NFL

Top 10 candidates to unseat the Patriots following Super Bowl LI

Michael Dixon
Written by Michael Dixon

Super Bowl LI is in the can, and of course congratulations are owed to the New England Patriots, who beat the Atlanta Falcons, 34-28, in overtime.

With that out of the way, it’s never too early to look ahead to Super Bowl LII.

No team has repeated as Super Bowl champion since New England in 2003 and 2004. So, that tells us that as great as these Patriots always seem to be, they will not be victorious on February 4, 2018 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Who are the most likely teams to unseat New England?

Can the Atlanta Falcons get back? What about the Green Bay Packers or Seattle Seahawks? Are the Oakland Raiders and Dallas Cowboys likely to continue 2016’s momentum? Are the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos likely to get back a year after Super Bowl 50’s participants both missed the playoffs? What teams might be completely surprising?

When Super Bowl LII rolls around, which teams are most likely to take the reigns from the Super Bowl LI champs?

1. Atlanta Falcons 

Losing a Super Bowl is always tough. No losing team has returned to the Super Bowl the next year since the Buffalo Bills in 1993. No Super Bowl loser has won the following year since the famed 1972 Miami Dolphins.

So, why can the Falcons deviate from history?

Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is bound for San Francisco. Still, don’t expect this team’s explosive offense to fade. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones get most of the attention, but Atlanta is loaded with weapons on the offensive side of the ball.

The defense is rapidly improving as well. The return of Desmond Trufant will only make that a more potent unit. Youngsters Vic Beasley and Deion Jones showed massive improvement through 2016, which should continue into next season.

The NFC South won’t be any cakewalk. But even if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints come strong in 2017, the Falcons are still a viable Super Bowl threat.

2. Dallas Cowboys 

Sure, the 2016 season ended in disappointment. But entering 2017, Dallas has a ton of promise.

It starts, of course, with a pair of super rookies who are not afraid of the big stage, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott.

Each man will have a year’s worth of experience under his belt in 2017. Behind the NFL’s best offensive line, both should be expected to take a step forward. The Cowboys also have a talented group of receivers, anchored by Dez Bryant and future Hall of Fame tight end Jason Witten.

Fulfilling the promise will come down to solidifying the defense. By and large, the Dallas defense was solid throughout 2016, but it got exposed in the playoffs. The good news is that problems aren’t so glaring that they can’t be fixed with some smart signings and draft picks.

With the possible exception of the Patriots, the Cowboys were the NFL’s best start-to-finish team during the 2016 regular season.

Expecting a big dip in production from such a young team is not a good idea. Dallas will be one of the NFL’s top teams again in 2017 and could well go all the way.

3. Oakland Raiders

The 2016 season was just cruel for Oakland. In Week 16, the Raiders led the AFC West, held the conference’s No. 2 seed and were only a game back (with the tiebreaker) from the Patriots for home field advantage.

Then Derek Carr got hurt. In two weeks time, Oakland went from a Super Bowl favorite to a Wild Card team that couldn’t even beat Brock Osweiler in the playoffs. In many ways, having hopes like that get completely crushed is even worse than just being a hopeless team.

Fortunately, crushed hopes and all, there’s some good news for the Raiders.

Carr will be back in 2017. He’ll team up again with (among others) Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree, Latavius Murray, and one of the NFL’s top offensive lines. That group was good enough to anchor one of football’s top offenses in 2016.

Khalil Mack is a monster, and Aldon Smith is expected back in March, but Oakland certainly has some holes to plug on defense, namely in the secondary.

But by and large, the Raiders have one of the NFL’s most talented rosters and really are the AFC’s version of the Cowboys. With a young nucleus, this team should be a Super Bowl threat for 2017 and the rest of the foreseeable future.

For the first time since the days of Jon Gruden, things are clearly going the right way in Oakland.

4. Seattle Seahawks

Can John Schneider put together a group that can protect Russell Wilson and lead a running attack? In 2016, the answer was a firm no. Wilson was heavily pressured all year, while the running attack was 25th in yards per game and 24th in yards per carry.

But if that group is improved upon, then the Seahawks are a viable Super Bowl threat.

The 2016 season was a down year for Seattle. Still, it made the playoffs and won a game in the postseason for the fifth straight season and sixth time in seven years.

The offensive line is a problem, but the rest of the team is talented. A returning Earl Thomas will go a long way in solidifying a defense that struggled at the end of the regular season and in the playoffs.

Seattle also shares a division with two of the NFL’s worst teams (San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams). So, the Hawks should be in the playoffs and know how to win once there. Until that changes, they’re a viable Super Bowl threat every year.

5. Denver Broncos

There are some certain differences, but Denver and Seattle are quite similar. It’s awfully hard to see either team winning Super Bowl LII without improving the offensive line.

But if that happens, watch out.

The Broncos have a championship caliber defense. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders make for one of the NFL’s best receiver tandems. C.J. Anderson and Devontae Booker are a more than competent rushing tandem.

The quarterback position might seem like a question mark, but even that’s debatable. Statistically, 2016’s passing game was not much worse than 2015’s.

An acquisition of Tony Romo might seem sexy, and it could potentially happen. But no big quarterback move should be made until the line is improved.

