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hawaiiansteel
07-12-2010, 02:51 AM
The teams that could surprise and make the playoffs in the NFL this season


It happens every year. The NFL’s plan for parity shines through and a no-chance team rises up and steals the division. No one saw Cincinnati sweeping the AFC North before the 2009 season, and plenty of experts called for a Chicago appearance in the Super Bowl. The Saints winning it all? Unheard of. So with the big offseason moves in the books, and training camps just around the corner, it’s time to take a look at each division’s sleeper teams.


Pittsburgh Steelers (AFC North)

It’s hard to call any team in this division a true sleeper, but with an offseason rife with turmoil and injuries, the Steelers may finally get to play the underdog. The offense will struggle early on with Ben Roethlisberger sidelined by a suspension, and losing Willie Colon will hurt the line, but Rashard Mendenhall is the type of back that can be leaned on. Byron Leftwich has started in this league before, and Dennis Dixon has a flair for big plays to go along with a decent spot start last season. Rookie Maurkice Pouncey is versatile and talented enough to help out up front while the situation there is solved.

And then there’s the defense. If Troy Polamalu can keep himself healthy, this unit should again be among the league’s best with James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley rushing from the outside and Ziggy Hood expected to take a major step forward in his second year. For the first time in a long time, Pittsburgh may actually get to surprise a team or two.

Oakland Raiders (AFC West)

The Raiders are probably the most popular sleeper pick out there, but in a division that houses the Chargers, they’re still snooze-worthy. The first step toward relevancy was jettisoning Jamarcus Russell and picking up Jason Campbell. Campbell never fit for the Redskins, and leaving Washington may have been the best thing for him. He’s certainly an upgrade.

Fellow new additions John Henderson and Rolando McClain will help the rush defense in a big way, and Nnamdi Asomugha is still one of the league’s best corners. It may take a season or two, but rookie offensive linemen Bruce Campbell and Jared Veldheer have the raw ability to develop into major contributors up front, an area of monumental weakness for recent Raiders teams. For the first time in years, Oakland has hope based on intelligence and experience not just speed and flash.


Jacksonville Jaguars (AFC South)

All the jokes about the team packing it in and preparing for a move to Los Angeles have been told. And picking Tyson Alualu with the 10th overall pick was a head-scratcher. But this team is only two seasons removed from an 11-5 record and a playoff berth. David Garrard has been criticized like crazy, but he knows how to win games in the NFL, and he has the ability to make this team tough to defend if he can cut down on the eight lost fumbles. That should be slightly easier with second-year tackles Eben Britton and Eugene Monroe manning the outside of the line with a little more swagger.

Mike Sims-Walker established himself as a go-to receiver, something the team hasn’t had since the Jimmy Smith days. Maurice Jones-Drew is one of the most dangerous runners in the league, and proved it last season with 1765 yards from scrimmage in his first year as the full-time runner. The defense will have to make some serious strides, but second-year corner Derek Cox and newly-acquired Kirk Morrison will help along with Alualu who is being seriously underrated right now. This is easily the riskiest team on the list, but anyone can stump for Tennessee or Houston, right?

Miami Dolphins (AFC East)

Bringing in Brandon Marshall and Karlos Dansby were two of the NFL’s marquee offseason moves. Dansby can provide a pass rush from the inside, something the Dolphins will really need with Jason Taylor gone, and Marshall finally gives this team a big, strong receiver that can frighten defenses in the red zone. His presence will work wonders for the development of Chad Henne. Jake Long is an excellent left tackle, and not many teams can claim a rushing duo as productive as Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown, when they’re healthy.

Drafting Jared Odrick allowed the team to slide Randy Starks inside to nose tackle, another area of glaring need. He’ll provide more of a pass rush than most 0-techs. Second-year defensive backs Sean Smith and Vontae Davis should be even better in 2010, and Tony Sparano is one of the league’s most underrated coaches.


