We’re at the point in the offseason when all 32 NFL teams have Super Bowl expectations. It’s a sense of optimism around the league. Certainly, said optimism will give in to reality for most of these teams.
Even then, there’s at least one reason each team can ultimately end up hoisting the Lombardi once next February comes calling.
From a New England Patriots squad looking to earn a third consecutive conference title to a long downtrodden Cleveland Browns franchise with more talent than we’ve seen in the recent past, here’s one reason each NFL team can win the Super Bowl next season.
New England Patriots: They’re the Patriots
This seems too easy. Certainly, New England has proven itself as one of the greatest dynasties in professional sports history. Five Super Bowl titles and eight conference titles over an 18-year span. Until Tom Brady ultimately hangs up his cleats and the Patriots are forced to replace Bill Belichick on the sideline, the Patriots will be legit Super Bowl contenders. In an offseason that has seen the Pats add talent for Mr. Brady in the form of rookie first-round pick Sony Michel, there’s no reason to doubt this squad heading into 2018.
Buffalo Bills: A.J. McCarron morphs into the next Jim Kelly
McCarron signed a two-year, $5 million deal after an eventful ending to his Bengals career. Should he earn the starting job over rookie Josh Allen, he’ll be among the lowest-paid QB1s in the league. Even then, the Bills must hope for the best from a quarterback in McCarron that some around the NFL thought was worthy of a high second-round pick. If he fails to exceed expectations, the Bills will miss the playoffs after earning a postseason spot for the first time since 1999. It’s in this that the veteran proving his worth could catapult an otherwise talented Bills squad to the second season again. At that point, anything is possible.
Miami Dolphins: Frank Gore won’t be stopped
We’re at the point in Gore’s career when questions have to start stirring about whether he’s actually a human. He could have been sent here from interstellar space to show us humans that running backs in fact have long shelf lives. Because, there’s really no other explanation. Entering his age-35 campaign, the future Hall of Famer has put up 1,200-plus total yards in each of the past 12 seasons. If he’s able to continue at this level with Ryan Tannehill returning 100 percent from an ACL injury, Miami could very well return to the postseason after a one-year hiatus. Stranger things have happened.
New York Jets: Sam Darnold is Russell Wilson 2.0
We’re going to go out on a limb and indicate Darnold is the most pro-ready quarterback of the 2018 NFL Draft. Okay, that’s not necessarily a shocking revelation. What makes the USC product so exciting is his live arm and down-field throwing ability. That could shine above the likes of Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater during camp. With an improved set of skill-position receivers and what could be a top-10 defense this coming season, Darnold’s emergence as the next version of a young Russell Wilson could help these Jets surprise the masses.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Offense finally lives up to its talent
It’s not a stretch to say that Pittsburgh boasts the most-talented offense in the NFL. Future Hall of Famers Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are among the most dynamic at their positions in the league. With Pittsburgh having ranked in the top-10 in scoring in each of the past four seasons, it’s apparent this unit should have led the team to much more postseason success. Unfortunately, the Steelers are averaging just 22.6 points per game in the playoffs during that span. An uptick in performance from this unit come January could lead to one final Super Bowl run for Big Ben.
Baltimore Ravens: Defense dominates to mask Joe Flacco
Flacco has been among the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL since leading Baltimore to the title back in 2012. Last season saw the former first-round pick put up just 3,141 yards to go with 18 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 16 starts. He is seemingly a weak link on a Ravens team with loads of talent elsewhere. Coming off a 2017 campaign in which Baltimore’s defense yielded the sixth-fewest points in the NFL, there’s a good chance this unit will be able to mask Flacco’s inefficiency under center. It’s going to be all about youngsters Marlon Humphrey, Carl Davis and Tim Williams progressing on defense.
Cincinnati Bengals: Do-or-die season for Andy Dalton, Marvin Lewis
If you’re banking on these two to pick the Bengals up from their recent doldrums, we’re really sorry. Both the head coach and quarterback have failed at every turn during Cincinnati’s postseason appearances in the Dalton era. During that span, Cincinnati boasts an 0-5 record. For his part, Dalton has thrown one touchdown compared to six interceptions in four career postseason starts. It’s not good. But we’re looking at a survival of the fittest. Two guys who are in it for their jobs. There’s no telling what that might bring out of Dalton and Lewis this coming season. At the very least, it brings hope that desperation will lead to success.
Cleveland Browns: Baker Mayfield is a winner
We have to hang our hats on something for a Browns team that finished only the second winless 16-game regular season in NFL history and is 1-31 since the start of the 2016 campaign. If we’re going to do that, it must be all about this reigning Heisman winner. During his four-year college career, Mayfield posted a 40-9 record as a starter. The Browns themselves have won a total of 38 games since Mayfield was a 13-year old boy. If there’s any hope, it starts and ends with him.
