We've made our playoff predictions. We've selected our Super Bowl combatants. Now it's time to spotlight some teams we predict will rise as dark horses this season. More specifically, we'll identify teams currently perceived as also-rans that are about to make some unexpected noise.
There is literally no chance we will get any of these predictions wrong. Here we go.
Gregg Rosenthal's pick: Minnesota Vikings
It's easy to forget that the Vikings' defense, not the clownish quarterback carousel, torpedoed their 2013 season. New head coach Mike Zimmer is a top defensive mind and has some delicious talent with which to work. The defensive line (Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Brian Robison, Sharrif Floyd) is one of the most intriguing young groups in football. Safety Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes and rookie Anthony Barr add explosive ability to the back seven.
The offense also looks frisky. They have the best running back in the league, our favorite breakout star candidate and a quality tight end in Kyle Rudolph. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner won't turn Matt Cassel into Troy Aikman, but Cassel is better than plenty of starters out there. When Cassel falters, Teddy Bridgewater will be ready. The Vikings won't want to move back indoors after they sneak in a winning record this year.
Chris Wesseling's pick: Washington Redskins
As I mentioned on the Around The NFL Podcast last week, I am maintaining a semblance of faith in Robert Griffin III's unique talent to teach myself a lesson about not putting too much stock in an essentially meaningless preseason. RGIII will have his early-season stumbles in transitioning from gimmick offense to pocket passer, but there's too much talent on this refurbished offense to fail in epic fashion.
If the offensive struggles of the past month raise doubt, the play of Jim Haslett's defense has offered reasons for optimism. New starters Jason Hatcher and Keenan Robinson key an upgraded front seven, and the back end should have fewer holes with the addition of veteran safeties Ryan Clark and Duke Ihenacho and the emergence of David Amerson at cornerback.
The Redskins might just have the widest range of outcomes this season. One of those outcomes is winning the NFC East and shocking a contender in the first round of the playoffs.
Dan Hanzus' pick: Atlanta Falcons
Perhaps the gruff uncle charm of Bryan Cox on Hard Knocks has left me with a rooting interest, but I don't believe the Falcons deserve to be overlooked as a team that can make noise in the NFC. Last season was an obvious failure on multiple fronts, but any team led by a front-line starting quarterback -- which Matt Ryan is -- has a shot to win nine or 10 games.
The preseason loss of left tackle Sam Baker hurt, but first-round pick Jake Matthews certainly has the potential to capably protect Ryan's blindside. Rookie Devonta Freeman showed flashes in the preseason and could be a weapon in the backfield. Meanwhile, the importance of Julio Jones' return from a foot injury cannot be overstated. Don't be shocked if Jones and Roddy White end up being the most productive one-two punch at wideout in football.
I expect Atlanta to move ahead of Carolina in the division and claim a Wild Card spot behind the Saints. Bryan Cox will light a victory cigar. Last year's disastrous 4-12 campaign will be a distant memory.
Marc Sessler's pick: Jacksonville Jaguars
After picking Blake Bortles to win Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, I'm doubling down with the Jaguars as my sneaky team of choice. It boils down to new hope under center and a Gus Bradley-led defense set to emerge in Year 2. Red Bryant, Sen'Derrick Marks and Chris Clemons meshed well in August for an amped-up line that racked up eight sacks and 36 quarterback hurries over four preseason tilts.
Jacksonville's frisky defense will help keep the Jaguars in games until Bortles replaces the painfully bland Chad Henne. We can point to the rookie's lack of work against opposing starters, but everything Bortles was asked to do in August, he did with more poise and flair than Henne. It recalls Ben Roethlisberger's rookie season with the Steelers, during which he watched from afar in 2004 before replacing a milquetoast and dinged-up Tommy Maddox just two weeks in.
Bortles will grab the reins by Week 3 and turn Jacksonville into a team nobody wants to play by December.