The brand-new NFL season is less than a month away and preseason is here, meaning just one thing. Football is back.
Everyone has begun to share their predictions – picking award winners, the best teams and, of course, the year’s surprise packages.
With underdogs in mind, let’s take a look at five dark horse teams for the 2023 NFL season.
Everyone fell in love with the Detroit Lions’ story last season. After a 1-6 start, they finished the year with a winning record and just fell just one win shy of the playoffs.
Led by charismatic head coach Dan Campbell, some are tipping the Lions to win the NFC North and even advance to Super Bowl LVIII.
With 29 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 2022, quarterback Jared Goff was one of the best in the league and excelled in the final few games of the year. Only his 2018 season saw Goff throw more touchdown passes and he also equalled his lowest interception total in a season.
With a plethora of weapons – like receivers Amon-Ra St. Brown and Marvin Jones Jr. as well as running backs David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs – this Lions’ offense has the potential to be dangerous.
And then there’s the defense. Whilst, statistically, they were amongst the league’s worst in 2022, Detroit still boast the second overall pick from last year’s draft, defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, who pitched in with 9.5 sacks in his rookie year. They also added talent to their weakest area, the secondary, bringing in cornerback Cameron Sutton and defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson.
In a conference considered the weaker of the two, anything is possible.
After the New York Jets traded for quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the AFC East is now considered the best division in the entire NFL.
As the Jets and Buffalo Bills are seen as favourites to win the division, only a select few are picking Miami.
An injury to cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who arrived this offseason, has hindered a talented defense – now coached by new defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio – aiming to return to the levels shown under former head coach, Brian Flores.
But it’s Miami’s offense, masterminded by head coach Mike McDaniel, that truly stands out. A team with receivers like the electric Tyreek Hill – who finished the year with 1,710 receiving yards, seven touchdowns and a Pro Bowl selection – has the potential to score points at will. The health of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who suffered multiple concussions last season, will be one of the key question marks surrounding the Dolphins, as there’s a feeling that Miami could have advanced further than the Wild Card Round if he was available. Tagovailoa led the league in passer rating (105.5), was 12th in the league in passing yards (3,548) and only seven quarterbacks threw more passing touchdowns (25).
If key players remain healthy, this exciting Dolphins side has the ability to make a deep playoff run.
After a disappointing playoff loss to the New York Giants following a 13-4 regular season – which some felt masked the team’s issues – and the hype surrounding the Detriot Lions, the Minnesota Vikings have flown under the radar.
The offense has the capability to become one of the league’s most exciting, possessing not only the best receiver in the game in Justin Jefferson – who finished the year with 1,809 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns – but also rookie receiver Jordan Addison and fourth-year pass catcher K.J. Osborn. Running back Dalvin Cook may have left but Alexander Mattison has displayed his ability on numerous occasions, and quarterback Kirk Cousins also impressed last year, finishing in the top five in both passing yards (4,547) and passing touchdowns (29).
Although their defense will be the biggest concern, with Brian Flores as the teams’ new defensive coordinator, head coach Kevin O’Connell has added one of the best defensive minds in the NFL to a unit that features safety Harrison Smith, defensive end Marcus Davenport, and linebacker Danielle Hunter.
This team should not be counted out.
As another team that plays in a tough division, the Pittsburgh Steelers will hope they can be one of the AFC’s surprise packages.
Quarterback Kenny Pickett showed promise towards the end of his rookie season last year, and with talented young receiver George Pickens to throw to, the offense could potentially feature the league’s next great quarterback and wide receiver duo.
Defense is in Pittsburgh’s DNA and the team will hope to have star outside linebacker T.J. Watt healthy for the entirety of the 2023 season.
Watt played in just ten of last season’s 17 games, but the Steelers still allowed the tenth fewest points in the entire league. Pittsburgh added cornerback Joey Porter Jr. in the 2023 Draft, aiming to help their pass defense, and will hope that running back Najee Harris can help the team control the ball.
Provided Watt stays healthy in 2023, the Steelers could cause some problems.
The Tennesse Titans faced some criticism following their collapse down the stretch in 2022, losing the last seven games of the year, but it should not be forgotten who they have at running back.
Derrick Henry, the best pure runner in the NFL, is out to prove that not all running backs decline at 29 – and the powerful, three-time Pro Bowler is more than capable of doing just that.
ICYMI: The @Titans are signing five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to a two-year, $26 million contract – which could be worth up to $32 million with incentives
— Decyfr Sport (@DecyfrSport) July 17, 2023
Along with 2021 Coach of the Year Award winner Mike Vrabel and new wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, the team’s offense should look similar to the sides that featured Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Brown – a key component of the teams that reached the AFC Championship Game in the 2019 season, and earned the AFC’s number one seed in the 2021 season.
The defense, however, will have to take a step forward and improve from a statistically average unit in order for Tennessee to make inroads in the playoffs.
Provided all the cogs run perfectly, the Titans could be a team that surprises everyone in 2023.
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