Kansas City Chiefs: The backfield
There’s still a level of uncertainty surrounding second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes after he made one start as a rookie last season. Duplicating Alex Smith’s success (50-26 record in Kansas City) isn’t going to be easy. But the former first-round pick boasts one of the strongest arms in the game and has a capable receiving group. Add in a two-headed running back monster in Kareem Hunt and Spencer Ware who combined for over 3,100 total yards in their last seasons in the NFL, and there’s a lot to like about this group. Kansas City’s offense is going to be electric in 2018. And in reality, it could lead to surprise Super Bowl contention.
Los Angeles Chargers: Momentum from last season continues
Having posted a 9-3 record to conclude last season, these Chargers were among the best teams in the NFL in the final three quarters of the year. Heck, the Chargers’ average margin of victory during that span was north of two touchdowns with Philip Rivers throwing for 22 touchdowns compared to six interceptions in those 12 games. Of the three games Los Angeles lost during that span, two came by one score. With one of the league’s best defenses and a tremendous supporting cast around Rivers on offense, there’s no reason to believe these Chargers can’t contend for a Super Bowl in 2018.
Oakland Raiders: Jon Gruden
We really don’t know what to expect from Gruden in his first season coaching in the NFL in over a decade. What we do know is that he’s acted as the unofficial general manager of the Raiders and has revamped the supporting core of this roster to his liking. With a talented franchise quarterback in Derek Carr under center, one of the league’s best offensive lines and a more than adequate receiving group, Gruden’s Raiders should excel on offense. If the other side of the ball performs well under new coordinator Paul Guenther, there’s a good chance we could see a repeat of the Raiders’ double-digit win campaign from 2016. At that point, and with a healthy Carr under center, anything is possible.
Denver Broncos: Finally have a legitimate quarterback
Denver’s primary issue the past two seasons has been quarterback play. Last year saw this team’s quarterback trio act as one of the worst in the entire NFL. The likes of Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch and Brock Osweiler combined to throw 19 touchdowns compared to 22 interceptions en route to leading Denver to a disastrous 5-11 record. Enter into the equation a free agent addition in Case Keenum who is coming off a 2017 campaign with Minnesota that saw him lead the team to an 11-5 record while throwing 22 touchdowns compared to seven picks. This could make a world of difference for an otherwise talented Broncos squad.
Jacksonville Jaguars: The defense
It’s a strong reason, too. Last season saw Jacksonville rank second overall in total defense and points allowed. The likes of Telvin Smith, Calais Campbell, Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye all turned in All-Pro caliber performances. Not resting on their laurels, Jacksonville added defensive tackle Taven Bryan and safety Ronnie Harrison in this year’s draft. Should Blake Bortles hold up his end of the bargain on offense, there’s absolutely no reason to believe these Jags can’t win the Super Bowl this coming season. That’s just how good this squad is.
Tennessee Titans: Mario Mariota goes super
As a third-year player last season, Mariota regressed a great deal under center. The former Heisman winner threw 13 touchdowns compared to 15 interceptions en route to being one of the worst regular starters in the NFL. This came on the heels of a sophomore campaign that saw Mariota throw 26 touchdowns and just nine picks. Despite Mariota’s struggles, Tennessee still put up a 9-7 record and a surprise trip to the postseason. The talent is here with Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis in the backfield as well as an exceptional group of pass catchers. Should Mariota return to 2016 form, the Titans will be a team to reckon with.
Houston Texans: Stars return from injury
It looks as if both quarterback Deshaun Watson and defensive end J.J. Watt will be healthy for training camp after missing large portions of last season to injury. For his part, Watson led Houston to an average of 31.3 points in six starts as a rookie. The team averaged just 15 points in games he didn’t start. A healthy Watson certainly makes this Texans team dangerous. And if Watt — a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the year — is healthy after missing all but eight games the past two seasons, Houston will contend with Jacksonville for the division title. At that point, anything is possible.
Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck
At the very least, Indianapolis is a competitive team with Luck under center. When he’s sidelined, this is one of the wort squads in the NFL. During his six-year career with the Colts, Luck is 43-27 as a starter. The team boasts a 10-16 record when he’s sidelined. That’s legitimately not going to cut it. The good news here is that Luck seems on the verge of throwing again after missing all of last season with a shoulder injury. With the additions Indianapolis made in the draft, namely along the offensive line, a healthy Luck could make for a much more competitive 2018 season.
