With such a constant, almost alarming, level of discourse surrounding the NFL these days, uncovering even the most hidden of gems is a tall order. By this point in the year, all 32 teams have been thoroughly combed over, dissected and — thanks to the recent roster cut-down — scrapped for parts.
But this onslaught of analysis makes successfully uncovering a “sleeper” even sweeter. Who among us predicted a Los Angeles Rams quarterbacked by Jared Goff would make the playoffs last season? If your hand’s raised, stop it. And who knew that Jacksonville would make it to the AFC Championship game in spite of Blake Bortles lining up under center? Again, no one believes you.
But as we’ve learned in the NFL, the margin between 4–12 and playoff contender is minuscule. To hear former Dallas Cowboys QB turned CBS broadcaster Tony Romo tell it, sometimes a team is only one piece away. “Bad teams really aren’t as bad as people think,” says Romo. “A couple of injuries, a coaching change, a new quarterback — that’s all it takes.”
Which teams have figured the proper equation for season-long success? Who’s ready to return to glory — or, in one team’s case, win for the very first time? These sleepers possess the recipe for success: defensive dominance, a strong culture, a consistent running game, innovative play-calling and a quarterback who can not only win games, but won’t lose them.
In other words, these teams are this year’s Philadelphia Eagles.
Denver Broncos (AFC West)
According to sports-betting hub OddsShark, Denver’s over-under for number of wins this season is seven. Not only would that land the Broncos far from playoff contention, but it’s a severe underestimation. After a Super Bowl win in 2016, it’s been an ugly last two seasons at Mile High Stadium, with GM John Elway struggling to find a capable successor to fill the Peyton Manning–size hole at quarterback. New Broncos QB Case Keenum may not be the long-term answer, but it’s not like Manning was a world beater in that 2015 season either. Denver’s success has always been predicated on a stifling defense, strong running game and smart play calls. That will be the case again this season, and, as we saw during his playoff run with Minnesota last year, Keenum is more than capable of winning ballgames.
The silence surrounding Denver rookie linebacker Bradley Chubb this summer has been deafening. Now, teamed with Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller, Chubb is set to wreak havoc on an AFC West that is much more open than many experts would have you believe. I’ll ride Los Angeles Chargers QB Philip Rivers to fantasy football titles until the day he’s forced to retire, but he’s not making a Super Bowl. His gunslinging ways combined with a mistake-prone team portend another disappointing finish for the Bolts.
Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs boast as dangerous an offense as any team in the league, but it feels like no prognosticator has actually watched Pat Mahomes play football. Kansas City’s new quarterback has undeniable physical skills, and coach Andy Reid’s spread offense will be better with Mahomes’ ability to throw the deep ball, but this is a quarterback who makes countless mistakes. The lengthy highlight reels won’t outweigh his inefficiencies.
Houston Texans (AFC South)
A not-so-subtle dark horse, Houston still qualifies as a sleeper thanks to the uncertainties surrounding the team — none more important than the question of how second-year quarterback Deshaun Watson will respond after tearing his ACL last November. Aside from Watson’s injury, the AFC South might be as big a toss-up as any division in football. Behind the league’s top defense, Jacksonville has Super Bowl aspirations. The Tennessee Titans — who won a playoff game last season — believe they’ve finally surrounded quarterback Marcus Mariota with enough talent to contend. Andrew Luck is finally healthy at QB for the Indianapolis Colts. That divisional depth alone means the odds are stacked against Houston.
Bookmakers currently place Houston’s over-under at 8.5 games. It’s a fair measure that, based on the Texans’ 4–12 finish last season, tells you how much weight oddsmakers give Watson’s ability. And they’re not the only ones. Former NFL receiver Nate Burleson, now an analyst for CBS, was one of the few media members to pick Jacksonville last season. This year, he’s riding for the Texans. “If I had to pick one sleeper, it’s Houston to make the playoffs, picking up where Deshaun Watson left off,” says Burleson. “With that defense and a mobile quarterback, they’re going to be tough to beat.”
Houston has a roster full of game changers, with DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller V at receiver, Lamar Miller in the backfield, safety Tyrann Mathieu and a (hopefully) healed defensive end J.J. Watt. But buyer beware: Watson could be due for a slight regression. Before his injury, Watson was performing at a historic pace, with 1,699 yards and a league-leading 19 touchdowns in seven games. Still, he also had eight interceptions. Watson’s accuracy was a concern coming out of college, and while he made incredible play after play last year, are we sure what he pulled off was replicable?
Other Teams to Watch
New York Giants (NFC East)
Their rivals may have won the Super Bowl, but don’t forget about Big Blue. Like the Texans, OddsShark places the G-Men’s over-under at 8.5 wins. With running back Saquon Barkley, receivers Sterling Shepard and newly extended Odell Beckham Jr. and emerging star tight end Evan Engram, I’ll take the over.
Los Angeles Rams (NFC West)
After last season’s success, the Rams are hardly a sleeper. Still, somewhere there’s a rule stating no team is eligible for Super Bowl favorite status before a) winning a playoff game, and b) selling out its stadium. If third-year QB Jared Goff can build on the massive leap he made between his first and second seasons, the Rams will live up to exponential expectations.