Reasons every team can win Super Bowl
The magic of August NFL fandom can be summed up by the following exchange I overheard in a Manhattan sports bar last Saturday night. Amidst a sea of wannabe extras from “Jersey Shore” pounding their fists to Katy Perry and Chris Brown dance remixes blaring from an elevated DJ booth, two seemingly well-adjusted male football fans in their mid-20s were casually watching the Giants-Panthers preseason game over a plate of Buffalo wings at a table next to me. Their chat went something like this:
Guy No. 1: “No one’s talking about the Bengals this year. Ochocinco and T.O. were headaches, and Carson Palmer didn’t want to be there. They’ve gotten rid of all the locker room problems. They could be a nice little sleeper team in the AFC.”
Guy No. 2: “And the Lions in the NFC. Fairley and Suh, that’s the most dominant interior defensive line pairing in the league. No one will run on them.”
Guy No. 1: “The Bills have all those young guys, too. Spiller, Fitzpatrick, Stevie Johnson. . . . They’re the sleeping giants of the AFC East.”
As the two gentlemen, wearing matching Justin Tuck jerseys, (Quick sartorial note: Fellas, don’t wear the same exact jersey as your friend to the bar. Ever. Actually, you probably shouldn’t wear any jersey to a sports bar.) nodded and went back to their wings, I did the quick math in my head:
Combined, the Bengals, Lions, and Bills have played in a grand total of two postseason games since 2000. Both of those contests resulted in bad Bengals wild-card-round losses. The last time one of the three franchises actually won a playoff game was in 1995, when the Bills beat the Dolphins 37-22. Red Cashion was the referee in that game. Red Cashion!
So, yeah, it has been a while since the fine football fans in Cincinnati, Detroit and Buffalo have had reasons to puff their chests in January.
But it’s August. And in August, you can predict a Browns-Panthers Super Bowl with a straight face and do so without being laughed out of the room. Unlike any other American professional sports league, the NFL offers the opportunity for instant success.
The numbers don’t lie. Since 1996, 87 teams have made the playoffs after not qualifying the previous season. The Seahawks, Bears, Falcons and Chiefs all won their respective divisions last season. None of those four teams were in the postseason the year before.
In truth, when predicting a Super Bowl champion in August, the pick of one Justin Tuck jersey-wearing fellow covered in wing sauce is as good as anyone else’s. In August, everyone has a shot.
Want to make the case for your team’s Super Bowl chances in the sports bar this weekend?
Here are 32 reasons — one for each NFL franchise — why the ______ will hoist the Lombardi Trophy come February in Indianapolis:
Arizona Cardinals: Because Kevin Kolb’s the answer.
Remember, Aaron Rodgers was once a career backup, too. After three years of waiting in the wings behind Donovan McNabb and one season of being put on, off, and then back on the shelf in Philly, Kolb’s finally the face of an NFL franchise. No questions asked. That confidence, along with wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald in a contract year in a weak NFC West, could make Arizona a dangerous team down the stretch.
BetOnline.com Super Bowl champion odds: 50-1
Atlanta Falcons: Because they now have the necessary experience to make their run.
Atlanta’s 48-21 loss to the Packers at home last January was an embarrassing dose of reality for the No. 1 seed in the NFC. The Falcons are now a year older, a year wiser and even more dangerous with the additions of receiver Julio Jones on offense and defensive end Ray Edwards on defense. Quarterback Matt Ryan and coach Mike Smith have been to two playoff games and have lost them both, while tight end Tony Gonzalez is still in search of his first postseason victory. The Falcons are built for a 2011 Super Bowl run. If they can put it all together, they will be tough to beat.
Baltimore Ravens: Because Joe Flacco’s ready to join the big boys.
Joe Flacco has won a road playoff game in each of his first three seasons in the NFL, making him the only quarterback in NFL history to boast such an achievement. But he never has beaten Ben Roethlisberger head to head, and the Ravens still have never beaten the Steelers in the postseason. Now happily married and entering the fourth year of his NFL career, Flacco has a new set of weapons to work with in recently acquired veterans Lee Evans and Ricky Williams and exciting rookie burner Torrey Smith. With veterans Derrick Mason, Todd Heap and Willis McGahee all gone, this is the year Flacco becomes the true leader in the huddle.
Buffalo Bills: Because the last time there was this much firepower on offense, James Lofton was lining up alongside Andre Reed.
