Thursday, October 30, 2014

Which Surprising NFL Leaders Could Actually Contend for the Super Bowl?

With the 2014 NFL season reaching its halfway point this week, we’ve got a good sense of which teams are contending vs. which teams are already eyeing top draft picks next spring.  However, as is usually the case in these parity-driven league, several teams have come out and surprised us with brilliant starts to the year.  Sure, we expected the Green Bay Packers and the New England Patriots to be pretty good (as they are nearly every year), but who would have predicted hot starts for the Arizona CardinalsDetroit LionsDallas Cowboys, and Buffalo Bills?  With solid winning records and with fans’ hopes building, can one of these teams continue their hot streak on to wining the Super Bowl?

The short answer is no, and there’s countless reasons why.  Each of these teams have marginal quarterbacks at the helm.  One could try and argue that Tony Romo and Carson Palmer are elite given their statistics or that Matthew Stafford remains one of the game’s best young quarterback prospects, but none of these guys have had any real success in the playoffs.  And while Kyle Orton has played exceptional in several games for the Bills, we should know by now that he is little more than a serviceable backup.  Let’s see how his numbers last over the course of the year.

The one player truly capable of becoming elite is Stafford with the Lions.  Featuring Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush on offense, you’d think he’d be able to do it and at age 26 he still has room to grow and develop, but the Lions unfortunately have a knack for losing that is seemingly running rampant throughout the entire city of Detroit.  While they managed a playoff appearance in 2010 (which ended in the first round), they have become perennial late-season swooners.  Last season the Lions were 6-3 before stuttering to a 7-9 record.  In 2012 they were a respectable 4-4 before losing 8 straight and finishing 4-12.  This is a team that tends to run out of steam when the games begin to matter most! 

Meanwhile the Bills have also grown notorious for poor play, having not reached the NFL playoffs since 1999 (due in large part to the Patriots’ success).  They last teased their fans in 2011 by starting off 5-2 before succumbing to a 6-10 finish.  And then there’s the Cowboys, whose 8-8 record for 3 years running has been maddening to fans.  They seem to live for getting hopes up only to crush them with a late-season falter.  Romo seems to have all the skills but he folds under pressure.  At 34, the chance of him finally getting it right is fleeting at best.
Similarly, the Cardinals’ 34 year-old Carson Palmer has also been just a better-than average QB during his career, putting up solid numbers for the Cincinnati Bengals but never quite achieving greatness.  However, this is the team I see most likely to actually contend for the Super Bowl should the stars align.  The Cardinals got the short end of the stick last season and missed out on the playoffs despite a 10-6 record.  They are hungry and have proven that in the young season, claiming victories against the San Diego Chargers, the San Francisco 49ers, and the Philadelphia Eagles.  They will have a tough end to the year facing the 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks in successive weeks, though if they come through that test, look out!

For me, the challenge about a surprise team winning the Super Bowl is that they lack playoff experience.  Recent Super Bowl champs have all had unsuccessful playoff runs in previous years, but that experience helped them later on.  For example, the Seahawks won a wildcard game in 2012 before losing in the divisional round.  The next season they built off of that success and won the Super Bowl.  For teams like the Lions, Bills, Cardinals, and Cowboys, their last trips to the playoffs were so long ago that many of the core players really can’t understand the magnitude of such games.  As a result, should any of these teams reach the postseason, they’ll probably fall short and lose.  The best bet would be a solid, winning year to build up for a serious run at the Super Bowl in 2015.

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