By the end of the week, every NFL team will have started training camp, and just about all of them will entertain some level of Super Bowl aspirations. (OK, not the Dolphins.) For a handful of teams, though, those championship dreams are real, including heavily favored franchises like the Patriots, Saints, Rams, and Chiefs. But every season, several teams come out of nowhere to win divisions, make postseason noise, and throw their hats in the ring. So I decided to take a look at some of the quieter contenders hiding in plain sight—teams with current Super Bowl odds of at least 20/1—and see who has a legitimate chance to make a surprising run.
Dallas Cowboys (20/1)
What happened last year: In many ways, Jason Garrett’s team seems capable of building off its 10-6 finish and division title from last year. The Cowboys defense allowed just 20.3 points per game in 2018 thanks to contributions from emerging stars like Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, and Dallas is set to return virtually every starter from that unit. Amari Cooper, the former top-five pick whom the Cowboys pried away from the Raiders midseason, amassed 725 receiving yards and six touchdowns in just nine games—which projects to a 16-game pace of nearly 1,300 yards and double-digit scores. But dig a little deeper and some reliably predictive metrics indicate that the Cowboys’ 2018 season might have been a mirage. Dallas was 8-2 in one-score games, with a point differential of just plus-15. Those numbers indicate that the Cowboys were closer to an 8-8 team than a 10-win squad. And with minimal offseason additions to the roster, there are reasons to believe that the defense (which finished 11th in weighted DVOA and tailed off a bit down the stretch) may come back to earth in 2019.
Why they could beat the odds: Even if the defense plateaus this fall, there’s cause for optimism on offense. All-world center Travis Frederick returns this season after missing all of the 2018 campaign with Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disease that attacks the sheath of a person’s nerves. When the Cowboys have been at their best during the Dak Prescott–Ezekiel Elliott era, they’ve leaned on a running game that starts with Frederick’s ability to reach nose tackles with minimal help and give his guards (including All-Pro Zack Martin) space to climb toward linebackers immediately after the snap. Along with helping to make protection calls and organize the league’s most expensive offensive line, Frederick also alters the box math in the Cowboys’ favor. The complexion of their offense changes with him in the game.
Outside of Frederick, the Cowboys’ line as a whole should be healthier in 2019 too. Both Martin and tackle Tyron Smith dealt with lingering ailments last season that caused them each to miss two-plus games and kept them on the injury report almost the entire second half of the season. This unit is still capable of dominating opposing defenses when it’s fully intact.
Getting Frederick back is crucial, but he may not be the most important addition to the offense. After suffering through a season of stagnant play design and an easily predictable passing game, the Cowboys let offensive coordinator Scott Linehan go this offseason and replaced him with former quarterbacks coach Kellen Moore. There’s no guarantee that Moore will hit the ground running as a first-year play caller, but this team needed to do something—anything—to give Prescott the best chance to succeed. Dallas finished 26th in passing DVOA last season, and, despite the widely held belief that Cooper transformed the offense upon his arrival, the Cowboys’ weighted offensive DVOA ranking (23rd) was just about even with their season-long finish (24th). Creating more separation for receivers through play design—and finally making Prescott’s job consistently easier for the first time since his rookie season—would be the most significant improvement Dallas could make from 2018 to this year.
What might hold them back: The Cowboys defense is undeniably talented, as stars like Demarcus Lawrence and Byron Jones, along with the Vander Esch–Smith combination, give Dallas difference-makers at every level. But questions about the safeties and the unit’s across-the-board depth went unaddressed this offseason, and the personnel largely hasn’t changed. Cowboys fans will likely point to the team’s trade for defensive end Robert Quinn as a key move, but last season, Quinn logged just two more disrupted dropbacks (39) than 2018 Dallas starter Randy Gregory (37) on 36 more pass-rush snaps. On a per-snap basis, Gregory was more effective as a pass rusher, according to Pro Football Focus. Quinn could step his game up now that he’s on a possible contender and playing across from Demarcus Lawrence, but former Dolphins teammate Cam Wake was no slouch.
The Cowboys also lacked playmakers on offense last season, but instead of making major moves to bring more in, they lost Cole Beasley in free agency, replaced him with Randall Cobb, and signed 64-year-old Jason Witten to rescue him from the Monday Night Football booth. Like Quinn, Cobb is a big name whose production has fallen off recently. Various injuries have slowed the formerly devastating slot receiver over the past few years—he hasn’t recorded more than 653 receiving yards in a season since 2015. It’s reasonable to suggest that wideout Michael Gallup could improve in his second year, but collectively, this pass-catching group isn’t a significant upgrade over last year’s. There’s also the harsh possibility that even in a revamped offense, the combination of Garrett and Prescott just won’t be good enough to get Dallas over the hump. Considering the Cowboys are about to pay Prescott like a high-end franchise quarterback, that would be the worst outcome possible for 2019.
