Which NFL franchises never to have won Super Bowl are closest to title breakthrough?
The NFL's popularity has long been rooted in parity and annually freshened hopes in each of its cities. Yet after more than half a century, only 60% of the league's clubs have won the Super Bowl. (In fairness, the four expansion franchises that have formed since 1995 are among the title-starved.)
The Jacksonville Jaguars were less than a quarter away from ensuring this season would culminate with a first-time Super Bowl winner. Alas, they were unable to hold on in the AFC Championship Game, and the New England Patriots are now favored to win a record-tying sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Still, the Pats' opponent in Super Bowl LII, the Philadelphia Eagles, have leveraged their underdog role to the hilt and are just 60 minutes away from breaking a title drought that extends to 1960, six seasons before the first Super Bowl. If the Eagles can deliver that long-awaited championship to the City of Brotherly Love, they would also become the 20th franchise to win the Super Bowl.
Here's a ranking of most likely to least likely to have a breakthrough ... though quite a few look legit (Super Bowl record in parentheses):
1. Philadelphia Eagles (0-2): They won't have Carson Wentz this Sunday as his rehab from a season-ending knee injury continues. But the second-year passer proved in 2017 that he's not only a franchise quarterback, but an MVP-caliber player (his 33 TD passes left Wentz one off the league lead even though he went down in Week 14). Yet he's hardly the only reason for optimism. Philly has built deep, dominant lines — especially on the defensive side, anchored by Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham — and has a nice collection of playmakers for Wentz. It seems this title window is just now opening.
2. Atlanta Falcons (0-2): Hard to believe they remain on this list given the 25-point second-half lead in Super Bowl LI. Yet a team that won the NFC in 2016 could remain largely unchanged from a personnel perspective heading into 2018 — and a highly athletic, blossoming defense is far better a year removed from its collapse against New England. The major question will be if the offense can recapture its 2016 pyrotechnics. It needed a year then to adapt to coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who joined the staff in 2015, and Dan Quinn is gambling now that a similar jump will occur in Year 2 under embattled OC Steve Sarkisian.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars (N/A): They've got just about every piece in place to become a perennial powerhouse, save one notable exception. The major question the AFC South champs face concerns QB Blake Bortles and whether to keep him and his $19 million salary for 2018 or cut him without any salary cap implications. Bortles' playoff showing was a microcosm of his four-year career — promising but far too inconsistent. And with veteran passers such as Alex Smith, Kirk Cousins, Case Keenum and others — Eli Manning? — potentially available, Jacksonville has a major decision to make. Bortles or his successor will also need help in the passing game with WRs Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson headed for free agency. Otherwise? RB Leonard Fournette keys the league's top-ranked rushing attack. More importantly, the game's best young defense, which is loaded at every level, should keep this club in just about every game and, perhaps, in the title hunt for years to come.
4. Minnesota Vikings (0-4): They blew a golden opportunity to become the first team to earn a Super Bowl "home game." Now they face a challenging dilemma, deciding whether to move forward with Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater or Sam Bradford under center. On the (very) bright side, versatile RB Dalvin Cook will be back in 2018 after his rookie season was cut short by a knee injury, and the NFL's top-ranked defense should remain virtually intact. But also returning will be Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, so often a trump card to the Vikings' title aspirations.
5. Los Angeles Chargers (0-1): Shame this team couldn't solve the kicking issues that essentially cost it a playoff berth in 2017 — especially since Josh Lambo, waived before the season, was the answer all along (19 for 20 on field goals after joining Jacksonville). But the Chargers are stellar on both sides of the ball, won six of their final seven, and finally seem settled in their new city. As long as Philip Rivers, 36, remains a top-line quarterback, the Bolts, should be a serious threat.
