Wacky as ever, the NCAA men's basketball tournament produced a championship game between two teams (Kentucky and UConn) that weren't even in the field of 68 last season.
With that in mind, which non-playoff participant from the 2013 NFL campaign has the best shot at winning Super Bowl XLIX?
It's impossible to overlook Chicago and its embarrassment of offensive richesWith arguably the most talented set of offensive skill players in the entire NFL -- headlined by Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett -- the Chicago Bears are capable of lighting up the scoreboard, as proven by last year's second-ranked scoring offense. But of course, they must greatly improve a defensive unit that ranked near the bottom in almost every major statistical category. The Bears did well by adding Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen to revamp a defensive front that accumulated just 31 sacks last season (tied for worst in the league). Also, Chicago convinced Charles Tillman to return rather than reunite with former coach Lovie Smith in Tampa Bay.
But let's face it: Success in the NFL always starts with the quarterback position. This team will go wherever Jay Cutler takes it -- and that has been down a rocky road in years past. You have to accept the bad with the good when it comes to Cutler, but if he can spread the ball around to those explosive weapons and limit critical turnovers, Chicago has a great chance to make some noise in the NFC.
Joe Flacco and the Ravens still have a championship mixI think three non-playoff participants from last season have a shot at taking part in postseason play this time around: Baltimore, Arizona and Washington. All three teams have QBs that can get them to the playoffs. I don't see any of them being good enough to win the Super Bowl, but May's draft could make each better.
If forced to choose one, I think Baltimore has the best shot. The Ravens have a good QB -- and the best balance between offense and defense of the three teams listed.
It's a quarterback league: Watch out for Ben Roethlisberger's SteelersGood question. I try not to overthink NFL predictions, because they are inherently impossible. So I just pick the best quarterback to win the Super Bowl each season. (Hence my choice of the Green Bay Packers for the past four years.)
Consequently, this question has me examining the best quarterbacks to not make the playoffs last season: Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Tony Romo and Jay Cutler. Pittsburgh has a lot of roster questions, but Roethlisberger and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau have the potential to cover up a lot of soft spots. The Steelers often excel when less is expected of them.
Baltimore appears primed to rebound in 2014The Baltimore Ravens immediately come to mind. Last year was an adjustment period after the departures of Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, among others. I see the defense enjoying a bounce-back season, especially if the Ravens can address the second safety spot (alongside Matt Elam), giving them a potent enough back end to compete with Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Co. in the AFC.
I expect Joe Flacco to play much better under new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. Between free-agent acquisition Steve Smith, a healthy Dennis Pitta and Torrey Smith, Baltimore has viable weapons in the passing game. And Kubiak's offense almost always features a strong running game, which would take a lot of pressure off Flacco.
Don't ignore the Giants, who certainly have taken everyone by surprise beforeCall me crazy, but why not the New York Giants? In 2006, this organization fielded an 8-8 squad that limped to the playoffs and was promptly beaten. One season later, they won three playoff road games before shocking a highly favored team to secure the Super Bowl title. In 2011, New York hit the road to beat the two best clubs in the postseason -- the Packers and 49ers -- en route to another Lombardi Trophy.
Looking forward to the 2014 campaign, is Big Blue even the fifth-strongest team in the NFC? Probably not. (The 49ers, Seahawks, Saints, Packers, Panthers and Bears might all be better.) But the Giants have a head coach who instills a belief that every game is winnable if the team plays within itself. Tom Coughlin has been incredible in that regard. Eli Manning is plenty flawed, but for whatever reason, he has been able to turn up his game in the postseason.
After making a series of smart mid-tier signings in free agency, the Giants could have a chance at the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East, especially if Jason Pierre-Paul returns to good health and Rueben Randle develops a little further. Stranger things have happened -- like, well, Big Blue winning it all three seasons ago.
Baltimore looks like a fine candidate ... if it can survive a tight AFC North raceThe Bears, Cardinals, Texans, Browns and Steelers (in that order) all have a shot. But since the question asks which team has the best shot, I'll point to the Baltimore Ravens. They're just 14 months removed from winning their last Super Bowl thanks largely to occasionally elite QB Joe Flacco. Now, if you watched Flacco last season, you know the fall of 2013 wasn't one of those occasions -- but that's likely owed to an almost-empty cupboard of pass catchers. That won't be an issue in 2014, thanks to the veteran additions of Steve Smith and Owen Daniels, along with the return of Dennis Pitta at full strength. The offensive line also has experienced some mild upgrades and figures to be further addressed in next month's draft.
The Ravens' biggest obstacle to getting back to the postseason? A rugged AFC North that presents three viable foes: the Bengals arguably boast the conference's most talented roster (aside from at the QB position), the Steelers' defense almost certainly will cut down on the big plays that killed 'em last year and the Browns have emerged from their early-February apocalypse to cobble together an intriguing mix of dynamic players. Matter of fact, it wouldn't be that shocking to see any of the four win the division in 2014.