NFL know-it-alls laughed and guffawed when the Bills traded 30-year-old Lee Evans to the Ravens for a fourth-round pick last week. Typical Bills, right? Well, the reason general manager Buddy Nix pulled the trigger on the trade was because with all the young wideouts starring in Bills camp this summer, Evans was made expendable. Stevie Johnson is the household name, but David Nelson, Donald Jones and Marcus Easley could all have big, breakout years in 2011. When Roscoe Parrish returns from his hamstring injury, that wideout depth chart gets even scarier. No, this isn’t Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Az-Zahir Hakim, and Ricky Proehl in the Greatest Show on Turf. But there’s a whole lot of potential and at least some reasons for the AFC East big boys to take notice. Look for Wildcat formations, five-wide setups and lots and lots of Ryan Fitzpatrick passing yards. Remember, Buffalo came a play here and a play there short of knocking off the Ravens, Chiefs and Steelers last season. They’ll be better this year. The Bills!
Carolina Panthers: Because Jerry Richardson (finally) opened up his wallet this offseason.
John Fox was a lame duck coach last year, the quarterback situation was a mess and everyone got injured. This year? The Panthers’ longtime owner opened up his wallet and paid big bucks for a franchise quarterback in Cam Newton, brought back running back DeAngelo Williams, linebacker James Anderson, linebacker Thomas Davis and defensive end Charles Johnson, and the went out and acquired tight end Greg Olsen and kicker Olindo Mare. Receiver Steve Smith should be back, healthy and motivated to prove his doubters wrong, too. They’re the long shots of long shots. But in this league? A sport where a 1-15 Dolphins team in 2007 can win its division with a new quarterback and coach in 2008? There’s no such thing as impossible.
Chicago Bears: Because Mike Martz and Jay Cutler were just getting started in 2010.
Though it’s easy to look back on last season’s NFC Championship Game and assume the Martz/Cutler marriage in Chicago wasn’t all that successful, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Cutler had his best year as a pro last season, won his first career playoff game and got great production from a young group of wideouts still learning a complex offense. If the line can give Cutler any sort of protection this season, the Bears’ offense could be even better. There’s a lot to like about first-rounder Gabe Carimi, a right tackle, and both receiver Roy Williams and running back Marion Barber have a lot to prove. That Martz/Cutler marriage? It’s a beautiful — albeit, quirky — thing. It could be even nicer in Year No. 2.
Cincinnati Bengals: Because Jay Gruden is more than just Chucky’s little brother.
Jon Gruden’s best known for being a Super Bowl-winning head coach and the commentator on “Monday Night Football” who loves every single player who happens to take a step on the field. (Into drinking games? Take a sip every time Gruden starts a sentence with “This guy … ” and marvels at a player. You’ll be drunk by the opening kickoff). Jon’s little brother Jay is best known for being . . . well, Jon’s little brother. This year, he’ll show he’s more than that. A former Arena League quarterback and coach, the younger Gruden’s the new offensive coordinator in Cincinnati with a daunting task ahead. With new faces all over the offense, he needs to get quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Bruce Gradkowski ready, while dealing with one of the league’s youngest receiving corps. Three years from now, A.J. Green, Jerome Simpson and Jordan Shipley could end up being the most lethal receiving trio in the NFL. If Jay Gruden’s as talented as some say he is, they could be making their mark this year.
Cleveland Browns: Because Colt McCoy will thrive under Pat Shurmur’s watch.
First-year head coach Pat Shurmur took over an offense in desperate need of a makeover in St. Louis last year and did wonders. In what was nothing short of a miracle, Shurmur built an offense around a rookie quarterback, running back Steven Jackson and a crew of no-name receivers and then whipped up a plus-114 point differential from the season before, and limited his unit to 21 turnovers. Colt McCoy showed flashes of greatness last year and should only be better in his sophomore season in the league. Running back Peyton Hillis is in a contract year, rookie wideout Greg Little is a promising talent on the outside, and the offensive line should be solid. There’s reason for some hope in Cleveland.
Dallas Cowboys: Because Rob Ryan is what the Cowboys needed.
Coach Jason Garrett’s a cool customer with a Princeton degree. Former coach Wade Phillips never lost his voice. QB Tony Romo’s a laid-back dude who could play on the PGA Tour. So what did team owner Jerry Jones do this offseason in Big D? He went out and hired a loud-mouthed, long-haired ball of testosterone to run the Cowboys’ 3-4 defense. In Rob Ryan — yes, Rex’s brother — Dallas gets a little swagger on the sidelines. It also gets a blitzing mastermind ready to shake up the NFC East. Everyone’s talking about the Giants and Eagles. Unlike any other year in recent memory, the Dallas Cowboys — with that giant scoreboard, the Cowgirls and Jerry Jones stalking the sidelines — are kinda, sorta a sleeper in the division. Only more reason to love the ‘Boys this year.