6. Houston Texans (N/A): A what-could-have-been campaign is behind them, but the future seems bright in a town ready for a football title now that its World Series drought is over. Coach Bill O'Brien's offense finally made music with rookie QB Deshaun Watson, who instantly earned the respect of teammates and opponents alike. Though Watson's knee injury brought the show to an abrupt end, long-term prospects are tantalizing, especially now that O'Brien's deal has been extended. Some retooling is necessary, especially on the O-line. But if J.J. Watt can return to form (or even close to it), it's easy to envision this team back maturing into a contender.
7. Tennessee Titans (0-1): They're coming off consecutive 9-7 years. The tiebreakers worked out in 2017, and Tennessee wound up winning its first playoff game in 14 years. Still, it felt like this team underachieved and was less than the sum of its significant parts. Of most concern was the regression of third-year QB Marcus Mariota, though he did battle injuries. Newly hired coach Mike Vrabel comes highly regarded and seems to have nearly everything he needs to succeed. His ability to affect the culture — and get Mariota back on track — should tell this team's tale in 2018 and beyond.
8. Carolina Panthers (0-2): They're only two years removed from a Super Bowl appearance. But plenty of turmoil here, starting with the fact that owner Jerry Richardson has been shamed into selling the franchise. Even if interim GM Marty Hurney keeps his job, might the next owner hit the reset button? And then there's QB Cam Newton, the league MVP in 2015, but now a player who seems to have plateaued and one facing a challenge adapting to new coordinator Norv Turner's offense.
9. Detroit Lions (N/A): Only they and the Browns have existed for (virtually) the entire Super Bowl era yet never reached the game — though Detroit earned an extra dollop of futility given Cleveland lost its team for three seasons. Worse for the Lions, they have just one playoff victory (1991) since winning the NFL title in 1957. The franchise quarterback, Matthew Stafford, is in place. But Detroit still can't run the ball, and the defense continues to struggle despite fielding decent talent.
10. Cleveland Browns (N/A): This ranking may give pause given this team has won once in its past 35 games. But ... a bona fide general manager, John Dorsey, is now aboard — and he's flush with draft picks, including the first and fourth overall selections in 2018, and more than $100 million in projected cap space. Young talent is on the roster (DE Myles Garrett, DT Danny Shelton, LB Joe Schobert and TE David Njoku, among others), and the offensive line should be strong if LT Joe Thomas decides to return. The perennial quarterback problem remains, but Dorsey is uniquely positioned to fix it, perhaps through both the draft and free agency, where several quality vets should be available. A Super Bowl appearance hardly seems imminent, but don't be surprised if a major turnaround is finally afoot.
11. Arizona Cardinals (0-1): New coach Steve Wilks claims they only needs to be retooled, clearly an overly rosy assessment given the Cards don't know who their next quarterback is. It will certainly help to get RB David Johnson back, and a defense featuring CB Patrick Peterson and NFL sack king Chandler Jones is hardly shoddy. But Arizona's biggest obstacle could be a division where the other teams appear formidable and set under center — assuming the 49ers' late-season surge behind Jimmy Garoppolo wasn't a mirage.
12. Cincinnati Bengals (0-2): After five consecutive one-and-done playoff appearances between 2011 and 2015, they've regressed, losing nine games each of the past two seasons. Yet coach Marvin Lewis remains, incredibly, despite an 0-7 postseason record and a team that regularly lets its lack of discipline trump fairly significant talent. Not much to indicate a sea change is forthcoming, though the players do deserve credit for a strong finish to 2017, when it seemed like Lewis was certainly on the chopping block.
13. Buffalo Bills (0-4): They took a very nice step in 2017, returning to postseason after a 17-year drought. But Tyrod Taylor does not appear to be the answer under center, RB LeSean McCoy will turn 30 in July, DT Kyle Williams — a valued leader — is headed for free agency, and longtime C Eric Wood has been forced into retirement after his season-ending physical revealed a debilitating neck injury. Hard to see Buffalo sustaining any of its recent momentum, especially in a division where they're only viable as a wild card as long as Tom Brady continues to play.
Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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