The St. Louis Blues are finally on the board after earning their first Stanley Cup in the franchise’s 51-year history. Ditto the Toronto Raptors, who not only notched their maiden NBA title but also became the only Canadian team to secure the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Virginia’s basketball team finally prevailed amid the madness of March. Even Gary Woodland got into the act, capturing his first golf major with his U.S. Open triumph Sunday.
Given this rash of championship breakthroughs, could one of the NFL’s clubs finally achieve Super Bowl glory for the first time next February? You might be surprised to learn there are several holdouts given nearly 40 percent of the league’s franchises are still searching for that initial Lombardi Trophy, the 2017 Eagles and 2013 Seahawks the most recent to vault off this ignominious list.
Who might be next? Here’s my list from least likely to most to win Super Bowl LIV:
12. Cincinnati Bengals: Optimism is running high under new coach Zac Taylor, who takes over after Marvin Lewis managed to stay employed for 16 years despite never delivering a playoff win. However optimism also tends to carry the day in June, so let’s see how Taylor’s offense jells first … or if the Bengals can actually escape the cellar in a division where they seem overmatched by their three AFC North rivals.
11. Detroit Lions: They have one postseason win in the Super Bowl era. One. It’s an amazing stretch of futility for an organization that enjoyed its most recent title in 1957. And only the Bengals, who last won a playoff game in 1990, have a longer drought since their most recent postseason victory than the Lions, whose lone playoff victory occurred in 1991. Like the current Cincinnati squad, Detroit appears to be lagging well behind its divisional competitors heading into the 2019 season.
10. Arizona Cardinals: Despite the buzz surrounding No. 1 draft pick Kyler Murrayand rookie coach Kliff Kingsbury, it’s a stretch to think these Cards will take the NFL by storm with their Air Raid attack — The Washington Post actually gave them a 0% chance of winning the NFC West. There is an intriguing blend of veteran and young talent here but hard to see it coalescing quickly, especially in such a stout division.
9. Tennessee Titans: Considering they’ve finished 9-7 each of the past three seasons, it would come as no surprise if the Titans are better in 2019 than several teams ahead of them on this list. But as those 9-7 ledgers indicate, they’re not much better than mediocre and don’t seem to have the players capable of breaking through the Super Bowl ceiling. Tennessee might have the right coach in place with Mike Vrabel, but can the same be said of the quarterback position?
8. Buffalo Bills: They’re quietly building a nice program under third-year coach Sean McDermott, who led Buffalo to a wild-card berth in 2017, snapping a playoff absence that had reached nearly two decades. GM Brandon Beane made some nice pickups in free agency, first-round DT Ed Oliver should be a defensive rookie of the year contender and good vibes seem to be following second-year QB Josh Allen. But the Bills don’t look ready to unseat the Patriots from their AFC East throne much less compete for a crown of their own just yet.
7. Carolina Panthers: They went 15-1 in 2015 and advanced to their second Super Bowl under league MVP Cam Newton before flaming out against Von Miller’s Broncos. Since then, Carolina is 24-24 with nary a playoff win and mired in yet another brutal division — one likely to get even tougher with Bruce Arians taking over the Bucs. Newly signed DT Gerald McCoy seems pretty upbeat about the Panthers’ prospects, but the state of Newton’s surgically repaired shoulder will be a more telling barometer.
6. Houston Texans: With J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins and Jadeveon Clowney, they’ve got an enviable core of superstar talent — one that claimed the AFC South crown in 2018 courtesy of a nine-game winning streak. But as the Colts showed in the playoffs, neutralize most or all of the Texans’ stars, then the supporting cast will likely struggle to keep them competitive. It’s long been an issue for a franchise that has never advanced beyond the divisional round.
5. Cleveland Browns: With WR Odell Beckham Jr. teaming with QB Baker Mayfield, fresh off his record-breaking rookie season — he had 27 touchdown passes and led Cleveland to its best record (7-8-1) since 2007 — the Browns have become this spring’s offseason darlings. With three of their first five regular-season games in prime time, we’ll learn quickly if the hype is justified. But even if it is, no team is further removed from its most recent playoff trip (2002), and Cleveland hasn’t won in postseason since Bill Belichick roamed the sideline. The club’s last NFL title came in 1964 (the first Super Bowl occurred after the 1966 season), so let’s give these Brownies a little time for needed seasoning before we pencil them in for Super Sunday.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars: Coming off a 5-11 campaign, a significant boom-or-bust factor exists here. But it hasn’t even been two years since the Jags were less than a quarter away from facing Nick Foles’ Eagles in Super Bowl LII. Now Foles has joined Jacksonville, replacing ever-maddening predecessor Blake Bortles, and could bring just enough stability to a team that could still go far given its defensive stars and the potential for a suffocating ground attack if Leonard Fournette dials back in.
3. Minnesota Vikings: Another team which was on the Super Bowl doorstep in 2017, the Vikes regressed last season despite the ballyhooed acquisition of QB Kirk Cousins. It probably shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise given the change at the team’s most important position, not to mention the offense’s philosophical disconnect with head coach Mike Zimmer, who wants to see far more balance. But with new OC Kevin Stefanski evidently far more committed to handing the ball off, an O-line bolstered by first-round C Garrett Bradbury, and scads of talent on virtually every other unit on the roster, it’s time for Minnesota to take two steps forward following its step back in 2018.
2. Atlanta Falcons: The nucleus of the squad that suffered that infamous Super LI collapse to New England three years ago remains largely intact. A tantalizing defense riddled by injuries last season should be rejuvenated by recovery time and coach Dan Quinn’s decision to assume the play-calling duties. But the main question may be whether new (and former) OC Dirk Koetter can do what departed Steve Sarkisian could not — restore the effectiveness of a star-studded group that was one of the most productive in NFL history under Kyle Shanahan in 2016 but hasn’t been nearly as prolific since.
1. Los Angeles Chargers: With the possible exception of a credible home-field advantage, they don’t seem to be lacking for much. But even with opponent’s fans typically cramming their temporary residence in a soccer yard, the Bolts still matched the Chiefs for the AFC’s top record (12-4) in 2018 — and without the services of DE Joey Bosa, LB Denzel Perryman and TE Hunter Henry for most of the season. Veteran QB Philip Rivers will probably need to find a way to vanquish the Patriots — Rivers is 0-8 all-time, including three playoff defeats, against Tom Brady — but he’s got the juice to do it now … and may not have a better opportunity as he enters his 16th NFL campaign.