While it is tricky to look at the NFL before the season starts and confidently predict a Super Bowl winner – even the New England Patriots in their Tom Brady era only repeated once – you can usually count about four or five teams that are strong contenders. It’s generally been possible to say who the favorite is ahead of a season, and that team will usually go close, but it’s safer to say which teams have a realistic shout. This year, you could probably say that the Bills, Buccaneers, Chiefs, Colts and Rams would surprise no-one if they picked up the Vince Lombardi trophy.
So when we talk about dark horse contenders, we’re referring to teams that would genuinely be a surprise if they were to take to the field at the State Farm Stadium in Arizona. The teams we’re going to run the rule over here would not be on everyone’s list to even make the playoffs, let alone win it all. Nonetheless, if they get a fair wind, and things fall into place once the regular season kicks off, these are teams who could spring a surprise and – in a real outside scenario – could even offer some sports bettors, in the states where it’s legal to place bets online, a Super Bowl payout.
They haven’t won a Super Bowl since 1974, and the last time they even won a playoff game was in 2000. They haven’t even been to the playoffs since 2016, so for them to suddenly go from last season’s 9-8 record to winning it all would be a stretch. But then, the Dolphins have stretched this offseason. Dolfans were desperate to see elite offensive line help arrive in Miami, so they were enthralled when Terron Armistead signed up to be part of Mike McDaniel’s debut head-coaching season.
The ink was barely dry on that contract when the club traded for Tyreek Hill, addressing the team’s lack of an elite deep-threat receiver. Question marks still surround Tua Tagovailoa, but it’s completely legitimate for local sports fans to say he has been starved of the tools to make a success of his time in Miami. With Armistead, Hill and a heavily-improved running-back room, that issue has been addressed.
New Orleans Saints
It’s going to be hard for the Saints to move on from Sean Payton, who ran the team for 16 years and delivered impressive success for one of the league’s less fashionable teams, including one Super Bowl. However, former defensive co-ordinator Dennis Smith knows the team well and has most of the pieces needed to make a winning team. This includes a potentially generational set of wide receivers, with Michael Thomas one of the league’s best, Chris Olave an exciting rookie, and Jarvis Landry having magnets for hands.
With Jameis Winston under center, there are some questions over whether an improvement is needed before the Saints can beat elite teams. However they are in the NFC, so they won’t meet many of those, potentially even in the playoffs.
Like the other teams on this list, the Vikings have question marks over the QB role. Should they have traded or tested free agency to get someone better than Kirk Cousins? Maybe. Then again, Cousins – like the QBs at those teams – isn’t a bad quarterback, and a competent passer can carry a team a long way as long as his weapons are of a sufficient standard.
With Dalvin Cook at running back, and Justin Jefferson one of the league’s best young wide receivers, Cousins certainly has assistance in trying to get the Vikings from the position of tricky also-ran to that of genuine playoff threat. Winning breeds momentum, and although the Vikings are second fiddle to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North, that’s a gap that could close a lot sooner than expected since Davante Adams left for Las Vegas. The Vikes might stand still this season – but they could just as easily take a big step forward.
These are three of the teams who have potential to emerge from the mists of mediocrity to become front-line NFL contenders this season. There are others, of course, because that’s the nature of dark horses; they wouldn’t be such a surprise if everyone could see them coming.