The teams that are expected to seriously contend for a chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in 2018 are not shockers. The New England Patriots, with their brilliant offseason acquisitions of TE Dwayne Allen, WR Brandin Cooks and CB Stephon Gilmore look primed to defend their title, even after a week one loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. To the delight of Dallas Cowboys fans all over the country and no one else, the suspension of RB Ezekiel Elliot for his various off-field incidents has been postponed. They also still have the game’s most dominant offensive line, and if QB Dak Prescott is able to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump, the Cowboys offense will be electric.
The Green Bay Packers look to make another deep postseason run with their star QB Aaron Rodgers. The Packers retooled their offense with the free agent signing of TE Martellus Bennett from the Patriots and have decided to commit to former WR Ty Montgomery as their primary backfield option. The Pittsburgh Steelers still have QB Ben Roethlisberger and the two most dominant players at their respective positions in RB Le’Veon Bell and WR Antonio Brown in addition to a defense that finished in the top ten for lowest average points allowed per game. Last but not least, with the return of QB Derek Carr from injury and a talented defense led by Khalil Mack, the Oakland Raiders should make serious nose in the AFC as well.
While there are undoubtedly other teams that I am overlooking as Super Bowl contenders, the four aforementioned teams have the best chance to make a deep postseason run based on their roster, and the odds makers in Las Vegas feel similarly. The Patriots open the regular season with 11-4 odds to hoist the Lombardi trophy, while the Packers and Raiders both come in with 8-1 odds to win. The Steelers have 10-1 odds to win the championship, while the Cowboys trail with 12-1 odds. However, there are certainly quite a few teams that are being overlooked for a chance to make the playoffs. These teams are often referred to as “sleepers.”
My first sleeper team is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The subject of HBO’s famed Hard Knocks series this summer, the Bucs are a dangerous team that have added some serious firepower this offseason. They signed WR Desean Jackson from the Washington Redskins to complement Second Team All-Pro WR Mike Evans. They drafted TE O.J Howard from Alabama to provide franchise QB Jameis Winston with a reliable tight end weapon to contend in the NFC South, a much-improved offensive conference. The Bucs will go as far as Winston takes them, as their defense still has holes with a below average secondary and a talented, but very young linebacker core.
The Tennessee Titans finished with a solid 9-7 record, and if QB Marcus Mariota had not picked up a substantial knee injury late in the season, the Titans might have been able to make some noise in the playoffs. The acquisition of WR Eric Decker, who the New York Jets released in an effort to save money, and the selection of WR Corey Davis from Central Michigan, has now turned one of the Titans’ weaknesses last year into one of its main strengths. Mariota had very few dependable options to throw the ball to last season, but assuming the health of the Titans receiving corps, their offense will improve a great deal in comparison to that of last season. The Titans also possess a dynamic backfield duo in both Demarco Murray and Derrick Henry. They remain as options to improve on their running game that ranked third in the league last season.
In addition, the AFC South is a glaringly weak division since the Texans are struggling to find a quarterback to help out JJ Watt and the Texans defense, and Andrew Luck has struggled to stay on the field and is still experiencing shoulder issues. If Blake Bortles can find his form, the Jaguars could be a threat to the Titans’ division chances, but I believe that the Titans have a solid chance of winning a playoff game at the very least. The Jags’ resurgence took a hit in week one when top receiver Allen Robinson went down with an ACL tear. Because of the Titans’ new receivers that will allow their already dynamic running game to become even more of a threat, Tennessee will be able to surprise a lot of teams in the league and become contenders. Once again though, if Mariota is not able to remain on the field, the Titans’ playoff chances take a huge hit
My final sleeper team is the Cincinnati Bengals. Due to the midseason injury of their best player, WR AJ Green, the Bengals failed to meet expectations for their 2016 season. After winning the AFC North division two of the past three seasons, the Bengals finished in third place in their division with a sub-.500 record. The return of Green will help QB Andy Dalton find his form again. However, the losses of guard Kevin Zeitler to the Cleveland Browns and left tackle Andrew Whitworth to the Los Angeles Rams are tough to swallow. If the Bengals struggle again this season, their failure to re-sign these players will be looked at as the biggest reason why, as their offensive line now looks shaky at best. Despite being shut out to the Ravens this past week, look for Cincinnati to regain their footing and fight for a spot in the playoffs.
On the bright side, all of these teams will undoubtedly be better than the New York Jets, who look poised to be the first winless team since the 2008 Detroit Lions.