With an improved line, Denver is a Super Bowl threat with Trevor Seimian, Paxton Lynch, Romo, or basically anyone else.

6. Green Bay Packers

The NFC Championship loss to the Falcons exposed the 2016 Packers. Fortunately for Green Bay, the 2017 team figures to be much different than the one that couldn’t hang with Atlanta.

The Packers made the NFC Championship Game with a depleted defense and a makeshift rushing attack. What happens when the defense is healthy? What about the running backs? If nothing else, Ty Montgomery should be a much better running back with more experience and a training camp under his belt at the position.

It’s also been suggested that Green Bay will be more active in free agency, which you can read about here.

That all figures to make the team better.

Most importantly, we can’t count the Packers out because of one position that will not be different — quarterback. Any team with Aaron Rodgers is in with a chance.

It hasn’t always been easy (see 2016), but Green Bay has qualified for the postseason in each of the last eight seasons. No team has a longer active streak, and only New England has an active streak that’s as long.

Nobody can win a Super Bowl without making the playoffs and the Packers are a safe bet to do that. But they’re also a safe bet to make some noise once there.

7. Indianapolis Colts

Jim Irsay believes that Chris Ballard was the best GM candidate of the 21st century. That may be overstating things, but he should be a significant upgrade over Ryan Grigson.

From Day 1, Grigson completely neglected what should have been his primary responsibility – protecting Andrew Luck. He also failed to give the Colts a complete defense that could win games against quarterbacks like Tom Brady.

Still, from 2012-2014, Indianapolis went 11-5 three times and made the playoffs each season. The 2015 and 2016 seasons brought regression, but the Colts still went 8-8 in each year. Now they have a general manager who will (at least theoretically) try to assemble a football team rather than a fantasy team. That should be worth a few wins, right?

Unlike most non playoff teams, Indianapolis is undeniably set at the quarterback position.

The Colts head into 2016 with a strong quarterback, talented skill players and a defense that has talent but needs help. If that sounds familiar, it should. The same things were true about the Falcons heading into 2016.

With a strong offseason, Indianapolis could well be a Super Bowl contender in 2017. It wouldn’t even be that surprising.

8. Carolina Panthers

From 2013-2015, Carolina was 34-13-1 in the regular season and advanced to (at least) the divisional round each season. In 2016, the Panthers were 6-10 and missed the playoffs.

So, what’s the outlier? One bad season or a good three year run?

Cam Newton is still one of the game’s best, most dynamic players. He also seems to be on the wrong side of a double standard on hits that are allowed on quarterbacks, especially stars.

Expect that to be a big talking point of the offseason, possibly with new rules being adapted. If defenses can’t go hard at Newton, only a few  teams have the personnel to contain him. But even if rules aren’t changed, Newton now has an offseason to adjust his game to what happened in 2016.

Outside of Newton, Carolina has a talented offense, highlighted by some big, talented receivers. The Panthers struggled on defense without Josh Norman, but a young secondary improved as the season progressed. Those guys will be back and frankly, they should be expected to take another step forward.

Even with an incredibly disappointing 2016 season, it’s hard to see Carolina as anything but a viable Super Bowl contender in 2017. There is just too much talent on this team.

9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The year before the Buccaneers drafted Jameis Winston, they were 2-14. Tampa went 6-10 in his rookie season and backed that up with a 9-7 mark in his second year. That’s the sign of a team and its franchise player making big progress.

With just two years in the books, Winston is fast moving up the list of the NFL’s best quarterbacks. He also has a strong connection with one of the NFL’s best receivers, Mike Evans.

What potentially holds the Bucs back is the division they play in. A team from the NFC South has represented the NFC in each of the last two Super Bowls. Also, while the championship days are probably over for the Saints, they’re not a pushover team.

But Tampa is on the upswing and went a solid 4-2 against NFC South opponents in 2016.

If proper resources in the draft and free agency are devoted to tightening up the defense, the Bucs become a real Super Bowl sleeper for the 2017 season.

10. Tennessee Titans

While Winston is coming along well, fellow Class of 2015 quarterback Marcus Mariota may be a step ahead of him.

The Titans saw a similar progression of success with Mariota as Tampa Bay did with Winston, going from 3-13 in 2015 to 9-7 in 2016. Now, they’re in position to take it to the next level. Tennessee is better positioned than any of these teams to get immediate impact players in the draft, as well.

Of course, that’s because of a savvy trade made a season ago (more on that here).

The Titans had the No. 1 pick in the 2016 Draft, but traded it away to the Rams, who drafted Jared Goff. Part of Tennessee’s return package was Los Angeles’ 2017 first rounder. After a 4-12 season from the Rams, the Titans have the sixth overall pick in the draft in addition to their own 18th. For a team that was already on the brink of being very good, two picks in the top-20 is a huge shot in the arm.

The franchise was moving in the right direction already and now has assets to get even better. Don’t be surprised to see a deep playoff run from Tennessee in 2017.

About the author

Michael Dixon

Michael Dixon

Bay Area born and raised, I have extensive experience in both the print and online worlds. There are few things in this world I love doing more than talking sports.