by Sean Tyler @seantyleruk
Since the Eagles broke their duck in February 2018, we’ve been left with 12 NFL franchises that have never won the Super Bowl. They include the Minnesota Vikings and the Buffalo Bills, both of whom have appeared four times without tasting victory, and the Cincinnati Bengals, whose most recent appearance came more than three decades ago.
Of those dozen, the Browns, Lions, Jaguars and Texans haven’t even reached the season finale. As the league’s newest expansion teams, Jacksonville and Houston have only been around since 1995 and 2002 respectively, but long-suffering Cleveland and Detroit fans surely deserve a medal by now.
Not a power ranking as such, this is a take on how (im)probable it is for any franchise to win their first-ever title at Super Bowl LV in Tampa come February 2021. I think we need to say from the outset that none of these teams are likely to do so. However, the addition of a seventh playoff team in each conference this season at least gives them all a greater shot at the biggest prize.
So let’s dust off the crystal ball and start the countdown in reverse order, from least likely to the best shot…
12. Jacksonville Jaguars
We shouldn’t really be talking about a debut Super Bowl appearance here. With ESPN’s Football Power Index making Jacksonville the most likely team (23% chance) to pick first in the 2021 draft, a better question might be “will Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence be a Jag next year?”
The team’s immediate fortunes rest on the shoulders of second-year quarterback Gardner Minshew II. Minshew outplayed the now-departed Nick Foles, going 6-6 in his first season, and has new pass-catching options in TE Tyler Eifert and rookie receiver Laviska Shenault. If only Leonard Fournette can start finding the end zone again – he only logged three TDs in 2019 – and the offensive line can lend a hand…
On defence, there’s been a bit of a fire sale, with AJ Bouye and Calais Campbell following Jalen Ramsey through the door marked ‘exit’, but franchise-tagging DE Yannick Ngakoue and grabbing linebacker Joe Schobert from the Browns suggests there’s no #TankforTrevor at play here. Nonetheless, both first round draft picks – cornerback CJ Henderson and linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson – will need to find their feet quickly or HC Doug Marrone will be out on his ear.
At least the Jags’ schedule is on the easy side, with the Dolphins, Bengals, Lions and Chargers as the first four out-of-division opponents. Be that as it may, they may struggle to match last year’s 6-10, let alone reach their first-ever Super Bowl. They’re not bottom of every pundit’s power rankings for nothing, you know.
11. Carolina Panthers
Can Carolina push on from last year’s 5-11 under new HC Matt Rhule? When you have Christian McCaffery, only the third player ever to rush and catch for 1,000 yards in a season, all is not lost. But let’s not get carried away…
With Luke Kuechly now enjoying a well-earned retirement, the defence could be a worry. The organisation must have felt the same as they cashed in all seven draft picks on defensive players, boosting the front seven with DT Derrick Brown and DE Yetur Gross-Matos, and adding Jeremy Chinn and Kenny Robinson to the secondary.
These guys are gonna be busy though; 10 of their games will be against divisional rivals Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan, as well as Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers and Kirk Cousins. Eeek! The Panthers’ attack is going to have to go some to outscore some of these teams.
The Panthers have been to the Super Bowl twice before without bringing home the bacon, most recently in 2016 when they lost 24-10 to the Broncos. Despite their shiny new QB Teddy Bridgewater and the ever-present CMC, we can be fairly sure they won’t be heading back to the big time quite yet.
10. Cincinnati Bengals
A 2-14 team winning the Super Bowl the following year? It’s a very long shot but in theory, the extra playoff spots mean Cincy can continue to prop up the AFC North and still reach the postseason.
By all accounts, Joe Burrow is acing all the Zoom meetings but without physical reps, it’ll take time for the #1 overall draft choice to gel with his new receiving corps. Despite his 60-touchdown season at LSU, even the future face of the franchise won’t turn the Bengals into world-beaters overnight.
That said, the only way is up for Cincinnati. There were season-long injuries to AJ Green and rookie left tackle Jonah Williams in 2019, while extended time out for John Ross and Cordy Glenn left them relying on fourth or fifth choices at times. Then there was the short-lived ‘Ryan Finley Experiment’, which sounds like a modern jazz combo but was even more painful…
To improve on defence (equal last in the league for yards allowed per play), they dabbled in free agency for a change. Acquiring Houston defensive tackle DJ Reader was a massive coup, safety Von Bell and linebacker Josh Bynes were unexpected arrivals from the Saints and Ravens respectively, and the two Vikings corners – Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander – should move that needle too.
If AJ Green stays fit, if Burrow meets expectations, if Joe Mixon has another 1,000-yard year and if the O-line isn’t as leaky (that’s a lot of ifs), Cincy could be half-decent. Statistically, they have the second-easiest schedule of our dozen, with the Redskins, Jaguars, Giants, Chargers and Dolphins in the mix. But given the strengths of their divisional rivals, the long odds aren’t going to shorten. The league’s longest wait since their last Super Bowl, a last-minute loss to the 49ers in 1989, will go on.