Denver Broncos: Because John Fox and Von Miller will bring the Denver defense back from the ashes.
Denver’s D resembled a broken-down car last season. It finished the year last in the league in just about every defensive category. John Fox brings his 4-3 defense to town, and America will get to know rookie linebacker Von Miller’s name immediately. Thought Ndamukong Suh made waves as a rookie last year? Miller could be the same kind of talent and make the same kind of impact on this suddenly rebuilt unit.
Detroit Lions: Because Matt Stafford’s finally healthy.
Third-year quarterback Mark Sanchez has been to two AFC championship games, dated swimsuit model Hilary Rhoda and made the cover of GQ. Fellow third-year quarterback Josh Freeman is a media darling and the main reason everyone’s so darn high on the Buccaneers this summer. The quarterback taken before both Sanchez and Freeman in the 2008 NFL draft? Well, he’s finally healthy, finally throwing the ball with the same zip he did at Georgia and finally ready to take the league by storm. This could be the year Matt Stafford — who looked awesome in his first preseason action last weekend — makes his mark and brings Detroit out of the league’s basement. That defense is getting all the buzz, but it’s Stafford who will flourish in 2011.
Green Bay Packers: Because the Super Bowl champions somehow got better this offseason.
Write this name down: Randall Cobb. OK, now put your pen down and take out your phone and text yourself this name: Randall Cobb. Finally, go to your computer and email yourself this name: Randall Cobb. There are few rookies I’ve been more excited to see in an already electrifying offense than Green Bay’s second-round pick out of Kentucky, Randall Cobb. In addition to the multi-purpose threat joining the offense, Green Bay re-signed receiver James Jones, got a road-paving tackle in first-round pick Derek Sherrod and has running back Ryan Grant and tight end Jermichael Finley healthy and ready to go. Green Bay’s offense was nasty down the stretch last year. It’s going to be even better this year.
Houston Texans: Because the Texans finally have a real defense.
Along with Brett Favre’s cell phone antics and the Bengals’ drafting woes, the Texans defense has long been one of the bigger jokes around the league. That should all change this season. In addition to installing coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme, Houston also spent its first four draft picks on defensive players and signed big-money free agents Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning to rebuild the defensive backfield. Houston’s offense will always put up enough points to win a game. Now, the defense can actually stop the opponent, too.
Indianapolis Colts: Because Peyton Manning is still the quarterback.
There’s been a lot of talk about Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers this offseason. Peyton Manning is still Peyton Manning, neck injury and all. And with No. 18 under center, the Colts are always a Super Bowl frontrunner. Capish?
Jacksonville Jaguars: Because the Jags finally have a defense that can keep up with that Manning guy.
The Jags’ defense was ranked 28th in the league last year, ultimately keeping Jacksonville out of the playoffs for the fifth straight year. GM Gene Smith went out and signed defensive veteran free agents Matt Roth, Paul Posluszny, Clint Session, Dawan Landry and underrated cornerback Drew Coleman. Toss in Terrance Knighton and Tyson Alualu — and their 650 pounds of run cloggage at defensive tackle — and the Jags suddenly have a dangerous starting 11 on D.
Kansas City Chiefs: Because Matt Cassel has even more weapons at his disposal this year.
The Chiefs offense was pretty darn good in last year’s AFC West championship season. It could be even better this year. Both tight end Tony Moeaki and wide receiver Dexter McCluster should contribute more in their second seasons in the league, and first-round selection Jon Baldwin and veteran wideout Steve Breaston join the receiving corps. Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles could be the best 1-2 rushing combo in the entire league. One-year wonder? No way. The Chiefs are legit. And that offense? It has the potential of a Super Bowl squad.
Miami Dolphins: Because absolutely nobody’s talking about the Dolphins. And that’s the way they like it.
Coming into the 2008 season, the Dolphins had a new coach, a new front office and a new starting quarterback. Fresh off a 1-15 season, no one expected much. Sure enough, Chad Pennington (now an analyst on FOX!) carried the offense and an inspired D helped lead Miami to the division title. This year? Jim Harbaugh was supposed to be the coach and Kyle Orton or Carson Palmer the QB. Not quite. Coach Tony Sparano and QB Chad Henne are back. No one’s expecting much from the ‘Fins, but they’ve got a new 1-2 running back combination, a sturdy defense and a chip on their collective shoulders. Déjà vu all over again? Maybe this squad can go even further than that one.
