2018 NFL Predictions: Dark-Horse Super Bowl Picks Certain to Surprise

Tennessee Titans running back Dion Lewis runs the ball during NFL football training camp Sunday, July 29, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

According to OddsShark (h/t Gary Davenport of Bleacher Report), the eventual Super Bowl LII champion Philadelphia Eagles had 50-1 odds to win it all as of August 4, 2017. Remarkably, only eight teams were below them on the odds ledger.

Looking back at those odds, it’s interesting to note successful teams that were not given much of a chance (e.g. the 150-1 Los Angeles Rams, the 100-1 Jacksonville Jaguars) and which losing squads were ranked higher (e.g. the 22-1 New York Giants, the 33-1 Tampa Bay Buccaneers).

Of course, it’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback and say the odds were off, but it shows that teams can always defy preseason expectations.

We’ll take a look at two dark-horse teams who could outperform expectations this year. The rule of thumb is that they have to be on the bottom half of the odds table: In other words, 16 or more teams need to have greater odds to win the Super Bowl. Per the latest OddsShark futures, that means no team better than 33-1 can be featured on this list.

Of course, these picks are long shots, but as the old New York state lottery saying goes, “hey, you never know.”


Carolina Panthers

The Carolina Panthers finished 11-5 last season, with their highlights including wins over the 13-3 Minnesota Vikings and 13-3 New England Patriots. A close 31-26 loss at the New Orleans Saints in the NFC wild-card round ended their season.

They aren’t thought of too highly in the books, as they are listed at 33-1 or 40-1 at most places. The team did lose two key linemen (offensive guard Andrew Norwell and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei) to free agency, and right tackle Daryl Williams is out for the beginning of the season with a dislocated knee, per Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network.

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But the Panthers’ core, much of which was present for their 2015 Super Bowl run, is impressive. Quarterback Cam Newton has accounted for 212 touchdowns (158 passing, 54 rushing) in seven seasons, and at his best, he’s a near-unstoppable force. Granted, he’s not an accurate passer (career 58.5 percent completion rate), but Newton’s tremendous rushing and scrambling abilities have saved the Panthers time and again.

Newton’s security blanket (tight end Greg Olsen) is back after missing nine games last year with a foot injury. He averaged 80 catches and 1,062 yards per season over the span of 2014-2016. Reaching those numbers may be a tall order as the 33-year-old Olsen hits his 12th year in the league, but if he comes close to those efforts, he’ll still be a solid offensive asset.

On the line, the Panthers may have incurred losses, but they return a healthy Ryan Kalil (two first-team nods from the Associated Press) and dominant right guard Trai Turner.

On defense, linebacker Luke Kuechly is routinely one of the best at his position in the game (ranked second last year by B/R 1000), and the same can be said for sixth-year defensive tackle Kawann Short (sixth, per B/R 1000). Three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Thomas Davis is also returning, although he will sit the first four games of the year due to a PED suspension.

Off the edge, Carolina gets back the edge-rushing duo of Mario Addison and Julius Peppers that helped the team accrue the third-most sacks in the NFL last year.

Throw in some new rookie talent on both sides of the ball (notably wideout D.J. Moore and cornerback Donte Jackson), and you have a recipe for a team that should contend.

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Tennessee Titans

The Tennessee Titans snuck into the playoffs as a 9-7 wild-card team and upset the Chiefs in Kansas City in the opening round. A blowout loss to the New England Patriots ended their season.

Despite last season’s playoff appearance, the Titans aren’t ranked too highly in the books, as they are listed at 40-1 or 50-1. It makes sense why, as the AFC South will only get better with Deshaun Watson and Andrew Luck calling signals for the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts again, respectively.

However, there’s reason to believe Tennessee can make waves.

First, Dion Lewis, the 2017 leader in defensive-adjusted yards above replacement at running back, per Football Outsiders, is now a Tennessee Titan. He and Derrick Henry may form a dominant one-two rushing attack, which may be harder to defend given mobile quarterback Marcus Mariota’s running abilities.

The offense returns steady tight end Delanie Walker, and it also features second-year breakout candidate Corey Davis, who caught five passes for 63 yards and two scores against the Patriots in the divisional round.

Drafted fifth overall in 2017, Davis’ rookie year was inconsistent, but that was largely due to injuries that forced him to miss valuable training camp time and five regular-season games. He’s good to go now and could help Tennessee’s offense shine.

On the offensive line, left tackle Taylor Lewan, who just signed a five-year extension, is one of the best in the game (B/R 1000 ranked him seventh after the 2017 regular season).

While the defense struggled last season, the Titans feature a new coaching staff this year with a defensive-minded head coach in Mike Vrabel and a Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator in Dean Pees.

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This is Pees’ 11th year as a defensive coordinator, having spent four seasons in New England and another six in Baltimore. During that decade, Pees’ defenses ranked in the top 12 in fewest yards allowed and points allowed nine times each.

Doug Farrar of Bleacher Report praised the then-Ravens defensive coordinator’s defensive schemes in July 2017: 

“One thing that has elevated Baltimore’s pass defense is Pees’ use of disguised coverages. It’s something every NFL team does to some degree, but the Ravens are especially good at showing one coverage pre-snap and then altering it as the defensive backs start to move.

“Whether it’s an invert—where the quarterback expects a shallow cornerback and deep safety and gets the opposite—or a two-deep man coverage look that somehow shifts to Cover 2 zone after the snap, Pees’ disguise concepts are among the league’s most advanced and effective.”

Pees can bring that expertise to Tennessee, which ranked just 24th against the pass last year, per Football Outsiders. If he and Vrabel can shore that up, and the offense experiences a resurgence with Lewis and a healthy Davis, then the Titans could be in line for a big season.  


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