A year ago it was the New Orleans and the New York Jets. The year before that, Miami and Atlanta. And the year before that, Green Bay and Tampa Bay. Every year someone surprises us, winning more games than we -- or maybe even they -- expect and somehow manage to crash the playoff party.
But the Saints not only crashed it last season; they ran it, winning their first Super Bowl ever. So the search is on for the next New Orleans ... or New York ... or Miami ... and I have five possibilities.
Now, before we go farther, let me explain that to qualify you must not have had a winning record the year before. Yeah, I know, choosing the 8-8 San Francisco 49ers isn't exactly dangerous, but the 49ers haven't had a winning season in seven seasons. So at least it's a risk.
Anyway, these are my candidates, and, sorry, Chicago, the Bears didn't make the cut. The reason: While adding Julius Peppers and Mike Martz should make your team better, it's still the third-best club in the division. On to roll call:
|The jury is still out on Mike Singletary as a coach. (Getty Images)|
The 49ers' weakness has been their offensive line, but now that rookies Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis are here they should be OK, provided they keep Davis' weight in check. So that's a step forward. Having the league's best inside linebacker in Patrick Willis is a great centerpiece for an improved defense. The 49ers held three of their last four opponents to a total of 21 points, and one of those was Arizona. The 49ers wanted to improve their pass pressure, and they did, jumping in sacks from 30 in 2008 to 44. They wanted to improve their takeaway/turnover ratio, too, and did, jumping from a league-worst minus-17 in 2008 to a plus-9. Now they have to invigorate their offense, and look what they have: Vernon Davis is an elite tight end; Frank Gore is an elite running back and Michael Crabtree could be an elite receiver. For the first time since Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens terrorized opponents, there are playmakers. But maybe what I like best about these guys is how they close under coach Mike Singletary. In 2008 they won four of their last five. Last year it was three of the last four. Put all this together, and you have a team ready to break through.
What I don't: I don't know that you can win with Alex Smith as your quarterback. The 49ers made him the first pick of the 2006 draft, but that was another coaching staff and another administration. There's faith in Smith basically because there's no one else -- and, yes, that means I don't believe David Carr is an option. Smith looks good some games and shaky in others. That shouldn't happen to someone as far along in his career as he is. If there's something that could hold these guys back it's Smith and his inconsistent play. He needs to prove he's the quarterback the 49ers thought he could be, and he needs to prove it now. I also don't know how good a head coach Singletary is. He was a Hall of Fame player and is a Hall of Fame motivator. But the jury is out on the guy as a head coach, even though he just delivered San Francisco's first non-losing season since 2002. There is no better time than now to do that.
Verdict: Somebody must think these guys will be good. They're involved in five nationally televised games this season. If the 49ers don't make a move now they never will. They should be -- no, they will be -- the trendy pick to win the division.
|Despite turning 34 this season, the Redskins believe in Donvan McNabb. (Getty Images)|
The quarterbacking will be improved, and not just because Donovan McNabb is in town. The play-calling will be better, there will be more points and there will be more wins, which takes us back to McNabb. The guy is a winner, and, yeah, I know, Philadelphia went out of its way to get rid of him. But that has nothing to do with his play-making and everything to do with the Eagles re-tooling for the future. McNabb turns 34 this season and had one year left on his contract with Philadelphia. The Eagles weren't going to extend his deal with Kevin Kolb waiting for his chance, so they decided to get something for him while they could.
In McNabb, the Redskins gained a quarterback who is 92-49-1 in the regular season and someone who went to the playoffs in eight of his 11 NFL seasons. People tell me he doesn't have a No. 1 receiver, but he's been down that road before, and it didn't seem to hurt him.
What I don't: The head coach making personnel decisions. Shanahan is a head coach, not a GM. Yet he has GM responsibilities, and you saw where that took him in Denver. He was 24-24 his last three seasons and didn't reach the playoffs. Shanahan will make the Redskins better. The question is: How much better? McNabb will help, but he must have an improved offensive line, and maybe Trent Williams is the solution, maybe he's not. All I know is that Chris Samuels' retirement left a giant hole at left tackle, with McNabb's back at risk.
But the biggest problem has nothing to do with the GM or the offensive line. It's the division where Washington plays. To get to the top the Redskins must climb over the Giants, Eagles and Cowboys, and good luck.
