2019 is the year of the first-timer. The St. Louis Blues won their first Stanley Cup. The Toronto Raptors won their first NBA title. And, not long after the NFL’s regular season comes to an end, the Cleveland Browns will win their first Super Bowl.
Or the Houston Texans.
Or the Los Angeles Chargers.
Or maybe the Minnesota Vikings.
There are a dozen NFL franchises without a banner to hang in their stadiums or a Lombardi Trophy to host in their fanciest meeting rooms. If the current Big 4 sports trend holds, one of them will be hosting a parade in their honor come February 2020.
Here they are, sorted by their chances to finally win the big one next winter.
The Cardinals are breaking in a rookie head coach and a rookie first-round quarterback for the second straight year, somehow. If they win six games this season they’ll:
a) improve on last season’s record by 100 percent, and
b) match the number of wins Kliff Kingsbury had against non-Kansas Big 12 competition in his last three seasons at Texas Tech.
The Bengals will be better if they can coax full seasons from Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, but this still looks like an extremely Marvin Lewis team despite the absence of Marvin Lewis.
The Lions beat the eventual Super Bowl champions last season and finally got a 100-yard rushing performance from one of their tailbacks. Those are about the highlights of their 2018, though, so it’s going to take a journey to even get back to the playoffs in 2019.
Hooo boy, it’d take some leaps
Remember when the Jags were one quarter away from a Super Bowl appearance? That was less than two years ago!
This season, Jacksonville will blend a championship-caliber defense with Super Bowl 52 MVP Nick Foles and quite possibly the league’s least inspiring lineup of skill players. 2019 is the year Foles has to prove he can be good outside of Philadelphia — and that his mid-career slump was a function of Jeff Fisher’s soul-sucking gravity.
The Bills had a quietly great offseason, surrounding second-year quarterback Josh Allen with an array of the kind of free agent targets who can be lured to western New York following a six-win season: Cole Beasley, John Brown, Tyler Kroft, and the immortal Frank Gore. They’ll play against the backdrop of one of the league’s top defenses in 2018:
While Pro Bowl veteran Kyle Williams is gone, the team got an A-level replacement in first-round draft pick Ed Oliver. Buffalo’s got the chops to outperform expectations — though by how much will come down to how well Allen puts an inaccurate rookie campaign in his rear view.
I could be convinced
Since 2013, the Panthers have had winning seasons in years ending in odd numbers and losing seasons in years ending in even ones. 2019 falls into the former category, and it seems like a prove-it season for Cam Newton after an injury-filled and underwhelming 2018. He’s still lacking for targets beyond Christian McCaffrey and D.J. Moore, but Carolina worked hard to beef up both sides of its line (signing Matt Paradis, Gerald McCoy, re-signing Daryl Williams, and drafting Greg Little) to spark an odd-year resurgence.
The Titans fielded the league’s third-best scoring defense last fall and had that squandered by an impotent offense that faltered behind an injured Marcus Mariota. 2019 is the former Heisman winner’s make-good season since he’s due to hit free agency next spring, and that could coax a major performance from him. Factor in the growth of young playmakers like Derrick Henry and Corey Davis, along with new additions Adam Humphries and A.J. Brown, and you can see an emerging offense that could stay afloat in the suddenly competitive AFC South.
Actual, legitimate contenders
- Atlanta Falcons
- Minnesota Vikings
- Houston Texans
- Cleveland Browns
Atlanta’s quest to return to the postseason in 2018 was derailed by injuries that seemed to affect every single defensive starter. That snapped a budding two-year postseason streak for a team that combines the league’s most lethal combination of quarterback and wide receivers. If a healthy defense can snap back to life this year, the Falcons will be in the running to unseat the Saints in the NFC South.
Of course, since this is the team that once blew a 28-3 lead in the third quarter of the Super Bowl, expecting nice things may be a bridge too far.
That latter theory applies to the Vikings, too:
With the St. Louis Blues winning the Stanley Cup last night, the #Bengals move into fourth place on the list of oldest franchises in the 4 major sports without a title.— Jay Morrison (@JayMorrisonATH) June 13, 2019
Texas Rangers -- 1961
Minnesota Vikings -- 1961
Atlanta Falcons -- 1965
Bengals -- 1968
The Vikes used last season’s upgrade from Case Keenum to Kirk Cousins as quarterback to regress from 13 wins to eight. Minnesota tried its hardest to buttress the cheesecloth offensive line that allowed Cousins to be sacked 40 times last season by drafting interior linemen Garrett Bradbury and Dru Samia while signing former Titan Josh Kline. How much of an impact they’ll have in 2019 is up in the air, though.
The Vikings could win anywhere from six to 14 games and it wouldn’t be terribly surprising either way.
The Texans finished the 2018 season on an 11-2 heater while getting MVP-caliber play from a 23-year-old Deshaun Watson. While a suspect secondary and unfearsome offensive backfield are legitimate flaws, 2019 could mark the first time in franchise history Houston escapes past the Divisional Round of the postseason.
Or it could be a disaster portended by a post-draft firing of its general manager after only a single season, the tampering accusations lobbed by the Patriots in their quest to find his replacement, and the possible holdout of pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney.
Cleveland is the most popular pick to win the AFC North thanks to the offensive surge that made, in order:
a) Baker Mayfield a Rookie of the Year candidate (he lost to Saquon Barkley)
b) the Browns an eight-loss team (their fewest since 2007 ... good lord)
c) interim offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens Cleveland’s newest head coach.
General manager John Dorsey rode that momentum into a showcase offseason by freeing Odell Beckham Jr. and Olivier Vernon from the Giants and adding players like Sheldon Richardson and Morgan Burnett in free agency.
That’s the roster of a Super Bowl contender — they just have to escape the Browns-ness of it all to get there. There’s a tremendous burden of expectation heaped on a team that’s so often been the league’s doormat, and there already appears to be dissent fomenting in northeastern Ohio.
The most likely champion (from this group)
- Los Angeles Chargers
LA fits the profile of a champion, even if it’s been more than two decades since the club’s last Super Bowl appearance.
The Chargers have a veteran quarterback still playing at a high level in Philip Rivers, who recorded one of the most efficient seasons of his career last fall. They’ve got a bevy of skill players — Melvin Gordon, Keenan Allen, Hunter Henry — who can be game-changing threats as long as they can fend off injury. Their defensive holes have help on the way thanks to a hopefully healthy Joey Bosa (only seven games in 2018) and 2019 first-round pick Jerry Tillery in front of one of the league’s top secondaries.
And they stopped the Ravens’ momentum in its tracks in a playoff game back in January.
Los Angeles also has a problem; the team’s postseason resume is a disaster. Its lone Super Bowl trip ended in a 49-26 clunker against the 49ers. Rivers has a 5-6 record in the playoffs and a passer rating (84.2) that lines up closely with Case Keenum’s career mark. And if he has to face Bill Belichick, his body and brain malfunction in ways difficult for the human mind to grasp (0-3, four interceptions and a fumble against the Patriots in his playoff career).
And yet, the Chargers feel due. Defensive end Melvin Ingram, a man who should feast if he’s bookended by Bosa for 16 games this year, is into it.
“We’re definitely going to win the Super Bowl,” Ingram told reporters at LA’s minicamp. “Still ASAP — Any Squad Any Place. That’s what we’re about.”
Of course, this perpetually snakebit team could also wind up devastated by injuries while winning seven games as Rivers tries to heroically play through two broken legs. It is the Chargers, after all.