Seattle Seahawks (NFC West)

The 49ers can’t really be called sleepers anymore with nearly every pundit around calling for them to win the division, and the Cardinals will likely to take a giant step backwards after losing Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin and Karlos Dansby. That leaves Seattle (sorry St. Louis, but no) as the go-to pick here. Russell Okung is an upgrade at left tackle, and he might actually keep Matt Hasselbeck healthy for an entire season. Justin Forsett emerged as a scintillating runner near the end of the ’09 season, and anyone other than Julius Jones is a step in the right direction. Earl Thomas is a rookie but should fill the role of free safety better than anyone the Seahawks have had recently.

Seattle is relying on a lot of first year talent, but if guys like Lofa Tatupu can return from injury with no ill effects, they could begin to see some success after a hiatus from owning the division. If nothing else, Pete Carroll will energize the franchise, and he might be able to coach current bust defensive end Lawrence Jackson into the player he was at USC.

Chicago Bears (NFC North)

It’s going to take a happy ending to the fairy tale marriage between Jay Cutler and new offensive coordinator Mike Martz for this team to contend in one of the toughest divisions around. But Cutler is a perfect fit for Martz’s scheme, and believe it or not, the Bears actually have some receivers to work with. Johnny Knox was a delightful rookie surprise, Devin Aromashodu scored four touchdowns in the final four games of the 2009 season, and Devin Hester will be entering his second year as a full-time wideout.

Julius Peppers was a major signing, and he came with a major price tag, but he still gives Chicago hope in the pass rush department. If teams are forced to give Peppers their attention, things could open up for Tommie Harris on the inside, if he can stay healthy. But even with Peppers stealing the headlines, getting Brian Urlacher back from injury is the biggest coup for this defense. It’ll take some luck (like Brett Favre finally retiring), but Chicago has serious talent on both sides of the ball.

Carolina Panthers (NFC South)

Yeah, Peppers is gone, and that will affect this defense, but the Panthers have high hopes for second-year defensive end Everette Brown, and the rest of the unit has been tough under John Fox’s watch. Jake Delhomme was great for this team for years, but a turnover affinity that began in the 2009 playoffs blossomed into a full-blown addiction last season. Replacing him with Matt Moore, or rookie Jimmy Clausen, could add a second dimension to the league’s most punishing rushing offense. Steve Smith’s recent broken arm shouldn’t keep him out of action, and Brandon Lafell and Dwayne Jarrett are young pass-catchers with immense talent.

In a division that continually topples its top dog, the Panthers have as much of a chance as anyone. Atlanta will contend as well, and the Saints are the current World Champions, but no one in the NFC South, not even the Falcons, can control the clock like Carolina. Their O-line is one of the best in the NFL. With nothing but green options at quarterback, that’s an advantage that can’t be overlooked.

New York Giants (NFC East)

The Redskins are the sexy pick with Donovan McNabb, Jammal Brown and Mike Shanahan heading to D.C., and the Eagles are trendy right now considering Kevin Kolb’s fantasy dominance in replacement duty last season, but the Giants aren’t exactly a team of scrubs. Despite their sloppy play in 2009, this defensive line has as much talent as any group in the NFL, and it only grew with the additions of rookies Jason Pierre-Paul and Linval Joseph.

On offense, no corps of receivers stepped up like Hakeem Nicks, Steve Smith and Mario Manningham. Eli Manning hasn’t been the quarterback Giants’ brass envisioned when they made him the richest passer in the NFL, but he’s never had weapons like this, and his offensive line is still one of the best in the league. If offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride stops trying to make Brandon Jacobs an outside runner, this unit will be almost impossible to defend. The team didn’t make any big splashes in free agency after paying top dollar last year, but in a division that was rife with offseason turnover, standing pat may have been the smartest move.

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Notleadpoisoned
07-12-2010, 07:58 AM
"Surprise?" Hell, I not only expect the Steelers to make the playoffs each and every season I expect them to win every Super Bowl for the next 20 years.