How many teams in the NFL have a legit shot to win the Super Bowl this upcoming season?
Sure, it's only May, and injuries and unforeseen schedule situations and numerous other factors will surely intervene to railroad some seasons and buttress others, but just play along with me for now. We still have about four months before real football games are being played. So indulge me. If you had to separate the haves from the have-nots at the highest level possible, who would make the cut?
I figure roughly 25 percent of the league in a good year has the real potential to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Out of 32 teams, I'll say eight would make my cut right now. Sort of like if you were creating two super divisions within the league. Which eight teams seem like the best bets right now – at a time when you can start putting money anywhere you want in Vegas – and in what order?
Well, after spending hours running my mathematical equations and testing my algorithms (or not), here is my list of the Elite Eight in the NFL as we head into OTAs. Because as much as people will try to tell you that a certain player or a certain team will be making some substantial gains over the next six weeks based on lukewarm practices in T-shirts and shorts, don't believe them. Ain't happening. Until these guys put the pads on, nothing much is going to change with these rosters and no one's stock is really going to rise or fall.
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Any player evaluations or projections made off of spring practices are fraught with peril (even less scientific and reliable that this exercise I am currently undertaking!) and no starter is winning or losing a job during OTAs unless someone close to him on the depth chart suffers a freak injury. So with that out of the way, here are the teams that most have my attention in terms of being able to win it all.
I know no one repeats anymore, except for the Pats like once a decade, but I also can't recall too many champs who get a markedly better quarterback returning than the one who they won the Super Bowl with. Doesn't matter when or how Carson Wentz starts the season, just that he looks the part come December. The roster is still intact enough, Jason Peters could provide a big boost to the offensive line if he can stay healthy, and while they did lose some bright minds off their offensive staff, it's still Doug Pederson's baby on that side of the ball and not losing DC Jim Schwartz to a head coaching job was a coup. No hangovers here with Wentz super motivated.
They came damn close a year ago, it's hard not to love their roster and kudos to them for being willing to go all-out to land Kirk Cousins in an attempt to win it all right now. Cousins can exceed what Case Keenum did, he has ample weapons, and we'll see in January about his big-game ability. The running game should be fine with Dalvin Cook returning. They have a true home-field advantage. They're loaded with young, hungry, impactful players. And the sting of how meekly they went down in Philly last year should fuel their quest. Yes, this franchise generally finds a way to wilt at the worst possible time, but all slumps end eventually.
No one can look at all of the talent they lost this offseason and say they appear to be a better team than a year ago. Replacing a starting left tackle and corner and a couple of starting receivers and running backs is a task even for the great Bill Belichick. Then add in all the Tom Brady/Gronk/Belichick drama and the fact Bob Kraft needs to step up and pay Brady and Gronk again and it might not look pretty. And the outfit Brady wore to The Met should be a disqualifier alone. But who really got better at the top of the AFC? And how aren't the Pats going to roll through the AFC East with the likes of AJ McCarron/Josh Allen and Ryan Tannehill and Josh McCown/Sam Darnold to contend with? And who is going to beat them in Foxboro in January? Sure, Brady could finally get sucker punched by Father Time, but if he plays at close to last year's level they'll be just fine in the end. Watch.
Everyone is harping on the Marcus Davenport trade as this huge gamble … but they don't need him to be a 15-sack guy right now. Just be able to make a play or two on third down late in the season and that might be enough to get them a little deeper in the playoffs. Keeping Drew Brees was paramount. I wouldn't rule out them making a big trade before the deadline, if possible, to upgrade at pass catcher or pass rusher, and Mark Ingram's suspension might be a good thing come the postseason, when his legs should be fresher. They have a Super Bowl-winning coach and QB and most of their other best players are still on their rookie contracts. That's not a bad formula.
The NFC South should be a monster. Which cuts both ways. A good team or two might miss the payoffs entirely from that division, but the teams that emerge may already have a leg up on the rest of the field. Breaking with some old tendencies on offense was huge, as they added some new coaches and ideas on that side of the ball. D.J. Moore can be an immediate spark plug, they started figuring out how to unlock Christian McCaffrey in the second half of last season and Greg Olsen still moves the chains. Yes, the secondary gives me some concern, but the defense got its swagger back a year ago and Cam Newton wins a lot of football games.
Aaron Rodgers is the best in the world and this team still, somehow, hung around the periphery of the playoff scene without him for most of the season with Brett Hundley pretending to be an NFL quarterback. I'm not sure that basically swapping Jordy Nelson for Jimmy Graham is much of an upgrade, but I also am not naïve enough to think this offense will be an issue with Rodgers back. And the defense has to be much better. Love the additions to the secondary and they have the makings of the best 3-4 DL in the NFL. Muhammad Wilkerson will prove to be a massive signing and this has to the season where Green Bay doesn't run out of running backs by, like, November, right?
It's hard not to want to pencil in Pittsburgh vs. New England in the AFC Championship Game. But after getting declawed by Jacksonville in the playoffs a year ago, the Steelers will have to earn their way back. Ben Roethlisberger seems all about earning a new contract (and alienating backup Mason Rudolph) and this is the last hurrah with Le'Veon Bell. Ending the madness with Martavis Bryant was a wise move, too. The last time the team made a coordinator change it brought the best out of Big Ben in the coming seasons. Woulda loved to see an Earl Thomas trade put them over the top, and I still have concerns about the linebacker group and edge rushers, but the AFC is so watered down that the Steelers still really stand out to me.
Others might have the Falcons in this group (I'll believe Steve Sarkisian can get that offense humming when I see it) or the Rams (I could see a little regression from them) and I wouldn't argue much. They almost made the cut. But the Chargers should have an easier path to the playoffs, they already could make big plays in the passing game and attack the opposing quarterback (essentials to win it all) and I love what they added this offseason. Like the Vikings, it's hard not to think they'll somehow undermine themselves in the end, given their history of doing just that, but Philip Rivers must have one more playoff run in him and they can be damn balanced on offense (adding Mike Pouncey will further help that cause). There is no shortage of talent on defense and I'm not sure anyone else in the AFC West is treading water, much less really getting markedly better.