Each season in the NFL, there seem to be a handful of teams that surprise everyone. Whether it involves a run to the Super Bowl, a playoff appearance, or even just winning more games than fans expect, there’s at least two or three franchises that make for a fun story. The Patriots might have some reasons to be concerned, but these three teams have nothing to lose this season.
1. Chicago Bears
Why they might surprise: The Bears were 6-10 last year, but most expected them to be even worse than that. The first year under John Fox created a much more disciplined team with a more professional air about them. Adam Gase, now with the Miami Dolphins, experienced the best success with Jay Cutler that any offensive coordinator has ever had, and the defense is improved this year too. They don’t have the toughest schedule either, meaning a 9-7 finish isn’t out of the question.
What might hold them back: They lost Matt Forte, and although second-year running back Jeremy Langford looks like a quality option in the backfield, they could struggle after losing their main back of the last 10 years. The team is talented in the secondary but also thin in depth, so a few injuries could sink them quickly. They also have tough teams in the division, with the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings looking to make the playoffs yet again this season.
Prediction: Cutler reverts back to the pre-Gase version, but Langford has a good year and the Bears continue to be well-coached. They beat up on some of the weaker teams on their schedule while playing their divisional opponents tough, finishing with nine victories and in contention for a playoff spot.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars
Why they might surprise: The Jaguars have made several key improvements to their roster after finishing 5-11 last season. Now they may have one of the best running back tandems and wide receiver groups in the game. Blake Bortles isn’t one of the top QBs in all of football, but he made big strides last season to improve. If he continues to get better, the Jags could have one of the more exciting offenses in the NFL.
What might hold them back: They had a pretty bad defense last year, and while they spent money on new players to improve both the front seven and the secondary, there’s no guarantee that it will work out. The Jaguars also have a questionable offensive line, which might put a damper on the improved running game with free agent signee Chris Ivory.
Prediction: The Jaguars play in the AFC South, which isn’t the best division. It’s certainly not as weak as the NFC East, but a 9-7 record might be good enough to win it yet again this year. That could be where Jacksonville falls, although we wouldn’t be shocked to see them finish anywhere from 5-11 again to 10-6.
3. Oakland Raiders
Why they might surprise: The Raiders already surprised — to a degree — with their 7-9 finish last year. The parts of the team that are secure, the offensive and defensive lines, are some of the best groups in the league. The less secure spots, meaning the wide receiver corps, the running game, and the secondary, hold reasons to be positive at worst. David Carr had a good season last year, which was nothing spectacular but frankly was better than just about anything a Raiders QB has done since Rich Gannon.
What might hold them back: They’re still the Raiders. They need better production out of their running backs, considering how good the offensive line is. They also need the secondary to gel quickly and perform well if they’re going to put together a strong defense. The biggest negative, however, might be the fact that the Raiders play in one of the toughest divisions in the game; the Broncos are still a playoff team, the Chiefs aren’t going anywhere, and even the Chargers might be a lot better this season.
Prediction: The Raiders are headed to the playoffs. They only have two games on their schedule, outside of the divisional games, against teams that were in the postseason last year. They could win anywhere from eight to 11 games this season, but the likely outcome is a 10-6 season.
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