Minnesota Vikings (25/1)
What happened last year: Man, the Vikings’ 2018 was such a letdown. After the Minneapolis Miracle sent them to the NFC championship game the season prior—and they were shellacked by Nick Foles and the Eagles—expectations were already sky high. Then Minnesota spent $84 million guaranteed on Kirk Cousins over the offseason and hired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo with the hope that its offense could take one final step and get the Vikings their first Super Bowl win. Instead, Mike Zimmer fired DeFilippo in December, Cousins was his familiar combination of brilliant and maddening, the offensive line fell apart, and Minnesota dropped from fifth in offensive DVOA to 18th. Knowing that their title window is fading and the days of their loaded roster are likely numbered (as is the case with all teams in the NFL, pretty much the moment that window opens), the Vikings spent the offseason patching their obvious holes with the hope of replicating that 2017 campaign.
Why they could beat the odds: Zimmer’s defense is still pretty damn good. The Vikings finished fourth in defensive DVOA last season despite a rough stretch to start the year, and after re-signing linebacker Anthony Barr in March (following his brief dalliance with the Jets), Minnesota will bring back every key member of last year’s group. Harrison Smith, Danielle Hunter, and Linval Joseph remain stars, and even though there are some questions on the back end (namely whether Xavier Rhodes can return to form, and when second-year cornerback Mike Hughes will return from the ACL tear he suffered midway through last season), the cornerback group’s depth could be a strength. Sustaining defensive greatness in the NFL isn’t easy in this era, but the Vikings have a ton of talent and arguably the league’s best defensive mind in Zimmer. There are also reasons to think this group will be even better in 2019: Despite their excellent showing last season, the Vikings ranked 18th in takeaways with only 20—one more than the Atlanta Falcons, who finished 31st in defensive DVOA. If this group can stay healthy, it should be excellent again.
Continuity is Minnesota’s strength on defense, but the reason for hope on the other side of the ball comes from offseason changes. Minnesota promoted former QBs coach (and 2018 interim offensive coordinator) Kevin Stefanski to the full-time OC gig. Stefanski and new offensive consultant Gary Kubiak have brought Kubiak’s play-action, zone-running system to Minnesota, and that’s great news for Cousins believers. Throughout his career, Cousins has typically been one of the league’s most effective play-action passers, and now he’ll return to a variation of the offense that helped propel his best seasons in Washington. Also, the addition of rookie center Garrett Bradbury and improved health from guard Pat Elflein and left tackle Riley Reiff should help the Vikings fix the running game that was dead on arrival last season and unleash third-year rusher Dalvin Cook. If rookie tight end Irv Smith Jr. can provide a reliable fourth receiving target and take some pressure off Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, this offense could be much improved this season.
What might hold them back: Minnesota’s defensive depth is still a concern. The Vikings used all of their high-end draft capital to address needs on their sputtering offense, and the team’s tight cap situation prevented Minnesota from adding much defensive help in free agency. Behind Smith and 2018 surprise standout Anthony Harris, there are no proven players at safety. The Vikings’ once-vaunted defensive line depth is no more, and this season, they’ll swap out Sheldon Richardson (who signed with the Browns in free agency) for Shamar Stephen. The starters on this unit stack up with any other defense in the league, but an injury at any position other than corner—especially to Smith or Hunter—could derail this group in a hurry.
The Vikings did what they could this offseason to build an infrastructure that can get the most out of their $29 million QB, but if Cousins struggles again down the stretch, even the kindest Minnesotans are going to start wondering how smart it was to bet the team’s future on a career .500 quarterback.
Houston Texans (40/1)
What happened last year: In Deshaun Watson’s first full season as a starter, the Texans went 11-5 and won the AFC South—and then were swiftly pasted by the Colts in the wild-card round. Houston’s staff was completely outmatched by Indy head coach Frank Reich and defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus. In his first playoff start, Watson went just 29-of-49 passing and averaged only 4.8 yards per attempt. It was a humbling moment for a young QB who’s been so good early in his career, and for a team that in early December had threatened to earn a first-round bye.
The season may have ended in crushing fashion for Houston, but there were still plenty of promising aspects. DeAndre Hopkins continued his run as maybe the best receiver in the NFL. Also: J.J. Watt is back, baby. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year collected 16 sacks and seven forced fumbles as he returned from a leg injury that torpedoed his 2017 season. Jadeveon Clowney also had the best season of his career with nine sacks and 28 run stops (which ranked tied for fourth in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus). Arguably no team in the league relies more heavily on its small contingent of stars on both sides of the ball.
Why they could overcome the odds: Watson is still there, right? What Patrick Mahomes II accomplished last season has overshadowed just how ridiculous a year Watson had. He may not have lit the league on fire like he did as a rookie, but Watson was still phenomenal in Year 2. Other than some predictable touchdown regression, Watson’s numbers were better across the board in 2018. In fact, his first two seasons as a starter stack up with any QB’s in history. Among players with at least 20 starts over their first two years, Watson ranks third in yards per attempt, adjusted yards per attempt, and touchdown percentage. Only Dan Marino has a higher QB rating. Any team with this guy under center has no business having 40/1 odds to win the Super Bowl. His 33/1 MVP odds are also downright silly.
