay Packers: The Packers' defense — downright heinous in '08 — is now headed by Dom Capers and will be making the shift from the 4-3 to the 3-4. The offense should feature a more reliable running game. The '09 Packers are kind of like the HBO show "Entourage" — watchable, fun and intriguing. Just not all that good. Washington Redskins: The 'Skins added the best defensive tackle in the game and a rookie who could be scary good right away in Brian Orakpo. Still, I have some questions on the mental/emotional state of a quarterback whose team all but openly courted two other signal callers over the offseason. It's tough to focus on having a good time at the prom when you know you weren't your date's first ... or second choice.

The "Return to Normalcy's"

After years out of the Final 12, these teams are expected to return to the playoffs in '09. Dallas Cowboys: As I've admitted in just about every column this offseason, I love the Cowboys this year. But I can't label them a "sleeper" team. They're not exactly under the radar. Hell, Jerry Jones' new HD scoreboard has gotten more press this offseason than the majority of the NFL's 32 NFL squads. Seattle Seahawks: Finally healthy after a nightmarish injury rash in '08 and recharged with some wonderful offseason additions (Aaron Curry will be a Pro Bowl player in his first season in the league, have zero doubts), the majority of the pundits are picking the Seahawks as the favorites out of the NFC West this year. But these aren't Mike Holmgren's Seahawks. And I'm not sure that injury rash last year wasn't a function of old age and not bad luck. New England Patriots: They're back and could be frighteningly better than ever.

The Miscalculations

These teams are the media's "sleeper" darlings of '09. Be weary of these teams. The popular sleeper picks NEVER keep up their end of the bargain. Their beakers almost always break. San Francisco 49ers: The Niners are the media's official "sleeper" team out of the NFC this year. Finishing the '08 season with wins in four of their last five contests, San Francisco has that "hot team" label in just about all league circles. Too hot for my bones, though. No one's mentioned that those four wins were against non-playoff teams. Houston Texans: Ah, this is like saying goodbye to an ex-girlfriend and wishing her well. The second I saw the Texans described as a "sexy" team this preseason (nothing I hate more than seeing the word "sexy" used when writing/talking about football), I knew it was time to let go of my 2008 sleeper team. It's better to have loved and lost the Texans than to have never loved them at all. Buffalo Bills: T.O.'s overwhelmingly positive track record with teams in his first year on the squad, rookie Aaron Maybin and a new and improved pass rush, and a franchise 10 years removed from its last postseason appearance — lots of people are on the '09 Bills bandwagon. Too many for my liking. Sorry, Buffalo. New Orleans Saints: The Saints are a lot like the hot chick you meet at the Tao nightclub on a Friday night in Las Vegas — she's stunning to look at, fun to keep an eye on, and captures everybody's attention — but she's not what you'd want over the long term. Yes, the Saints offense will dazzle you and win you fantasy league titles. No questions there. But that defense — even with the additions of coordinator Gregg Williams, rookie Malcolm Jenkins, and veterans Jabari Greer and Darren Sharper — just has too many question marks.

Drumroll, please ... the official 2009 Peter Schrager sleeper pick:

Chicago Bears: Just three years removed from a Super Bowl appearance in Miami, I'm all about the Bears and the prospect of another conference championship run in '09. No, I'm not crazy. Hear me out. Based on the formula detailed above, the '09 Bears match all the criteria for the perfect Sleeper choice . . . and then some.
  • Nonplayoff team in '08? Check.
  • Infusion of new talent in '09? Check. A Pro Bowl franchise quarterback who has gone 12-1 in the 13 games his defense has given up 21 points or less? Yeah, that's a nice upgrade from Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman ... veteran tackle and locker room mentor Orlando Pace off the scrap heap? Yep, that works ... and I love what the Bears did in the April draft. Despite surrendering their first-round pick in the Cutler trade, they picked up potential starters in defensive end Jarron Gilbert, big play receiver Juaquin Iglesias and sixth-round pick Al Afalava out of Oregon State. Henry Melton, a guy who played both running back and defensive end at Texas, could be used in all sorts of packages. Cornerback D.J. Moore and small school speedster Johnny Knox could see the field lots, too.
  • Stable coaching staff? Check. Lovie Smith still is the coach and Ron Turner will guide the offense, but there are some wrinkles to the Bears coaching staff, particularly the defense. To address an uncharacteristically bad Bears D from '08 (21st overall and 30th against the pass), Smith will be taking over play-calling duties from defensive coordinator Bob Babich and also brought in former Detroit Lions coach Rod Marinelli, who he worked with at Tampa Bay. Marinelli, who most casual NFL fans may only think of as the guy behind the first 0-16 team in NFL history, is a mastermind when it comes to the workings of a defensive line in the Tampa 2. Veteran secondary coach Jon Hoke also joins the Bears coaching staff. All told, they're a stable, competent, and innovative staff.
  • Low key offseason? Check. Aside from bringing in Cutler, that maybe/maybe not trash talking from Brian Urlacher and possibly derogatory comments about Devin Hester, plus some confusion and uncertainty over Tommie Harris' ACL, things were fairly quiet in Bears country this offseason. That's a good thing.
  • Fan base in need of a winner? Check. Neither the Cubbies nor the White Sox are leading their respective divisions. Spilled beers and hockey players screwing over cab drivers have been the two biggest stories out of Chi-Town this summer.
  • Manageable schedule? Check. Based on 2008 records, Bears' opponents had a .412 winning percentage, the lowest in the league. There's a six-week stretch in October and November where the Bears play the Lions, Bengals, Browns, Cardinals and the 49ers. In that stretch, they also travel to Atlanta for revenge from what might have been the team's worst loss of 2008 — the fourth-quarter collapse vs. the Falcons last season. There's a good chance Chicago goes 6-0 over that stretch.
  • Skeptics far and wide? Everyone's saying the defense is too old and broken. There are all those questions about the wide receiver position. The world thinks Cutler is some cantankerous baby who needs a pacifier, not a playbook. That only makes Chicago more of a sleeper pick. So, there you have it. The Chicago Bears, your official sleeper team of '09. Eureka! If you'd like to join the bandwagon, get on now. "We" don't want any midseason posers.
  • Tagged: Falcons, Bills, Bears, Bengals, Browns, Cowboys, Broncos, Lions, Packers, Titans, Raiders, Rams, Dolphins, Saints, Jets, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Redskins, Jaguars, Ravens, Cardinals, Steelers, Texans, Brian Urlacher, Darren Sharper, Orlando Pace, Brian Dawkins, Julian Peterson, Jon Jansen, Jamal Lewis, Larry Foote, Bart Scott, Rex Grossman, Kellen Winslow, Tommie Harris, Oshiomogho Atogwe, Kyle Orton, Jim Leonhard, James Butler, LenDale White, Maurice Jones-Drew, Greg Olsen, Tim Hightower, Steve Slaton, Al Afalava, Jarron Gilbert, Juaquin Iglesias, Henry Melton, D.J. Moore, Johnny Knox, Aaron Maybin, Brian Orakpo, Malcolm Jenkins

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