Admit it. You were not all that surprised to see the New England Patriots in the last Super Bowl. Maybe you were happy. Maybe you were annoyed, but you definitely were not surprised to see Bill Belichick and Tom Brady back in the big game. New England built a dynasty over the last decade, and playing in the Super Bowl has been something of a regular feature for them.
There are a handful of other teams that could be labeled a dynasty, though most are a tier below, a solid 1a, as compared to the longevity of New England's run. The Packers, Steelers, Ravens and the Giants could all be lumped in among the recent perpetual winners. All of those teams have some things in common that allow them to consistently be successful. Those ingredients include a collection of elite talent, particularly at quarterback, along with organizational stability and a knack for drafting well.
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Those teams will not be at or consistently near the top forever. Empires rise and fall. Already, a new group of NFL teams are ascending. These teams have tasted life at the top recently, and have all, or most, of the right things that could keep them there for the years ahead.
Detroit teased the world with a preview of what they're capable of last season. The Lions' franchise quarterback, Matthew Stafford, threw for more than 5,000 yards and had 41 touchdowns. He is one of eight quarterbacks -- eight -- in the history of the league with 40 or more touchdown passes. Not bad for his first 16-game season in the league. If he develops the poise of the other quarterbacks in that rarefied air, Stafford will be one of the top names in the game for a long time.
The Lions have more than just Stafford going for them. On defense, Ndamukong Suh is one of those once-a-generation players, capable of changing the outcome of a game on his own. Look up and down the rest of the roster. Calvin Johnson is another elite player, at the head of a deep group of receivers, and the Lions' recent run of draft classes can be favorably compared to anything the Packers or Steelers have done. If head coach Jim Schwartz successfully answers questions about team discipline, double digit wins this season and for years to come should be a regular feature in Detroit.
Related: Lions Offseason Report
Since drafting Matt Ryan in 2008, the Falcons have won at least 10 games in three of their last four seasons. Atlanta made the playoffs in each of those three seasons, but lost its first postseason game each year. The last two seasons, the Falcons lost to the eventual Super Bowl champs. But it still qualifies as something of a disappointment.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff has drafted well and inherited some blue chip players from the previous era. Atlanta gambled last year to get wide receiver Julio Jones, which helped the Falcons keep pace in a league where teams can regularly score 30 points a game.
What the Falcons have lacked is a blue chip presence on defense. Brent Grimes is one of the league's top corners, and he now has a better partner aside him. Sean Weatherspoon does not get the credit he deserves because he plays linebacker in a 4-3 defense. A young, top-end pass rusher would have made more of an impact than anything for the Falcons. Nevertheless, they should still be a very good team for a very long time, but they eventually need to win (or at least get to) a Super Bowl before we can start talking about a dynasty.
San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco boasts one of the more talented rosters in the league. On defense, the 49ers could field most of the players for the front seven of an all-star team, headlined by Patrick Willis and Justin Smith. On offense, the love fantasy footballers have for Frank Gore has never really translated to a larger audience because of the team's recent struggles and the marginalization of running backs, but he is very talented. Vernon Davis is another top player not as well known as he probably should be.
What keep the 49ers from looking the part of a dynasty is the quarterback. Alex Smith finally had a good season, and the 49ers won 13 games last year. Smith is not among the upper tier of signal callers, and he might not even be the best in the NFC West. But he is enough to get by, thanks to Jim harbaugh's leadership and the rest of the talent. With a merely adequate Smith, the 49ers are still capable of winning year in and year out. They nearly went to the Super Bowl last year, and should challenge for the NFC Championship this year too.
Related: 49ers Offseason Report
The Texans remind me of the 49ers. They finally broke through last season with the right mix of talent and leadership. Matt Schaub, though better than Alex Smith, does not count among the upper echelon of quarterbacks. Schaub does have Andre Johnson, one of the few truly elite receivers in the league, to make him look much better. Houston has been among the better offenses in the league for the last three years, thanks in part to the combo of Johnson and Arian Foster, who have allowed for some creative offensive scheming.
Houston really put it together on defense in 2011, and the arrival of Wade Phillips was no coincidence. Questions about the conversion to a 3-4 were quickly silenced, and the Texans went on post a seven-game win streak, with a little help from the schedule. Like the 49ers, the Texans have a nucleus of blue chip talent on defense, including Johnathan Joseph and Brian Cushing.
Also like San Francisco, the Texans have to prove that last year was no one-time thing.
One good draft turned into another for the Bengals. Their first-round pick from 2011, A.J. Green, has the potential to soon join the mix of the league's elite wide receivers. We're still waiting to see what quarterback Andy Dalton's ceiling will be, but the early returns are positive. Dalton, at the very least, looks like a quarterback capable of playing well enough to keep his team in the mix, with the right talent around him.
Dalton's greatest contribution last year was allowing the team to deal Carson Palmer to a desperate Raiders club, giving them an extra first-round pick this year. Now the Bengals are loaded with a core of young talent on both sides of the ball. What makes it tough for Cincinnati to break through is the fact that the team plays in the AFC North, where both Pittsburgh and Baltimore are already sitting on established dynasties. The Bengals have to challenge both of those teams and eventually knock them off the top of the standings to break through.
Related: Bengals Offseason Report
On The Way Up
There are a handful of teams that are close. Each of these teams have the right mix of talent and leadership to make the cut soon, maybe even this year. With teams at this level, much of their future success hinges on having a potential franchise quarterback.
Carolina Panthers - Obviously they have the quarterback with Cam Newton. Do they top ten wins in 2012?
St. Louis Rams - The jury is still out on Sam Bradford, but memories of his scouting reports and the 2010 Rookie of the Year award were enough to convince Jeff Fisher. St. Louis also has twin first-round picks in the next two drafts.
Tennessee Titans - Another team that could be sitting on quarterback gold. Surely they make Jake Locker their starter at some point this season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Of all the teams on this list, Tampa Bay is the most likely to arrive on the scene this season. Were the talent upgrades enough to get the most from Josh Freeman?
Washington Redskins & Indianapolis Colts - We've yet to see exactly what Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck are capable of doing in the NFL. If both live up to their potential, both these teams could be very good in the near future.
Because I know this question is going to be asked, what about some other teams not on this list, specifically the Bears, Cowboys and the Eagles? All three of those teams have plenty of talent, but for a variety of reasons, injuries and inconsistency, they have yet to breakthrough. Between the three teams, they have just two Super Bowl appearances in the last ten years. They should be better, but that's a subject to deal with in another piece, another time.