|David J. Phillip / Associated Press|
|Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson have turned the Houston offense into a juggarnaut and the Texans into a contender.|
Each season there's a team -- or three -- that comes out of nowhere to captivate us and earn a shot at the playoffs. The past two seasons, dubious doormats Arizona and New Orleans unexpectedly ventured all the way to the Super Bowl, with the Saints carrying home the Lombardi Trophy to obscure the paper grocery bags of shame 'Aints lore.
In the shadow of Cinderella -- and projected powerhouses like Indianapolis, New Orleans, San Diego, Minnesota, Baltimore and the New York Jets -- there also are teams that have been steadily building. They're not necessarily Davids or Goliaths, but rather teams that have been to the playoffs or escalated to the cusp and earned league-wide respect.
Here's five of those contenders and why at least one of them could make a push to the Super Bowl:
The Texans have been a fashionable, but unfulfilling playoff pick over the past few seasons, falling just short of getting to the postseason in 2009. Quarterback Matt Schaub took Houston from 8-8 to 9-7, developing one of the NFL's top passing games in the process. A season-ending injury to rookie RB Ben Tate put a kink into their plans to bolster the running game this season, but with Andre Johnson and the return of Owen Daniels, the offense should be just fine in this playoffs-or-bust season.
Defensively, well ... don't the questions always start and end on that side of the ball? Houston had a pedestrian 30 sacks and 14 interceptions last season and it lost cornerback Dunta Robinson to Atlanta via free agency. Twice-voted Defensive Rookie of the Year Brian Cushing will miss the first four games of the season for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. If defensive end Antonio Smith can elevate his game to help bookend Mario Williams, Houston's defense might offset some of its shortcomings. The Texans might have gained enough ground to seriously threaten the Colts' perch atop the AFC South.
The Falcons went 9-7 last season after winning 11 games in 2008. While that result might have disappointed Matt Ryan and Co., it was the first time in the franchise's 45-year history that it posted consecutive winning seasons. That is a staggering stat that highlights the futility of the Falcons franchise historically. Michael Turner is more than 10 pounds lighter than he was last season, and he is motivated by an injury-shortened season in which his yardage total (871 rushing) fell by almost 50 percent from 2008 (1,699). Ryan needs to take a step forward in his third year after struggling last season. Tight end Tony Gonzalez might be making this season his swan song, so he should compete at his normally high level. Roddy White has quietly emerged as one of the league's most productive wideouts. Offensively, Atlanta should have no worries.
On defense, the addition of Robinson at one corner solves a gaping hole, but there is still another gap to be plugged at the other corner. A lot of hope is being hinged to second-year defensive tackle Peria Jerry, who is coming off knee surgery that ended his rookie season. If he can stay healthy, the Falcons defense should be adequate. If not, they will be vulnerable -- again. Even so, Atlanta should be able to outscore anyone who can't exploit the Falcons defense for at least 24 points.
Last year, the Bengals won the AFC North (10-6) and made it to the playoffs for the first time since 2005, but quickly got washed out by the Jets in the wild-card round. What happened last season in Who Dey Country doesn't seem like a fluke ascension. Cincy has assembled a defense made up of fearless, nothing-to-lose players that resemble King Leonidas and his band of Spartans. Nobody wants to invite them in for dinner but they sure want them protecting the property. The Bengals look to be even better this season. They get back pass-rushing defensive end Antwan Odon from injury, and second-year hybrid DE/OLB Michael Johnson has the makings of something special. Add in arguably the top cornerback tandem in the NFL and the Bengals should always be in games because of their ability to stifle an opponent.
Offensively, the missing spokes last season were receiving threats -- especially ones that could stretch the field. That left Chad Ochocinco as the lone option. With Terrell Owens, rookie Jordan Shipley and versatile rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham on board, quarterback Carson Palmer has no excuses. Palmer seemed to plateau last season, but not having the options he has now could have contributed. So might have an offensive line that is very adept at run-blocking but just so-so in pass protection. That could be the case again this season, but with more weapons, getting the ball out of his hands quicker will be much easier for Palmer. If that fails, handing the ball off the Cedric Benson is a nice fall-back option. Actually, it will be Cincinnati's first option because the Bengals like to pound it and Benson is looking even more focused than he did during his bounce-back 2009 season.
Falling to 7-9 in 2009 after posting 11 victories and unexpectedly going to the playoffs in 2008 might have been a truer indication of what type of team the Dolphins really were. They were competitive and were developing some young talent, but they needed playmakers on both sides of the ball -- and they went out and spent heavily to get some. Miami signed inside linebacker Karlos Dansby from Arizona and traded for Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall. They also hired defensive coordinator Mike Nolan from the Broncos, a deft maneuver that should reflect with Miami putting more pressure on Mark Sanchez, Tom Brady and whomever Buffalo starts, among others. The Dolphins lost pass-rush production by letting aging outside linebacker Joey Porter and Jason Taylor leave, but upstart Cameron Wake is projected to do big things at one of those spots. More pressure should translate to more turnovers, and more turnovers puts the offense in better position to score.
Marshall alone has put the AFC East on notice, bringing size and big-time playmaking ability to what could shape up to be the most competitive division in the NFL. With Marshall giving Miami a game-changing wide receiver, fewer teams will be able to stack the line of scrimmage. With fewer obstacles in the way, the potent running game should be even more fearsome -- as long as Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown stay healthy. The Dolphins' playoff hopes rest squarely on second-year starter Chad Henne. He's generated a lot of optimism but he must make significant upgrades over last season, when he threw 14 picks and 12 touchdowns (2,878 yards). If Henne reduces his mistakes, Marshall will pick up some of the slack and the ultra physical Dolphins could make a serious playoff push.
San Francisco 49ers
Like Houston, the 49ers have been a trendy pick in past seasons that's fallen short. Unlike the Texans, the 49ers (8-8, second in the division in 2009) didn't have most of the pieces in place. But they do now.
Under evolving coach Mike Singletary and a very solid staff, San Francisco is ready to make a move, and not just in the weak NFC West, which it should win convincingly. Should, of course, is contingent on quarterback Alex Smith. San Francisco will ride or die with a player who has yet to show anyone outside of a practice field that he's truly capable of making enough plays to win big games. Sure, he can manage a game and let running back Frank Gore ramrod defenders until he breaks down, but that won't be enough because the 49ers won't sneak up on people. Smith has looked better having a full offseason with burgeoning star wide receiver Michael Crabtree. Fellow wide receiver Josh Morgan is a very strong complement to Crabtree. He also has Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis if all else fails. With those threats, Smith should be more than insulated. Should he get off to a good start, his confidence will build, as will his teammates' confidence in him.
A potential glitch is how well rookie guard Mike Iupati and rookie tackle Anthony Davis hold up. Smith is going to get plenty of opportunities to make plays because the 49ers' defense is one of the most physical in the NFL. With the game's top inside linebacker in Patrick Willis, rugged end Justin Smith and nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin in the fold after a lengthy training camp holdout, San Francisco is very dangerous -- and everyone knows it.