9. Detroit Lions
I’m hardly sticking my neck out by saying the Lions won’t be making their Super Bowl debut this season but I expect them to fare a lot better than 3-12-1 this time.
Losing Matt Stafford to a back injury mid-season was a serious setback when he was on pace for a 5,000-yard season. His stand-ins, Jeff Driskel and David Blough, just didn’t cut the mustard, and the Lions lost their last eight straight. Grabbing Chase Daniel in the offseason at least gives them a bit more QB insurance, their receivers could have a decent year and second round pick D’Andre Swift should dovetail nicely with Kerryon Johnson in the RB room.
If Stafford is back to his best, the Lions should score enough points so their fortunes in 2020 will fly or fall with their defence – one of the worst last year. Still, their consolation prize was #3 draft pick Jeff Okudah, the Ohio State CB. Two former Patriots, DT Danny Shelton and linebacker Jamie Collins, could prove useful additions, along with Reggie Ragland and Desmond Trufant, but with Darius Slay departing to Philly, the holes aren’t quite plugged yet.
The Lions are a couple of seasons away from having serious Super Bowl credentials so for now, Matt Patricia needs to improve on his 9-22-1 record. The schedulers haven’t been kind, giving Detroit the equal toughest schedule of our gang. With only two home games in the first seven weeks, hitting their stride from the get-go again seems unlikely.
If the D improves, Stafford stays healthy and they get the rub of the green for a change, the Lions could yet win a playoff game for the first time since 2009. After finishing bottom of the division for the last two years, that would be a massive step forward. It’s a slim chance, but a chance nonetheless.
8. Los Angeles Chargers
Doubts over a first return to the end game since 1995, when the Chargers lost their only SB to the Niners, are at least partly due to the question marks hanging over the QB position. With Philip Rivers in pastures new, journeyman Tyrod Taylor is the expected starter after three solid-but-not-spectacular years in Buffalo. The front office clearly concurs, or else Justin Herbert wouldn’t have been the sixth overall draft pick. The Oregon product should challenge Taylor and help the Chargers improve from last year’s disappointing 5-11.
Over the offseason, franchise-tagging TE Hunter Henry and resigning running back Austin Ekeler were solid moves, and the Bolts replaced DT Russell Okung with the Packers’ Bryan Bulaga. The other big additions were cornerback Chris Harris from Denver and linebacker Kenneth Murray, a Day 2 draft pick.
The Chargers’ schedule could see Taylor face his old Bills, while road trips to the Saints and Buccaneers should bring him (or Herbert) up against two league legends. It may take a while to bed into the SoFi Stadium so match-ups against the Panthers, Jets and Jaguars could be crucial in building some early atmosphere in their new home. In short, there are just too many things stacked against the Bolts to make a genuine charge at this year’s Super Bowl.
7. Arizona Cardinals
If we’re looking for a sleeper to give the 49ers a run for their money in the NFC West, let alone make a third trip to the Super Bowl after unsuccessful excursions in 2009 and 2017, could that be Kliff Kingsbury’s Arizona?
The Cardinals reside in a competitive division, which always makes their schedule tough. This year, they’ll also have Dallas, Buffalo, New England and Philadelphia on their plate although, with the Redskins (or whatever they’re called by then), Lions, Panthers and Jets all front-loaded in the calendar, they could build some early momentum before things get tough.
Things are definitely blooming in the desert, starting with the downright theft of All-Pro wideout DeAndre Hopkins from Houston. He’ll help Christian Kirk and Larry Fitzgerald to elevate Kyler Murray’s game as the QB enters year 2. OT Josh Jones was great third-round value in the draft and Kenyan Drake should continue where he left off, notching three 100-yard rushing games in his eight weeks at Arizona.
But can the D keep their end of the bargain? The additions of Bills DT Jordan Phillips and versatile first round pick, LB Isaiah Simmons, should raise the bar (2019: 28th in points allowed, 32nd in yards allowed), while another linebacker, Detroit’s Devon Kennard, boosts the pass rush.
After finishing 5-10-1 last year, there are bluer skies ahead for the Cardinals. However, unless there’s a massive plot twist, it won’t be the blue skies of Tampa in February.
6. Houston Texans
Established in 2002, the Texans are the babies of our group and have yet to reach the final showdown in their short history. It’s a reach to suggest they’ll be contesting Super Bowl LV as 2020, clearly a stinker for all of us, has been especially horrible for the Texans.
