By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) While it might be a shock to some if the Bears were to rise up in the NFC North and steal the division title away from the Green Bay Packers, they are not looked as a dark horse in the NFL.
At the very least, they should remain in wild-card contention and have an excellent chance to make noise in the playoffs if Jay Cutler stays healthy and the defense holds up.
In the long NFL season, neither of these are givens.
However, there are several teams this season that have a legitimate chance to overcome poor finishes in recent seasons and become legitimate NFL surprises.
Kansas City Chiefs – Perhaps no team is better set up to climb to the top of their division or at least make a strong run at the wild card than the Chiefs. Start off with the fact that they play in a division that is not overpowering. That gives Romeo Crennel a legitimate chance to infuse his team with confidence. The Chiefs have balance on offense as long as Matt Cassel and Jamaal Charles can stay healthy. Dwayne Bowe can go downfield and make big catches. The defense has legitimate Pro Bowl candidates in linebackers Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson. The Chiefs are not dominant in any one area, but they don’t have any major weaknesses.
Carolina Panthers – If the Saints fall back just a little this season and the Atlanta Falcons struggle to overcome past playoff failures and an ordinary offensive line, look for Ron Rivera’s Panthers to make a big move. Cam Newton is coming off a record-setting rookie year and rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly is a tackling machine. That’s what ailed the Panthers last year. Look for the defense to go from one of the worst in football to middle of the pack this season.
Seattle Seahawks – It used to be that teams with rookie quarterbacks had no chance to succeed in the NFL. That idea no longer makes sense. Young quarterbacks like Russell Wilson come into the game understanding the pro-style offense and its language. It is not foreign to him and he has shown himself to be a very accurate passer. Marshawn Lynch can run the ball and Pete Carroll’s defense feature Pro Bowl free safety Earl Thomas, one of the most underpublicized and instinctive players in the game.
Buffalo Bills – If you were paying attention last year, you will remember the Bills got off to a 4-1 start and showed signs that they might be ready to make a run at the AFC East. That was not the case because they did not have the semblance of a legitimate pass rush and they were forced to become too one-dimensional on offense. This year, head coach Chan Gailey can look at his defensive line and see hard-charging Mario Williams who can destroy the pocket. He poses a threat on every play. A balanced offense that includes Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller running the ball for four quarters is a good thing for the Bills. This isn’t because Ryan Fitzpatrick is not an accurate quarterback. It’s because his arm lacks the strength to throw more than 35 times a game without getting tired. The Bills will not run out of steam this year.
Indianapolis Colts – We’re not saying the Colts are going to become a playoff team this year, but the presence of a potentially dominant rookie quarterback Andrew Luck will allow this team to surprise opponents who take them lightly. The Colts were a joke without Peyton Manning last year and Jim Irsay cleaned house. New head coach Chuck Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has gotten the team out of its tired Cover-2 and they Colts will play an aggressive 3-4. They will force mistakes and the strong-armed Luck will take advantage of it. The Colts should have an excellent chance to play .500 football this season.
Washington Redskins – For much the same reason the Colts look like a team that will rise up, so do the Redskins. Robert Griffin III should be an impact player from the start but he will get to top speed when it comes to leadership and execution by midseason. He has all the physical characteristics a quarterback needs to be successful, but a better receiving crew should help. The best thing the Redskins have other than their rookie quarterback is an attacking defense that includes a superb group of linebackers including London Fletcher, Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.