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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

10 NFL teams that could surprise in 2018

Philip Rivers

There is a pretty strong consensus as to who’s going to contend for playoff spots and potentially win the Super Bowl, and it generally consists of the usual suspects. Expectations are already fairly cut and dried for everyone — who’s going to be good and who’s going to be bad.

There are, however, a few teams capable of beating those expectations. It may be that they’re underestimated, or little is expected of them this season. It may be that they’re expected to be downright awful but have the potential to be more than that.

Here are ten teams that may beat the expectations set for them during the 2018 NFL season.

10) Detroit Lions

There’s been almost no buzz about the Lions this offseason, and it’s easy to forget that they held themselves in the playoff race pretty late into last season. In fact, expectations are such that the failure to get there despite a fairly forgiving schedule cost Jim Caldwell his job. He’s been replaced by Matt Patricia, and the Lions still have a quality quarterback in Matthew Stafford. They’ve also aggressively tried to fix their moribund running game, with rookie Kerryon Johnson and veteran LeGarrette Blount now part of the fold. The NFC’s toughness may be their biggest enemy, but they shouldn’t be overlooked.

9) Cleveland Browns

We are, in fact, grading on a curve here. Despite a very busy offseason, expectations are going to remain very low for Cleveland after going 1-31 in their last 32 games. They should easily outpace that this year. Tyrod Taylor is a better quarterback than any of their recent options, and he has a legitimate top target in wide receiver Jarvis Landry. Tight end David Njoku looks like he could emerge as well. If rookie cornerback Denzel Ward fits in from day one, they’ll win a handful of games. They might not be a playoff contender, but it would be surprising to see them picking first overall again next season.

8) Indianapolis Colts

Much depends on the health and effectiveness of Andrew Luck, but don’t overlook the Colts this year. The Colts brought in new head coach Frank Reich, who was credited for helping innovate the Eagles’ Super Bowl offense. Reich’s presence plus Luck could see Indianapolis take a big step forward, at least on the offensive side of the ball. The defense will likely hold them back as a playoff contender, but if they manage to improve some, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that they could hang around the playoff race late into the season.

7) Cincinnati Bengals

Andy Dalton hasn’t been a particularly great quarterback for a while now, but the Bengals showed signs of life late last season and there is at least some stability in Marvin Lewis’ surprise return. Maybe that will turn out to be a mistake, but it doesn’t take much to turn 7-9 into 9-7. Slightly better defense will help, and as long as A.J. Green is on the field, Cincinnati has a big play threat. Keep an eye on second-year pro John Ross, who could add a valuable second option after a lost rookie season.

6) Chicago Bears

The Bears finished 2-2 in their last four contests last season, beat two playoff teams in Carolina and Pittsburgh earlier on, and were within a score of Minnesota, Atlanta, and New Orleans. In other words, they have something to work with. They also got to work giving young quarterback Mitchell Trubisky some weapons, including wide receivers Allen Robinson, Anthony Miller and Taylor Gabriel, as well as tight end Trey Burton. Roquan Smith should be an immediate help defensively, while new head coach Matt Nagy is well-regarded offensively. It would not be a surprise to see clear improvement from the Bears this year, even if playoff contention might still be too much to ask for.

5) New York Giants

The Giants’ defense still isn’t great. However, an offense that had a lot of injuries and questions this year should take a big step forward. Saquon Barkley is in the fold, Odell Beckham and Sterling Shepard both appear healthy, and Eli Manning still knows how to win games. The expectation both outside and inside the league is that they’ll be hard to stop this year. It could be enough to bludgeon their way back into playoff contention after a poor season.

4) Denver Broncos

The Broncos’ best teams in recent years have been built on defense, and if this group finds any success, that will be the primary reason. Rookie Bradley Chubb joins a unit that still boasts the likes of Von Miller and Chris Harris. If they mature quickly, they will have a good unit. Ultimately, Denver’s success is on the shoulders of Case Keenum. If he gives them above-average quarterback play, they’re playoff contenders, so it would be best not to sleep on this team.

3) Houston Texans

Getting Deshaun Watson back healthy is like adding an impact acquisition, and coach Bill O’Brien has worked hard to build the offense around him. There’s a lot to like about the Texans. Key players are healthy — particularly J.J. Watt — and their front seven is excellent. The offense looked dynamic when Watson was healthy. They have one of the league’s easier schedules. The Texans should be targeting playoffs this year, and they absolutely have the quality to do so if they can remain healthy.

2) Tennessee Titans

As Houston did with Watson, the Titans have made it a point to finally fully tailor their offense around Marcus Mariota. That offense is still a work in progress and still lacks the solid receiving targets that the Titans probably wish Mariota could have, but Dion Lewis looks a nice addition at running back. New coach Mike Vrabel has also built a solid defense and added cornerback Malcolm Butler, who should have a point to prove. This Titans roster is capable of good things, perhaps even more than people are expecting.

1) Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers are expected to be a good team, but it’s easy to overlook the fact that the pieces are in place here for a potentially elite team. They have the star quarterback in Philip Rivers. They have an excellent top target in Keenan Allen and a young player in Mike Williams, whom they’ll need to take a step forward. There’s the pass rush that features Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa, and a strong secondary will boast Casey Hayward and rookie Derwin James. Injuries could be a factor, and the loss of cornerback Jason Verrett will hurt them, but there’s immense talent here that could contend for a Super Bowl if they get the breaks they need.

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