Philadelphia Eagles: They won last season
Unless an entire team is blown up or a quarterback retires, there’s no reason to believe a defending champ can’t compete for a Super Bowl the following season. That’s magnified when it comes to these Eagles, especially with 2017 MVP candidate Carson Wentz slated to return after missing the team’s playoff run last year. No matter how well Nick Foles played in the postseason, Wentz is clearly a better option under center. Philadelphia also made sure not to stand pat during the offseason, adding upgrades in the form of wide receiver Mike Wallace and defensive end Michael Bennett.
Dallas Cowboys: Ezekiel Elliott turns in record season
Elliott might already be the most valuable non-quarterback in the NFL. That came out in a big way during a sophomore campaign in which the running back was suspended six games. More than anything, Dak Prescott is impacted the most by Elliott’s presence. Since the two joined Dallas back in 2016, Prescott has thrown 40 touchdowns compared to 10 interceptions with Elliott on the field. In the six games Zeke has been sidelined, he’s tallied five scores compared to seven picks. While Dallas did lose both Jason Witten (retirement) and Dez Bryant (released), there’s still enough talent on this team to contend. Having put up 3,246 total yards in just 25 career games, it starts and ends with Elliott.
Washington Redskins: Alex Smith
It’s not that Smith is a better quarterback than Kirk Cousins. That would be foolish to assume after what we saw Cousins do in D.C. over the past three seasons. Instead, it’s rather obvious that Smith has a better track record in terms of team-wide success than the quarterback he’s slated to replace this coming season. Say what you want about Smith’s shortcomings, he’s a winner. Over the course of his five-year career with the Chiefs, Smith posted a 50-26 record as a starter. That came on the heels of a final two seasons in San Francisco that saw him put up a 19-5-1 record. If you don’t think that history of success is important, we’re not too sure what to tell you.
New York Giants: Saquon Barkley changes everything
As Eli Manning continues to receive flack for his less-than-stellar recent performances, one thing became clear in New Jersey. The Giants simply have not had a running game to help him out. Here’s a squad that has not had a 1,000-yard rusher since Ahmad Bradshaw back in 2012. As we’ve seen with the likes of Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott in the recent past, a running game can change everything. Considered one of the most talented running backs to enter the NFL in the modern history of the league, Barkley can change everything on a dime. And with Odell Beckham Jr. back healthy, it could lead to a dynamic offense for the Giants in 2018.
Minnesota Vikings: Kirk Cousins is an upgrade
We have to give Case Keenum credit for what he did in leading Minnesota to the NFC Championship Game last season. It really was a sight to behold for the journeyman backup. In no way does that mean Cousins isn’t an upgrade over Keenum. He is. Here’s a dude that put up an average of 4,400 yards with 27 touchdowns and 12 picks in his final three seasons with the Redskins. Boasting one of the game’s best receiving groups, a tremendous running back and the NFC’s top defense, adding an upgrade in Cousins makes these Vikings top-end Super Bowl contenders. That’s as clear as day.
Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers
Rodgers is one of the primary reasons head coach Mike McCarthy is vastly overrated. As one of the best quarterbacks to ever play, the difference Rodgers makes on the field cannot be overstated. Green Bay posted a 3-6 record in the nine games Rodgers missed to injury last season. It was 4-3 in his seven starts. Dating back to his second season as a starter for the Packers, Rodgers is an absurd 50 games over .500. That can’t be taken with a grain of salt. Now that the Packers have a reliable rushing attack and an elite-level red-zone threat in Jimmy Graham, this offense should take off in 2018. If so, Super Bowl contention is not highly unlikely.
Detroit Lions: Balanced offensive attack
For the first time since Reggie Bush was doing his thing for the Lions, it seems like they actually decided to invest on the running back position. That’s a good thing given that this squad has not had a 100-yard single game rusher since Bush back in 2013. By adding LeGarrette Blount in free agency, the Lions found that short-yardage back to go with incumbent starter Ameer Abdullah. The team then exhausted a second-round pick on Kerryon Johnson to potentially replace Abdullah as the starter. This will give a seasoned Matthew Stafford the balance he so desperately needs on offense. And in reality, it could lead to surprise contention for the Lions in 2018.
Chicago Bears: Matt Nagy becomes Doug Pederson 2.0
The building blocks are there for Chicago heading into the 2018 season. Second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky finally has that offensive mind to work with. Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen represent a dynamic backfield duo. Meanwhile, Chicago added former 1,000-yard receiver Allen Robinson on the outside. While this team is certainly years away from true contention, Nagy could be the initial difference-maker. If he is able to be the next great offensive coach under the Andy Reid coaching tree, the Bears themselves will be in a good spot. Considered a genius on that side of the ball, we could see a surprise team in the Windy City next season.
