Seven months of hype is coming to an end and all that we’ll have is the football being played. All our pre-season predictions will soon mean nothing, all our bold proclamations will soon make us look like either geniuses or numbskulls. So, let’s get our last analyses off our chests!
In all the hoopla of predicting division winners, wildcards, conference champions and finally the Super Bowl champion, there are teams that are overlooked. Keep in mind that there is always a significant change in the playoff picture every season. Last year, five teams who weren’t in the 2012-13 playoffs made the cut (Panthers, Chiefs, Chargers, Eagles, Saints).
Teams like the Chicago Bears, Arizona Cardinals and Baltimore Ravens were some of the popular choices to make it back in this year, but inevitably, some teams were overlooked. Here they are; the top five underrated teams entering the season. Keep in mind these won’t necessarily be playoff teams; just teams that will be a lot better than people think.
5) Minnesota Vikings
The Minnesota Vikings have quite a bit of young talent. The kind of talent that can come together for a late-season run and surprise many people.
Mike Zimmer is getting an overdue shot at being a head coach and he takes over a team that allowed the most points in the league last year.
The team is a year older, with first round picks such as Sharrif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes and receiver Cordarrelle Patterson having a full season under their belts. Patterson proved to be the explosive playmaker many expected him to be out of college. When the ball’s in his hands, he’s dangerous.
This team actually has collected five first-round draft picks over the last two years,, (Floyd, Rhodes, Patterson, Anthony Barr and Teddy Bridgewater).
A key move by Zimmer was bringing in Norv Turner as his offensive coordinator. Turner’s always proven to be one of the best offensive coaches in the league. Matt Cassel may be the starter for now, but if he crumbles, they have Teddy Bridgewater waiting. Both quarterbacks looked good in the preseason, which is a positive sign for this team.
Kyle Rudolph is one of the better young tight ends in the league; he just needs a quarterback to get him the ball. Oh, and there’s this guy named Adrian Peterson in the backfield.
This team has more talent than people realize and expect Mike Zimmer to get the best out of them, as he’s usually done in his coaching career.
This team was 5-10-1 last season. With a manageable schedule, they can easily make the jump to 8-8 and flirt with the wild card picture in the NFC. Look for this team to make for a potential spoiler late in the season when they have Detroit in Week 15 and Chicago in Week 17.
4) Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers were closer to a playoff spot than people remember.
After a 0-4 start, they rattled off eight wins in their last 12 games, and six in their last eight. Their final two losses were extremely tight affairs; a 22-20 loss to Baltimore and a 34-28 loss to Miami. Antonio Brown was a step to the right away from pulling off the miracle winning play against the Dolphins.
The Steelers still would’ve been in had Ryan Succop made his late field goal in Week 17 against San Diego.
The Steelers made some key improvements this offseason. Hiring Mike Munchak as offensive line coach was perhaps their biggest acquisition. While Munchak wasn’t quite a fit as head coach, he’s always coached hard-nosed, disciplined offensive lines. This is exactly what Ben Roethlisberger needed.
Their defence is getting young again, and while the Steelers will still need a couple of years to mould it the way they want. They have some new starters, including linebacker Ryan Shazier, who will join Cam Thomas, outside linebacker Jason Worilds and safety Mike Mitchell.
Antonio Brown quietly had an unbelievable season last year, with 110 catches for 1,499 yards and eight touchdowns. That put him at second in the league in catches and second in yards.
If the Steelers avoid the rough start this season, they will be in the thick of the hunt again and who knows, maybe Cincinnati or Baltimore slips up late in the season and the Steelers leapfrog to the top of the AFC North. Remember, a great organization doesn’t stay down for long.
3) Washington Redskins
Team name controversy and Robert Griffin III controversy aside, Washington has actually had a good offseason in terms of building pieces on their team.
Their big acquisition was former Eagles receiver and arch-nemesis DeSean Jackson. You have to think that Jackson will play extra hard in Washington’s two meetings with Philadelphia.
Another reason this team can be better than people think is their division isn’t exactly full of world beaters. The Cowboys constantly disappoint, the Giants are fringing on a rebuild and while the Eagles are the division favourites, this division has seen a revolving door of winners in recent history. The 2014 division crown is wide open at this point. Plus, Washington will get the easier schedule, a last place schedule, meaning the Bucs and Vikings, whereas the Eagles will have to play Green Bay and Carolina. The NFC East also plays the AFC South, probably the league’s weakest division.
Frankly, it’s hard to see this team not getting better. Even if RGIII struggles, Kirk Cousins is right there to take the reigns. Washington could very well creep back up the NFC ladder.
2) New York Jets
The New York Jets were supposed to be a laughingstock last year. Rex Ryan was to be ridiculed and mocked for his constant bravado and sent out of New York on his can after a terrible season. However, we discovered something; behind the brash, bombastic Rex Ryan the media sees, there is a great football coach who knows how to get through to his players.
The Jets were blown out on several occasions last year, but when Geno Smith wasn’t making boneheaded rookie mistakes, this team was very competitive behind a solid defence and sustained ground game. Their 8-8 finish shocked many and earned Ryan a contract extension.
The Jets added some pieces on offence, most notably Chris Johnson and Eric Decker. While Johnson was heavily overpaid in Tennessee, he now has a chip on his shoulder at a reduced salary. Decker is trying to prove that he is in fact a no.1 target.
Plus there’s last year’s defensive rookie of the year Sheldon Richardson. His 78 tackles, 3.5 sacks and even two rushing touchdowns shows how valuable he is to this Jets team.
This team has also shown it can hang with the league’s best, having beaten the Patriots and Saints last season. The AFC East isn’t all that strong, with the Bills in disarray and many question marks in Miami. Overtaking New England is still a long shot, so their most important match-ups will be with fellow wildcard contenders San Diego in Week 5, Pittsburgh in Week 10 and as usual, their two meetings with the Dolphins in weeks 13 and 17.
1) San Diego Chargers
Yes they were a playoff team last year, but the San Diego Chargers are still being overlooked heading into the 2014 season. In terms of winning the AFC West, Denver is still the huge favourite, understandably, but when we get to the games that really matter, San Diego is going to be a tough out for anybody in the AFC.
Philip Rivers proved last season that with a decent offensive line, a go-to guy at receiver and the right coaching that he is one of the better quarterbacks in this league. He was much smarter with the ball last year and his accuracy was back.
The Chargers addressed their weakness in the secondary by drafting cornerback Jason Verrett out of TCU.
Losing OC Ken Whisenhunt to Tennessee is a tough break, but Frank Reich has shown much promise and Mike McCoy will still keep a strong eye on Rivers and the offence.
In an AFC that’s absent of great teams (safe Denver and New England), the Chargers actually present tough matchup problems with them.
The Chargers won five of their last six to reach the playoffs last year, including an upset of Denver in Week 15 and beating the Chiefs twice.
San Diego’s defence shut down the favoured Bengals in the wildcard round and their late rally gave Denver a scare in the divisional round. Had it not been for a 3rd and 17 conversion on Denver’s last drive, the Chargers could’ve gotten the ball back, down seven with a chance to erase a 17-point deficit. Their secondary let them down late, but they sure gave Denver a scare.
Last year, we saw the Chiefs falter once their schedule got tougher. The Chiefs will face tougher opponents this year and Oakland is still a ways away from being a contender. San Diego should finish second in the west again and could pull a shock or two in the playoffs. They’re one of the teams better equipped to knock off the Broncos or Patriots. Don’t overlook this team as the season reaches its peak.