You can walk into all 32 of the NFL team facilities and somewhere, plastered on a sign in big bold letters, is a list of generic goals that serve as a kind of checklist for the season: Make the playoffs. Win the division. Win the Super Bowl. In my experience, having been around this game and this league for nearly 40 years, every team enters the season believing they are contenders and that all of these goals are attainable. And as a coach, you better believe it because you can be sure the fan base -- and more importantly, the owner -- believe it, and your job depends on it.
But the great Bill Walsh once told me that in reality, at the start of the season, there are only about a half-dozen teams that have a legitimate shot at winning the Super Bowl. Sure, there are pretenders, and we will talk about them more below, but even in the hyper-competitive modern NFL, there are only a handful of teams that can realistically believe, from a rational perspective, they can and will contend for a Super Bowl in a particular season.
But the evidence supports Walsh: Super Bowl teams rarely spring up out of nowhere. For every instance of the 2001 Patriots (5-11 in 2000) or the 1981 49ers (6-10 the year prior) rising from the ashes, there are dozens of examples of seasoned playoff competitors taking that last step. The last six Super Bowl champions averaged 11 wins in the season they won the title, and 11.3 wins the season prior to winning it all. The last 14 Super Bowl champions had a .500 or better record the year before they won the title. Ten of the last 12 Super Bowl champions were in the playoffs the previous season (the only exceptions being the 2011 Giants, who had gone 10-6 the year before, and the 2009 Saints, who were 8-8 in '08).
Even our 2000 Ravens' championship run -- for an organization that had never experienced a winning record in its four previous years of existence -- was directly preceded by an 8-8 season. While there are a handful of outliers throughout the history of the NFL, the trend is obviously clear: Super Bowl champions generally have a recent history of regular-season success as well as playoff experience; they've reached the plateau -- have been forged in the crucible of January pressure -- then regrouped and risen again.
With that in mind, here are six teams that enter the 2016 NFL season with a realistic chance at winning it all.
1) ARIZONA CARDINALS
The Cardinals fit the bill with double-digit wins in each of the past three seasons, and they have been to the postseason the last two years and won 13 games in 2015. Last year, Carson Palmer earned his first-ever playoff victory in the divisional round before getting smacked around by the Panthersin the NFC Championship Game.
Larry Fitzgerald is like a fine wine that keeps getting better with age, and David Johnson is arguably one of the best all-around running backs in the NFL. Defensively, the Cardinals have a playmaker at every level, with Calais Campbell and Chandler Jones among the front seven, and two of the best ball defenders in the secondary -- Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. On paper, it would be hard to argue that there is a more complete team in the league.
2) CAROLINA PANTHERS
The Panthers finished last year with 15 regular-season wins and a Super Bowl run that ended with a disgruntled Cam Newton walking off the stage after Super Bowl 50. Despite only seven wins in 2014, they still qualified for the playoffs and even managed to win a wild-card matchup against the Arizona Cardinals. So the Panthers still meet the analytical criteria laid out above, and are actually my pick to represent the NFC again in the Super Bowl.
Newton is clearly one of the most physically dominant players at his position. While his mixture of size and athleticism is always going to look a little different in the pocket, it is time to stop ignoring him when discussing the elite quarterbacks in the NFL. This year, Newton will benefit from the return of Kelvin Benjamin to pair with one of the most consistent tight ends in the NFL, Greg Olsen.
Defensively, the Panthers have the best pair of defensive tackles (Kawaan Short and Star Lotulelei) in the entire league and the most athletic trio of linebackers (Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson) playing behind them. But they aren't nearly as strong in the secondary as they were a season ago (with Josh Norman going to Washington), so they are going to have to scheme around a questionable back half.
3) GREEN BAY PACKERS
As long as the Packers have the best quarterback in football, a svelte Eddie Lacy, a healed Jordy Nelson -- and less of a challenge from a Vikings team trying to work in Sam Bradford -- they have to be considered a threat. Right now, they are listed as a favorite for each game on their schedule. Those things can change quickly, and the Packers' defense needs to answer some questions. But this is the sort of season (and division) where a good Packers team can wind up with a great record, and Lambeau Field can be a hard place for visiting teams to win in January.
4) NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
5) SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
Even with all the success, the Seahawks continue to morph into a team built around the quarterback rather than the "Legion of Boom" and run game. Russell Wilson has transitioned from a "game manager" who attempted just 393 passes in 2012 to now becoming the focal point of the offense, in which he will likely throw the ball 500 or more times this season. Wilson is my pick to win the MVP, and I think he could finish the year with 40-plus total touchdowns and fewer than 10 total turnovers.
6) PITTSBURGH STEELERS
The Steelers have had double-digit wins in each of the last two seasons in what has possibly been the toughest division in the entire NFL. They are not only my pick to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl in February, but I am taking the Steelers to win the whole thing. But that isn't without reservations.
The Steelers are still a revolving door along the offensive line and once again, they will start the season with Le'Veon Bellserving a multi-game suspension. To make matters worse, they will be without breakout receiver Martavis Bryant for the entire season, but even with all of that, this Steelers' offense is the most dynamic and explosive unit in all of football. If Big Ben stays healthy, he will be wearing his third Super Bowl ring.
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At least three other teams fall just outside this elite six. These are the teams that still fit the historical evidence above, and may still qualify for the playoffs, but in my eyes, just don't have enough to be the last team standing.
7) CINCINNATI BENGALS
It's easy to dismiss the Bengals as perpetual losers, but they have some of the best personnel in the league, and they are a team that is undeniably hungry after last year's excruciating playoff loss to the Steelers. Tyler Eifert needs to get healthy and the Bengals need to replace key pass catchers, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, but the defense remains a strong suit.
8) KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
The Chiefs stood at 1-5 last year, having lost their best player (Jamaal Charles) for the season. Out of such adversity do some teams find the ability to rise up. Kansas City won its last 10 regular-season games, secured its first playoff victory in 22 years, and now returns all of its offensive weapons. The limited Alex Smith has nonetheless looked sharp in his fourth year in Andy Reid's system. The big question is how much the stout defense will suffer after the injury to Justin Houston (he's not close to being able to play) and the loss of cornerback Sean Smith.
9) DENVER BRONCOS
Yes, the defending Super Bowl champions return a remarkable defense. But when you lose both a Hall of Fame quarterbackand his highly-regarded backup, there isn't much to fall back on. Every team that has won a championship on the back of a great defense coupled with a physically dominating running game -- that simply doesn't exist in Denver this year.
And finally, there may be some other teams (Oakland, Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Minnesota) that might conceivably work their way into contention and win a playoff game or two, but you can be confident that come February, this season's Super Bowl winner is somewhere above on this list.