Minnesota Vikings: Because Donovan McNabb has one last Super Bowl run in him. Seriously.
Quick, some trivia: Along with Tom Brady, which current NFL quarterback has started the most conference championship games? It’s not Peyton Manning. Rather, it’s new Vikings quarterback Donovan McNabb, whose five NFC championship game appearances top Manning’s three. Though most are viewing this Vikings season as a transitional one in which McNabb will keep the seat warm until rookie Christian Ponder is ready for action, the veteran has shown up to Vikings camp in terrific shape and is ready to lead. If you believe in second acts, this one would make for a heck of a story. Remember, everyone thought Kurt Warner was just going to show Matt Leinart the ropes for a year, too.
New England Patriots: Because Bill Belichick and Tom Brady won’t lose home playoff games three years in a row.
Pick your reason why the Pats are the team to beat in the AFC. Is it the addition of Chad Ochocinco to an already deep wide receiver unit? Is it the addition of two exciting rookie running backs looking to contribute right away? Is it the young secondary that’s only going to get better this year? Albert Haynesworth? A happy Logan Mankins? Pick whichever reason you want, but in the end, it will come down to Belichick and Brady. They’ve swung and missed two years in a row in January games in Foxboro. It’s hard to imagine that happening a third time.
New Orleans Saints: Because the Saints added even more depth on already solid defensive and offensive lines.
The additions of running backs Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram made more headlines this offseason, but the signings of veterans Olin Kreutz (center), Shaun Rogers (defensive tackle) and Aubrayo Franklin (defensive tackle) could be what put the Saints back in a Super Bowl parade down Bourbon Street. All three big bodies signed one-year deals with New Orleans with dreams of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February. Kreutz comes from Chicago, where he was a six-time Pro Bowl pick, while Rogers and Franklin show up from NFL dark spots Cleveland and San Francisco. With the re-signing of offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod and the drafting of defensive end Cameron Jordan, the Saints are completely loaded where it matters most — the line of scrimmage.
New York Giants: Because the Giants were quiet this offseason for a reason.
While division rivals Washington and Philadelphia seemingly signed every veteran under the sun this summer, the Giants were noticeably quiet in the free agent game, even with their own former Super Bowl stars, Shaun O’Hara, Steve Smith and Kevin Boss. What do they have this year? Two great running backs, one of the most explosive defensive lines in the sport and a defensive backfield made of former first-round picks. Whereas fans of 31 franchises tend to talk about Super Bowls and parades in August, Giants fans are typically doom and gloom over their team during this time of the year. This is nothing new. Nor will the Giants being in the mix come late December.
New York Jets: Because Mark Sanchez is ready to make the leap.
He’s September’s GQ cover boy, he has Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason hungry for rings, and he has back-to-back AFC championship game losses serving as motivation. Mark Sanchez, whether you want to believe it or not, is a proven winner in this league. Now, in Year 3, he’s ready to make the leap and take the Jets all the way.
Oakland Raiders: Because Jason Campbell’s finally “the guy.”
Though he started the season as the unquestioned starter in Washington four different times and earned the starting gig in Oakland last preseason, Jason Campbell never has had as much trust, faith, and positivity surrounding his game as this year. Campbell — who famously had four different offensive coordinators at Auburn and four different offensive coordinators in six seasons in the NFL — is working with Al Saunders, his offensive coordinator for two seasons in Washington, and head coach Hue Jackson, his mentor from a year ago. He took the bull by the horns this offseason, opening his home to young wideouts Jacoby Ford, Louis Murphy and Darrius Heyward-Bey, and becoming the leader he’s always been destined to be. Campbell has all the skills in the world. This is the year he finally puts it all together.
Philadelphia Eagles: Because the last time there was this much veteran star power in one locker room, the ’94 49ers were hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in Miami.
Remember when the 49ers went out and signed such stars as Ken Norton Jr. and Deion Sanders before their Super Bowl XXIX run? Well, in a two-week span, the Eagles — NFC East champions a year ago — signed cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, running back Ronnie Brown, quarterback Vince Young, defensive end Jason Babin, wide receiver Steve Smith, wide receiver Johnnie Lee Higgins, free safety Jarrad Page, defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins and tight end Donald Lee, and traded a backup quarterback for a former Pro Bowl cornerback, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The talent’s all there. Anything short of a Super Bowl parade down Broad Street will be considered a disappointment.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Because Dick LeBeau’s defense could be better this year than it was in 2010.