Sure, some aspects of Watson’s game hurt Houston’s offense in subtle ways last season, like his tendency to hang onto the ball and consistently make his offensive line’s job more difficult. But there’s almost no way the Texans’ pass protection will be worse in 2019 than it was last season, when they led the league with 62 sacks allowed. Houston drafted offensive tackles in the first and second rounds, and ideally, Tytus Howard and Max Scharping will win starting jobs somewhere on the line before the season begins. If that group can improve (and Watson can do his part to aid that improvement), the rest of the Texans’ offensive personnel is all but set. Will Fuller’s injury history is concerning, but he’s an ideal downfield threat to pair with Hopkins, and slot man Keke Coutee was excellent as a rookie. This group has a chance to emerge as one of the most explosive passing offenses in the league.
What might hold them back: Houston finished fourth in scoring defense last season at 19.8 points per game, but by the time the playoffs rolled around, the cracks had started to form. The Texans already had serious concerns on the back end of their pass defense, and now they’ve replaced two of their more reliable pieces—Kareem Jackson and Tyrann Mathieu, who both left in free agency—with former Broncos corner Bradley Roby and former Jaguars safety Tashaun Gipson. Injuries and plenty of shuffling in the secondary certainly didn’t help matters in 2018, and Houston has now replaced 40 percent of its starting defensive backs this spring. If the first-year starters can step in and make an immediate impact, the Texans have the personnel to be a top defense. But that’s no guarantee. Houston also thrived off turnovers last season; their plus-13 margin was the second best in the league, just ahead of the Bears’. That number is likely to decrease this year.
It doesn’t help matters that this team is one Deshaun Watson high ankle sprain from serious disaster, and thanks to the combination of his playing style and Houston’s offensive line issues, he’s often in harm’s way. The Texans have more than $40 million in remaining cap space and might be a logical candidate to trade for a player like disgruntled Washington offensive tackle Trent Williams. But that’s the job for a general manager—which the Texans don’t currently have after firing Brian Gaine in June. The margins of a roster can mean everything for an NFL team late in the season, and right now, Houston doesn’t seem equipped to address those issues as well as other possible contenders can.
Carolina Panthers (60/1)
What happened last year: Every so often, I’m thrilled to be wrong. When the Panthers hired the AARP-eligible Norv Turner—who was last seen pulling a Scarface from Half Baked on the Vikings in the middle of the 2016 season—as their offensive coordinator last winter, I had sincere doubts that he could jump-start Cam Newton and this stagnant offense. Well, Turner and his staff responded by constructing one of the most creative, well-designed schemes in football, starting the season 6-2, and handing me a steaming pile of crow. Then Newton hurt his shoulder against Pittsburgh in Week 10, looked like a shell of himself the rest of the season, and the wheels came off the entire operation.
Why they could beat the odds: People seem to forget that we aren’t that far removed from Newton winning the MVP award and lifting Carolina to a 15-1 finish in 2015. That version of Cam Newton didn’t suddenly fall off the face of the earth. He had arthroscopic shoulder surgery this offseason, and if he’s fully healthy this offense has a chance to be fun as hell in 2019. Christian McCaffrey looked like the perfect modern NFL star last year as he caught 107 passes for 867 yards and added nearly 1,100 yards on the ground. The team’s young receivers, D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel, looked electric at times last season, and the latter’s role should only expand with the plodding Devin Funchess now a member of the Colts. Carolina also had a stellar offseason that included landing former Broncos center Matt Paradis on a reasonable three-year, $29 million deal (with only $10 million guaranteed), re-signing right tackle Daryl Williams to a one-year, $6 million contract, and drafting offensive lineman Greg Little in the second round. Every part of Newton’s supporting cast could be better this season than it was a year ago.
General manager Marty Hurney also had a solid offseason on the other side of the ball, where he snagged Bruce Irvin and Gerald McCoy on one-year deals, and drafted promising pass rusher Brian Burns in the first round. Irvin and McCoy are no longer the players they were at their early-career peaks, but McCoy should still divert some attention from Kawann Short on the interior of the defensive line. And Burns has all the traits to become a star. Oh, and did I mention this defense still has a guy named Luke Kuechly? Of all the things I expected over the past year, a duel redemption tour from Marty Hurney and Norv Turner wasn’t one of them.
What might hold them back: Newton’s health is the obvious answer, but in terms of personnel, the lack of talent in the secondary is troubling. Carolina will rely heavily on second-year defensive backs and journeymen like Ross Cockrell, and even with a couple of new faces, the pass rush may not be able to make up for issues in coverage. It’s also possible that with Greg Olsen entering his age-34 season, the Panthers won’t realize they need another pass catcher until it’s too late. Free-agent signee Chris Hogan will likely occupy a larger role for this team than Carolina fans would like.