Every year in the NFL, there is a team or two that surprises everybody and has a much better year than expected. That was especially true last season, when three teams really shook up the NFL landscape.
Who saw the Chicago Bears coming? After a 7-9 season in 2009, the Bears were projected by most to finish 3rd in the NFC North for the 2010 season, but they surprised everyone, winning 11 games and stealing the divisional crown.
The Buccaneers were expected by most to remain as one of the worst teams in the NFL, following a 3-13 season in 2009. But, led by Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay had a seven win improvement to 10-6, narrowly missing out on the playoffs.
In the AFC, the big surprise team was the Kansas City Chiefs, who rallied from a 4-12 campaign in 2009, to a 10-6 season in 2010 and an AFC West Title.
It’s often hard to project these possible sleeper teams, or we couldn’t say they “came out of nowhere.” But, that’s what I’m going to try and do. I’m going to highlight three teams that could surprise you this season and make the playoffs.
The only requirement is that this team wasn’t a playoff team last season, and they didn’t severely underachieve like the Chargers and Cowboys.
The Lions took a step in the right direction last season, with a four win improvement, and that was with Matthew Stafford only playing three games. If the Lions are to make a run at the playoffs in 2011, it’s contingent on Stafford’s ability to stay healthy, something he hasn’t proven he can do so far in his two years in the league.
He’s missed 19 games in two seasons with various injuries, and a lot of people are questioning whether or not he’ll ever be able to stay healthy. The talent is there, we’ve seen what Stafford can do when he’s not on IR, and he has the ability to lead Detroit toward the postseason.
Detroit has put a lot of weapons around him, with one of the best wide receivers in all of football, Calvin Johnson leading the way. Johnson had over 1000 yards receiving last season without Stafford throwing him the ball much of the way.
Stafford’s second best option in the passing game is second-year tight end Brandon Pettigrew. Pettigrew had an outstanding rookie season, with 722 receiving yards on 71 catches, and 4 touchdowns.
Nate Burleson and Titus Young are some other solid options in the passing game for Stafford.
Jahvid Best leads the running game for the Lions, and the team seems to be pretty high on his ability to be a game changer. He’s not an every down back, so drafting Mikel Leshoure was smart. Best’s game changing speed teamed up with Leshoure’s punishing running style, should give the Lions a solid ground game for years to come.
The Lions defense has shown improvement over the last couple of years, finishing 12th in total defense in 2010.
The Detroit defense is anchored up front by a pair of young and explosive defensive tackles, Ndamukong Suh and rookie Nick Fairley. The duo should make it hard for teams to run the ball inside, and they should also wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks.
The linebackers are a question mark, but veteran Julian Peterson should be a leader of the group. Peterson was 2nd on the team in tackles last season with 83.
The Lions finished 17th in the league in pass defense last season, but the secondary is now a year older, and should be a little better. Louis Delmas led the team in tackles last season, and Alphonso Smith was the interceptions leader with 5.
The biggest issue I see with the 2011 Detroit Lions is youth. They are young pretty much everywhere, with a few veteran leaders sprinkled in there. The future looks bright inDetroit, and if Stafford can stay healthy, then the team has a shot at making a push for the playoffs.
But, that’s a big if.
St. Louis Rams
The Rams were knocking on the door of the playoffs last season, finishing 7-9 and tied for 1st in the NFC West with the Seahawks. But, Seattle won the tiebreaker with a better record within the division.
But, it was a major improvement for the Greatest Show on Turf, as the Rams had a six win improvement from a 1-15 season in 2009. Sam Bradford was a major reason why in his rookie season.
He threw for 3,512 yards with 18 touchdowns to 15 interceptions in 2010, and that was with Danny Amendola as his leading receiver. He’s not going to have a lot better options this season, but the addition of Mike Sims-Walker will help in the passing game. Rookies Austin Pettis and Greg Salas should also see a fair share of targets.
Rookie tight end Lance Kendricks has already made an impression on the coaching staff and Bradford, so you should see him be one of Bradford’s favorite targets in 2011.
Steven Jackson will lead the St. Louis ground attack, but the offensive line will need to open up more holes for him to improve on last season’s 3.8 yards per carry average. While Jackson played all 16-games in 2010, he’s had an injury history so far in his career, so the addition of Jerious Norwood was big, and he’s a big improvement over Ken Darby as Jackson’s backup.
I loved the Rams signing of former Falcons guard Harvey Dahl. That should instantly upgrade the Rams offensive line, buying Sam Bradford more time to throw the ball, and opening up more running lanes for Steven Jackson.
The St. Louis defense was middle of the road last season, led by linebacker James Laurinaitis.
Craig Dahl, Bradley Fletcher, and Oshiomogho Atogwe return to what should be an improved secondary with the addition of Quintin Mikell via free agency.
14th overall pick Robert Quinn should bolster the St. Louis defensive line, and upgrade the pass rush on the other side of James Hall, who had 10.5 sacks to lead the team in 2010.
I think the Rams are the favorites in the NFC West this season, and I fully expect them to be a playoff team in 2011.
The Texans have to accidently make the playoffs eventually, right? They’ve come close on a number of occasions, but they slipped back to 6-10 last season, and finished 3rd in the AFC South race.
This could be the year for the Texans, in a very winnable division. The Colts’ window seems to be coming to a close, and questions surround Peyton Manning and his neck. Houston has the talent to jump up and seriously push Indy for the divisional crown.
The Texans have plenty of offensive firepower to make a push toward the playoffs. Matt Schaub is back under center, after a good 2010 season. His top target, Andre Johnson might be the best wide receiver in all of football, and he should put up huge numbers again this season.
Houston needs Owen Daniels to stay healthy this season, because when he is, he’s the team’s second best receiving threat.
For Houston’s sake, hopefully Arian Foster wasn’t a one-hit wonder in 2010. He led the NFL in rushing yards with 1616 yards and single handedly carried my fantasy team last year. Foster came out of nowhere last season, and if he can keep it up in 2011, then this Houston offense is going to be virtually unstoppable.
The defense has consistently let the team down, and it once again did last season. DeMeco Ryans suffered an Achilles injury last season, but he seems to be back to full strength, and Houston will need him to help lead the defense.
Mario Williams is a monster rushing the passer, and the additions of JJ Watt and Brooks Reed in the draft should take some of the pressure off of Williams rushing the passer.
It’s been the secondary that has been most problematic for the team. They wanted to seriously make a run at Nnamdi Asomugha, but they ended up settling for Jonathan Joseph, who is a pretty solid consolation prize. They also signed safety Daniel Manning to try and improve the secondary.
They used the 20th pick last season on Kareem Jackson, and they’re really going to need to see an improvement from him in his second season. If Jackson takes the next step, then the Houston secondary should see a major improvement, and that could help them challenge Indy for the AFC South title.