Which NFL Teams Will Surprise This Season?

One of the best parts of the NFL preview season is figuring out the most viable candidates for teams to make a leap in the standing and surprise observers and bookmakers. In the NFL, there's always playoff turnover, and in the vast majority of years, a team (or two or three) that was projected to lose most of its games makes the playoffs. Last year, the Giants, Seahawks, and Jaguars all had projected win totals of 7 or fewer and made the postseason. The Lions fell just short of that accomplishment.

Before the regular season kicks off next Thursday in Kansas City, let's pinpoint the teams that could make an unexpected leap. True surprise candidates, in my mind, cannot be teams that appeared in the playoffs last year, so we cross out the Chiefs, Eagles, 49ers, Bengals, Jaguars, Giants, Cowboys, Bills, Seahawks, Ravens, Chargers, Vikings, Bucs, and Dolphins.

That's 18 teams left, so we've got many options to work with, right? Not exactly. I'm also crossing off any teams with win totals at .500 or better. If the oddsmakers think you're making a jump, like the Lions or Jets, you're not exactly a surprise team and shouldn't be considered one.

Because win total odds are rarely -110 odds on both over and under, teams who have an over/under of 8 or fewer on any of FanDuel, DraftKings, or Caesars and didn't make the playoffs last season stay on the list. Those who have a consensus win total of 8.5 or better on all three sportsbooks get crossed off.

That means we cross off these teams:

* Jets (9.5 O/U)
* Steelers (8.5)
* Browns (9.5)
* Broncos (8.5)
* Lions (9.5)
* Saints (9.5)
* Falcons (8.5)

We're left with 11 teams who didn't make the playoffs and are projected to lose 9 or more games. Again, history tells us at least one of these teams is going to make the playoffs:

* Packers (7.5 wins, +138 to make playoffs)
* Bears (7.5, +172)
* Panthers (7.5, +172)
* Titans (7.5, +198)
* Patriots (7.5, +250)
* Rams (6.5, +285)
* Commanders (6.5, +310)
* Colts (6.5, +350)
* Raiders (6.5, +390)
* Texans (6.5, +520)
* Cardinals (4.5, +980)

The only teams I'm prepared to immediately eliminate from this list are the Rams, Colts, and Cardinals. The Rams have a thin roster, the Colts are a dysfunctional mess and start an inexperienced rookie QB Week 1, and the Cardinals are in rebuild mode with no return in sight for Kyler Murray.

I'm quite skeptical of the Raiders and Panthers. Las Vegas could conceivably get more takeaways on defense and ride Josh Jacobs and Devante Adams, but it feels like a stretch. The Panthers look poor on the offensive line and at receiver, and weren't as good as they should have been on defense with much of the same cast as this year.

Washington had a strong defense last year, and Chase Young appears to be set to make an impact on the edge. Is Sam Howell good enough to significantly improve what was the 28th-best offense per DVOA in 2022? I'm not sure, but there's a path there.

It's odd to see the Packers and Patriots on a list like this. If New England wasn't playing in the AFC East, it might be an obvious playoff pick. As it stands, I still think the Patriots have a defense that's about as good as anyone in the AFC. If Bill O'Brien can improve the offense in his reunion with Bill Belichick, this looks like a strong 10-win candidate. For Green Bay, the attention will be on Jordan Love after Aaron Rodgers left, but possible contention in the average NFC North could come down to what the Packers' defense is able to produce after a very average output in 2022.

I love what Chicago did in the offseason, and Justin Fields will hopefully improve as a passer. The defense has nowhere to go but up after finishing 32nd in DVOA and making several offseason signings on that side of the ball, but it strikes me more as a jump from 3 wins to 7 or 8, not 9 or 10.

I like to make fun of the AFC South from time to time, and the final two teams for this exercise each hail from that division. It seems crazy that the Titans had the No. 1 seed in the AFC in 2021 and were 7-3 after Week 11 last year only to be relegated to afterthought status. Mike Vrabel should still lead a defense that gets the most out of its talent. In a middling division, the Titans seem like a classic surprise candidate to squeak out 9 wins.

Last, there's the Texans. Houston has the second-longest playoff odds, so tipping them to make the playoffs is a long-shot, but talent for an improvement is there. Will Anderson, Jr. already looks like he'll be a perennial Pro Bowler, and C.J. Stroud could be the best of the rookie QBs behind an underrated offensive line.

My top pick for a surprise in the 2023 season is Tennessee, but New England, Green Bay, and Washington appear to be decent candidates, as well. Remember, none of these teams likely has a chance to win the Super Bowl, but they all have playoff odds and lower win totals that could be worth a bet.

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