The Steelers defense — the No. 2-ranked defense in the league in 2010 — returns every starter from the 2010 AFC champion squad. Eight of the 11 returning starters are experienced veterans over the age of 30. Added to the mix this season are rookies Cameron Heyward, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown. All three could be instant impact players. If continuity is the name of the game these days, there’s no unit tougher than that Pittsburgh defense.
San Diego Chargers: Because after an off year, the Bolts are ready to strike back in grand fashion.
After a run of five division championships in six years, the Chargers missed the playoffs for the first time since 2005 last season. They’re mad, they’re better and they’re healthy. San Diego has a (relatively) happy Vincent Jackson back in the lineup, re-signed Eric Weddle to a long-term deal and went out and got big-name veteran defensive free agents Bob Sanders, Takeo Spikes and Travis LaBoy. Philip Rivers is knocking on the door of that first tier of elite quarterbacks. This is the year he breaks the door down and brings San Diego its first Super Bowl championship.
San Francisco 49ers: Because Jim Harbaugh is a winner.
If there’s one thing 49ers fans have to tell themselves this month, it’s “In Harbaugh We Trust.” He won as a head coach at the University of San Diego, rebuilt the program at Stanford and comes to San Francisco with an entirely new ethos for a franchise that hasn’t seen the playoffs since 2002. The Super Bowl may be tough this year, but the NFC West is anybody’s to win. Get in the playoffs, and there’s a chance.
Seattle Seahawks: Because these guys actually know and believe in each other.
More than a few folks scratched their heads over some of the Seahawks’ offseason free-agent acquisitions this season, most notably — one Tarvaris Jackson. But Jackson’s in Seattle for a reason: Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, his coordinator in Minnesota, still has confidence in the sixth-year quarterback. Sidney Rice, Bevell’s No. 1 wideout in Minny, has come along for the ride. Meanwhile, Tom Cable — the new offensive line coach — got old Raiders Zach Miller and Robert Gallery to make the trip to the Pacific Northwest, too. There’s a lot of familiarity and positivity in that Seattle locker room this season. Who cares what everyone is saying outside of it?
St. Louis Rams: Because the Rams were building a good thing last year and got even more talent this offseason.
The Eagles, Saints, Patriots and Jets dominated headlines last month, but the Rams made some solid player personnel moves with a sliver of the national media attention. On offense, quarterback Sam Bradford can welcome a big new guard in Harvey Dahl, a veteran wideout in Mike Sims-Walker and two running backs with something to prove in Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood. There’s big excitement over rookie receiving targets Austin Pettis, Greg Salas and tight end Lance Kendricks, too. On D? St. Louis loaded up with veterans Justin Bannan, Zac Diles, Dan Muir, Brady Poppinga and Al Harris. Many pundits had rookie Robert Quinn as the top rated defensive end in the 2011 draft. So, yeah, there’s reason for excitement. Super Bowl? Hey, why not?
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Because they’re the “Baby Bucs” and don’t know any better.
Sure the Saints and Falcons are the heavies in the NFC South this year, but let’s not sleep on the Baby Bucs. Despite being the youngest team in the league last year, Tampa Bay came only one win shy of a playoff berth. They’ll be better this season. Quarterback Josh Freeman’s undoubtedly a baller; Arrelious Benn, Mike Williams and Dezmon Briscoe make up one of the more tantalizing young wideout trios in the league; and the defense picked up three potential stars on draft weekend: Adrian Clayborn, Da’Quan Bowers and Mason Foster. Mark it down now — Foster could be the best of the bunch. There’s almost too much to like about coach Raheem Morris’ team this season. A Super Bowl run would be unexpected, but not exactly a shocker.
Tennessee Titans: Because Chris Johnson is still the most lethal offensive weapon on the NFL.
Get him in camp. Get him the ball. Get him behind that offensive line. When you have the most explosive player in football, you can never rule out a Super Bowl run.
Washington Redskins: Because, umm, John Beck’s the man?
Sorry, ‘Skins fans, but this one’s really hard. Maybe the Eagles’ locker room implodes? Maybe the Giants fail to protect Eli Manning? Perhaps the Cowboys lay another egg this season? Look at the bright side: Andrew Luck would look awfully good in that Washington uniform. Be sure to DVR all those Saturday Stanford games this season.