Verdict: Washington filled a lot of holes in the offseason, with the most important move the addition of McNabb. But the problem isn't so much the Redskins as it is the rest of the division. Someone tell me who really believes the Redskins are better than Dallas ... or Philadelphia ... or the Giants. The deck is stacked against these guys, but a word of warning: Never underestimate Shanahan ... especially after he's had a year to re-energize himself.
|Will Chris Johnson replicate his 2,000-yard season from a year ago? (Getty Images)|
The Titans have one of the best running games in football, and, yes, I include quarterback Vince Young in that conversation. I don't see Chris Johnson rushing for 2,000 yards again, but I don't envision his team paralyzed for the first month-and-a-half either. Think about it: Tennessee didn't win a game until November, yet it made a late run for the playoffs. Remarkable. More remarkable was the transformation of Young into a quarterback from a running back. People said couldn't throw; then he produced a career-best passer rating of 82.8 and an unforgettable last-minute, 99-yard game-winning drive against Arizona. I believe that what the Titans discovered about themselves last year carries over into this season, and that if and when Indianapolis stubs its toe it is the Titans that step into the void.
What I don't: The Titans are no better than their defense, and their defense has been terrific in recent years. Not last season. Sacks were down. Takeaways were down. Yards were up. So were points. And I mean way up. The Titans ranked 28th in overall defense and 28th in points allowed. Yeah, I know, they missed All-Pro Albert Haynesworth, but they missed Jim Schwartz more.
In five of their first six losses the Titans surrendered 31 or more points, including 59 to New England, and that had defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil in the bunker. But then look what happened: They found themselves, yielding more than 17 points in only four of their last 10 starts. Maybe the light bulb went on, but I worry about a team that loses Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch in successive seasons. Straighten out the defense, and you go a long way to straightening out this team.
Verdict: It wouldn't shock me if these guys won the AFC South. They did it two years ago with Kerry Collins, and they looked like a playoff team the second half of last season. Of course, the problem with that is that you have to climb over Peyton Manning and the Colts, and that happened only once in the last seven years -- with Tennessee the club that did it. Still, I would be surprised if these guys didn't return to the playoffs in some capacity.
|The Chiefs acquired Thomas Jones to bolster their running game. (Getty Images)|
Of course, it would be nice to revamp a defense that hemorrhaged 40 or more points in three of the last six games, too, but that's why Romeo Crennel is here. I wasn't behind the Jones pickup because I'm a firm believer that bad teams must play young guys, not old ones, but I see what Kansas City is trying to do, which is give Jamaal Charles support, and that's a good idea. Getting Dexter McCluster in the draft is, too. And I didn't even mention rookie safety Eric Berry. This club has a chance if Denver keeps floundering.
What I don't: There are two things missing -- an abundance of playmakers and a home-field advantage. Once upon a time, Arrowhead Stadium was a graveyard for visiting teams. Not anymore. Visitors were 7-1 there last year and 19-2 the last 21 regular-season games. Worse, in 11 of those losses, the margin of defeat was by double digits, with five blowouts of 23 or more points. The average margin of defeat in those 19 losses at home has been 13.9 points, and now you know why home sellouts are an issue. The last time the Chiefs were in the playoffs, which was 2006, they were 6-2 at Arrowhead, winning six of their last seven there, and that, folks, is how they get back on their feet.
Verdict: Let's be honest here: They're a dark horse, with more playmakers needed on both sides of the ball. But they do have the luxury of playing in one of the league's weakest divisions. Of course, they help make it weak, but the Chiefs are due to make a move. The only question: Does it happen now or later?
|The Browns hope Jake Delhomme has gotten over his propensity for picks. (Getty Images)|
What I don't: Let's start with the quarterback. Jake Delhomme is 35 and makes too many mistakes, with 23 interceptions in his last 12 starts. The quickest way for this club to fail is to turn the ball over, and Delhomme has become an All-Pro in that department. Granted, the Browns won five games last season with 33 completions, but they must get more out of the position -- and I don't see how Delhomme does it. Now look around the offensive huddle, and tell me where you find playmakers. Jerome Harrison? OK. Then what? James Davis? Montario Hardesty? Peyton Hillis? Please. Now you see why Phil Dawson becomes a weapon.
There's also a matter of bad karma, and there's too much here. The Browns are one of the cursed franchises in the business, making it to the playoffs once since returning to the NFL. Something always seems to hold these guys back, and don't ask me where the latest trap door is. I just know Browns' fans are preparing themselves for the worst. Lastly, the Browns play in a division with two playoff teams and the 2008 Super Bowl champion. So how do you overcome that? I don't know that you do, especially with a dearth of playmakers.
Verdict: The Browns are a long shot to make the playoffs, especially when they play in the AFC North, but if they get off to a flying start -- and it's possible -- they might sneak in.