Last year, this distinction fell on my beloved Kansas City Chiefs. All of the signs (easy schedule, promising changes, birth of a superstar, and good karma) were there to see before the season, only I was too afraid of putting some sort of hex on them to actually see it (yes, I believe in these kinds of things - times 100).
Every year since 1997 (my brain only goes back that far), at least one NFL team has made a 6 win improvement from the previous season. There were 3 such teams last year in Kansas City, Tampa Bay, and St. Louis. The Chiefs would top that list because they also made the playoffs. So that's what we are looking for here, a team that improves by 6 or more in the win department, AND qualifies for the postseason.
----Who will be the NFL's surprise team in 2011?----
*Mathematically Eliminated (11 wins or more in 2010): New England, NY Jets, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Chicago, Atlanta, New Orleans
*Logistically Eliminated (would need to go 16-0/15-1): Indianapolis, Kansas City, San Diego, Philadelphia, NY Giants, Green Bay, Tampa Bay
*Dirknosstically Eliminated (honky, please): Jacksonville (needs 14 wins), Oakland (14), Miami (13), St. Louis (13), Washington (12), Seattle (12), San Francisco (12), Tennessee (12), Arizona (11), Cincinnati (10), Carolina (8)
This leaves us with a nice, crisp, clean 7 teams left to fight it out for the honors. Lets shift this into rundown mode...
NEED 12 WINS
~Dallas Cowboys - Do they really count? While they wouldn't be a team I would consider a huge surprise, they certainly do qualify. After riddinig themselves of Wade Phillips at the midpoint of 2010, the Cowboys went 5-3 under Jason Garrett. They get Tony Romo and Dez Bryant back from injuries that cut their seasons short, and they aren't faced with 60 yard big screen expectations this season.
*Schedule - The NFC East is mediocre and they draw the NFC West, the worst divison of all time
*Change - New head coach, QB returning from injury
*Superstar - Bryant has serious potential, as does Romo as a rebirth superstar
*Karma - Bad for the organization, good for Romo
*Outlook - They seem to fit the criteria, but this feels like a 10 or 11 win team to me. Plus, picking the Cowboys as my surprise team would be pretty limpwristed.
~Detroit Lions - America's team. Or atleast America's adopted team of 2011. Or maybe just the team that had the best preseason, putting 10 win expectations on a team coming off a 6 win season. Never a good recipe, although I must admit, I do like me some Lions.
*Schedule - Draw the AFC West (good) and the NFC South (not so good) and play in a division with no gimme's (double not so good)
*Change - 2nd year head coach, QB returning from injury, dynamic rookie in Nick Fairley
*Superstar - Ndominant Suh may already be there, while Stafford has a chance to get there
*Karma - Have the Lions ever been good? I'd say they're due...
*Outlook - Was all about them until the preseason hyphoon was upgraded to a Suhnami. I like the Lions, and I think there's a good chance they reach 10 wins, but they've become a bit too trendy for me.
~Houston Texans - Another team that's hard to qualify as a "surprise" team, but I was surprised to learn they only went 6-10 last season. The Texans have become something of a punchline because of their lofty expecations that annually go unfulfilled. BUT THIS IS THEIR YEAR!
*Schedule - The frontrunners of what is now the second worst division in the NFL (because of Peyton and Garrard), but have tough draws in AFC North and NFC South
*Change - Wade Phillips as new Defensive Coordinator could make a world of difference
*Superstar - Andre Johnson is, Mario Williams should be, Matt Schaub could be, JJ Watt will be
*Karma - I'd like to say it's higher, but the heckling on the way out of the Chiefs game last year might doom them yet
*Outlook - A little too passe for my tastes. The Texans get a huge break with Peyton the Manning's injury vaulting them to the top of their division, but I think they fall short of 12.
~Minnesota Vikings - Beware of the player with the most to prove. Donovan F. has been completely written off after one bad season in a terrible situation with the Redskins. They also might have the most dangerous offensive weapon in the NFL - Visanthe Shiancoe's dong.