Los Angeles Rams: All in for 2018
It’s not that the Rams aren’t set up to contend long term. Following a surprising NFC West title in 2017, this team did exhaust some future draft capital in trading for the likes of Brandin Cooks, Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters. It also signed former All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to a lucrative one-year deal. The writing is on the wall here. Young head coach Sean McVay and Co. are all in for that Super Bowl appearance this coming season. With a tremendous young quarterback in Jared Goff and reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley in the backfield, there’s no reason to believe these Rams won’t be better than they were last season.
Seattle Seahawks: Rashaad Penny provides balance
On the surface, Seattle has taken a major step back compared to Los Angeles and San Francisco in the NFC West. Losing key defenders Michael Bennett, Sheldon Richardson, Cliff Avril and Richard Sherman doesn’t help matters here. Though, GM John Schneider and Co. did make one big move in reaching for this San Diego State product in the first round of April’s draft. Certainly, Penny was selected higher than he should have been. In no way does that mean he won’t have a huge impact for a Seahawks rushing attack that saw Russell Wilson lead the pack with 586 yards last season. Having put up 2,283 rushing yards for the Aztecs last season, Penny can be that true three-down back. In doing so, he might make all the difference in the world for Seattle.
Arizona Cardinals: Sam Bradford turns in healthy season
When healthy, Bradford has been a darn good quarterback. In fact, some might conclude that he’s been better than the recently retired Carson Palmer. Over the course of the past five seasons (38 starts), Bradford has tossed 56 touchdowns compared to 23 interceptions. He’s among the most accurate quarterbacks in the NFL. The issue here is that Bradford has missed more games than he’s played in during that span. Should he prove to be healthy and with a dynamic David Johnson returning from injury, the Cardinals could very well surprise the masses in 2018. It’s all about Bradford’s health.
San Francisco 49ers: New culture in Santa Clara
The goodwill that came with five consecutive wins to end last season under the recently extended Jimmy Garoppolo has given in to what should be considered unrealistic expectations for the 2018 campaign. San Francisco is now seen as an under-the-radar Super Bowl contender. Andy while that might be the NFL’s version of putting the carriage before the horse, head coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch have built a winning culture in Northern California. With the talent to potentially earn a playoff spot this coming season, there’s a chance San Francisco could meet the above-mentioned expectations. Wins over playoff teams such as the Titans, Jaguars and Rams to conclude last season was a nice first step.
New Orleans Saints: The defense
We can focus on Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas. These three on the offensive side of the ball will certainly play a role in any contention for the Saints this coming season. With that said, New Orleans will only go as far as its surprisingly productive defense takes this team. It starts with Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan along the line and extends to the secondary, where reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore is slated to break out even more in 2018. Should this Saints’ defense prove to be dominant, there’s no reason to believe Sean Payton’s squad can’t contend for the Lombardi. It’s that simple.
Carolina Panthers: Super Cam
Cam Newton was anything but super last season, tallying 22 touchdowns compared to 16 interceptions in what was the quarterback’s worst performance since his rookie season. Even then, Carolina found a way to win 11 games and earn a playoff spot. Now that the Panthers have added reinforcements on offense in the form of running back C.J. Anderson as well as receivers D.J. Moore and Torrey Smith, Newton won’t be going it alone in 2018. With a surprisingly good defense on the other side of the ball, an MVP performance from a player who was once the league’s most valuable could change the tide in the NFC South.
Atlanta Falcons: Steve Sarkisian finally gets it
We’re not going to blame Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman and Julio Jones for the Falcons’ regression on offense last season. Instead, pretty much all the blame has to go in the direction of Sarkisian after he struggled replacing former Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. The hope in Atlanta is that Sark finally gets it. That another offseason will help him understand the nuances of the NFL. After all, there no reason an offense as talented as this should rank in the middle of the pack in points scored. With a solid defense, Sark’s performance as OC will be under a microscope in 2018.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jameis Winston proves himself
Winston actually regressed a great deal for the Buccaneers in his third season as the team’s starter. In leading a unit that ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in points scored last season, Winston threw just 19 touchdown passes. That’s not what the Buccaneers had envisioned for the former No. 1 pick. The hope here is that somehow Winston finds a way to improve leaps and bounds this coming season. Adding a stellar young running back in Ronald Jones could help matters. But in reality, the Buccaneers’ hopes of surprising the masses will depend on Winston’s performance under center.