It's that special time of year where you start to notice the days getting a little bit shorter, kids are going back to school, the NFL rosters and your fantasy teams are taking shape. That's right, we are ready for some NFL football! We know what to expect come September - first team players and four quarters that count for something. But there's also going to be a lot we don't expect to happen. Who will be this year's Russell Wilson or Colin Kaepernick? Who will be this year's Baltimore Ravens? I've heard a lot about how dangerous the Seahawks and the 49ers will be and a whole lot about how big of a mess the Jets are in and will the Patriots carry three quarterbacks this season. Expectations are high for some and low for others. But I want to focus on the dark horses. I've got one unexpected pick from each conference and all I can say is - don't be surprised if they surprise you.
From the AFC North, keep an eye out for the Cincinnati Bengals. While they've not won a playoff game the last two seasons, they have been there. That's not just big for the Bengals, who made back to back playoffs for the first time in a long time. It's challenging for any team in the NFL. In fact, only six other teams have made back to back playoffs the last two years. And four teams have made the playoffs each of the last three seasons - Atlanta, Baltimore, Green Bay, and New England. Half of those teams won the Superbowl one of those years. Additionally, while the coach may be the same, this is a different Marvin Lewis team. This group is focused, disciplined, and while they're featured on Hard Knocks again this team isn't in the news for all their off-season antics. The Cincinnati Bengals were #6 in total defense last season. They not only added James Harrison, but they took him from Pittsburgh (#1 in total defense in 2012) and I'll bet he's got a bit of a chip on his shoulder when it comes to the Steelers. That means the Bengals don't have to play against him...twice! If the Bengals make the playoffs for the third year in a row, they'll be in good company.
From the NFC North, listen up for the Detroit Lions. Yes - that's Detroit, as in the city that declared bankruptcy this summer. The city may be in trouble, but this team had some talent and added some more. If Ndamukong Suh can keep himself out of trouble, he'll continue to cause a lot of it for other teams. Matthew Stafford is primed for a breakout year and has a big money contract extension to live up to. Calvin Johnson, I mean c'mon, he's sensational. Then adding a dynamic weapon like Reggie Bush at running back. This team already ranked #3 in the league in offense last year. If this team stays healthy, and these players do what they're capable of... the Lions could really give Detroit something to be proud of besides the F-150.