*Schedule - Same as Lions - rough division, but draw the AFC West
*Change - New head coach (interim from last season) and new QB
*Superstar - Major Donovan rebirth potential
*Karma - Seem to let down alot, but may have sold their soul by going with Favre
*Outlook - The Vikings chances are completely dependent on whether you believe in McNabb or not. They can beat anybody, but not everybody, with AP running the ball. 12 wins is a bit much though. Sell.
NEED 11 WINS
~Cleveland Browns - Nicholas Wright's team is gaining some steam as a potential sleeper for this season. Colt McCoy has looked rather spry this preseason, coming off a decent finish to his rookie year. He looks like he might be the real deal. The Browns definitely fit the mold of what I am looking for.
*Schedule - Couldn't be easier outside the division with the two worst divisions in NFC West and AFC South, but their own division has two powerhouses
*Change - First full year with Colton, new head coach, former head coach as D-Coord (Dicky Jauron)
*Superstar - Peyton Hillis already graced the cover of Madden (curse!), but this is all about McCoy
*Karma - Hard to argue that anybody deserves it more than Cleveland
*Outlook - Their schedule may not be 2010 Chiefs easy, but it's incredibly easy (includes drawing the Colts in Week 2 - Peyton doubtful). But their WR's are questionable, and so is their defense. I can see 10 wins with a backdoor playoff slide in, but that ain't enough to satisfy me.
NEED 10 WINS
~Buffalo Bills - Chan Chan the Man Man and his wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube offense. If he goes mad scientist this year, I'm talking Mike Leach crazy, I think the Bills could possibly revolutionize the game. Don't say I didn't warn you. I feel like Chan has reached the point where he's willing to try anything, a philosophy that originated with Thigbone (now with the Bills!) and the Chiefs.
*Schedule - Tough division with NE and NYJ, but AFC West and NFC East are manageable
*Change - Word on the street is that The Hyphen, QB-WR-PR Brad Smith, is being used every which way by Chan Chan
*Superstar - The Bumpkin, Ryan Fitzgerald might give the NFL some Ivy League flavor
*Karma - NOBODY needs good news more than the poor people in upstate, New Yahk (I can't help but think of this old commercial)
*Outlook - I came THIS close to going with the Biffalo Buffs, but I only see a max of 9 wins on their schedule. Actually, the opener against the Chiefs here at Arrowhead is their barometer. Win that, you get Oakland at home the next week, and could be 2-0 hosting the Patriots in Week 3. The Bills are my adopted team of 2011.
~Denver Broncos - It pains me to include them on this list, but here they are. Sometimes unnecessary turmoil (Tebow saga) can bring a team together, almost as if they're rallying around the media. Elvis Dumervil returns and tag teams with Von Miller, which scares the dickens out of me. And while I said McNabb had the most to prove in the NFL, Orton might be #2.
*Schedule - Their first 3 games (Oak, Cin, @Tenn) are as easy as they come, which is important for the sleeper team - beyond that it is rather pedestrian
*Change - New head coach John Fox knows how to do a lot with a little
*Superstar - The Neard himself, Kyle Orton might jump into the upper echelon of QB's - Also, Von Miller is my selection for Defensive Rookie of the Year
*Karma - The depths of hell (Tebow and hell jokes will never get old)
*Outlook - Oy. Don't make me say it. I fear the Broncos. Orton making the leap. Tebow doing little things every week that gets praised so much that Deuteronomy's ears bleed. Willis McGahee inevitably rejuvenating his career (I know because I can already feel my hatred towards him growing). Two edge rushers that will crush you on 3rd and long. Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins doing wily veteran things in the secondary. We have ourselves a winner, and I hate myself. Denver Broncos: 10-6.
Anybody who correctly picks the NFL's surprise team of 2011 in my comments will earn themselves a surprise party at my convenience following the season. All I need is a one word comment for you to be eligible.