The ‘fun’ started with the AFC Divisional Game, in which they threw away a more-than-promising 24-point lead against the Chiefs, getting outscored 51-7 in the last 40 minutes. And it’s not been great since, swapping top receiver DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for, well, not a lot (sorry, David Johnson fans). ESPN’s Bill Barnwell gave the Texans an ‘F’ and he wasn’t alone in slating the trade.
The Texans did acquire a pair of experienced receivers in Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb to give Deshaun Watson options beyond Will Fuller, but if they are going to make the playoffs and beyond, their 28th-ranked defence (slumping from 12th the year before) needs to step up. Will JJ Watt, who’s missed exactly half of the last 64 games with injuries, bounce back to the Defensive Player of the Year version of himself? Can rookie Ross Blacklock hope to replace defensive tackle DJ Reader?
Houston’s schedule is one of the hardest of our SB-deprived teams; their first six fixtures include the Chiefs, Ravens, Steelers, Vikings and Packers, making a 1-5 start perfectly feasible. And with plenty of AFC teams likely to do well, emerging among the conference’s top seven isn’t a given by any means for the Texans.
5. Atlanta Falcons
By the midway point of last season, the 1-7 Falcons were clearly not destined to go back for their third Super Bowl appearance. Then, inexplicably, Dan Quinn’s team hit their stride and won six of their final eight games to finish 7-9.
Having started 4-9 the year before (also ending 7-9 after a late rally), it’s clear that the Falcons don’t fly out of the traps but finish well. Opening with the Seahawks, Cowboys, Bears and Packers doesn’t sound conducive to a solid start in 2020 and another rip-snorting finish might be beyond them this time: five of their last seven games are against the Saints (twice), Buccs (twice) and Chiefs.
With Matt Ryan under centre, Julio Jones (six straight seasons of 1,300+ yards) and Calvin Ridley in the wideout group, Baltimore’s Hayden Hurst plugging an Austin-Hooper-shaped hole at tight end and RB Todd Gurley joining from the Rams, 2020 could be quite something offensively (if Gurley’s gammy knee holds out). On the other side of the ball, Vic Beasley has moved on and they need more than 28 sacks so can new signings Dante Fowler Jr. and Takkarist McKinley get to Messrs Brees, Brady, Bridgewater and Mahomes?
With the personnel in place, Quinn is under pressure to take the Falcons into the postseason. However, they’d need to replicate their form from the latter half of recent campaigns for a whole season and I can’t help but feel their schedule is against them.
4. Cleveland Browns
In 2019, many saw the Browns as a legitimate contender for their first-ever Super Bowl or at least worthy of a side bet. On paper, the names looked good: Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Nick Chubb, Myles Garrett. But in Freddie Kitchens, they had a first-time Head Coach who proved to be hopelessly out of his depth.
He had the ‘anti-Midas touch’: everything he touched went wrong. Baker Mayfield regressed. OBJ disappointed. Garrett went rogue. The O-line was feeble. Despite the hype, the Browns stumbled to 6-10 and stretched the league’s longest playoff drought to 18 years.
Under new HC Kevin Stefanski (their 12th since 2000), the arrow is pointing north. They signed Jack Conklin and drafted Jedrick Wills to help Mayfield to flourish, and both Landry and Beckham Jr. should be over their injury niggles. Chubb and Kareem Hunt are as good as any RB tandem in the league, and free-agency acquisition Austin Hooper is a solid tight end option. Now, if Mr Garrett can just keep his cool…
To that point, Stefanski has inherited a team loaded with potential but he needs to instil more discipline than Kitchens could muster. If he does, I can see the Browns tucking in behind the Ravens and Steelers, and riding the wave into the postseason as the AFC’s seventh seed.
The statisticians say theirs is the easiest schedule of our Super Bowl-challenged group, and with Washington, Jacksonsville, both New York teams and the Bengals (twice) on the list, it’s hard to disagree. Then, once in the playoffs at long last, it’s all up for grabs.
3. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings have four Super Bowl appearances under their belt – most recently in 1997 – but no victories. Having reached a Divisional Game last time around, the NFC North outfit currently have the shortest odds among our unlucky 12 to return to the big finale.
Offensively, there’s much to like, even though they shipped star receiver Stefon Diggs to the Bills. They used part of their haul of draft picks on Day 1 to pick Justin Jefferson; factor in that Diggs was disgruntled with his situation and it’s probably the best outcome for all parties. Dalvin Cook will shine again, as long as he doesn’t sit out the season.
The Vikes’ defence is more of a worry. They gutted the secondary during the off-season, letting three corners – Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander – walk, and will be relying on rookies Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler to plug the gaps. Those defensive concerns, plus the third-toughest schedule of our 12 – only the Lions, Panthers and Jaguars can contemplate sub-.500 seasons – and I see the Vikes being the least likely of our top tier to lift the Lombardi trophy for the first time.
2. Buffalo Bills
The Bills’ four Super Bowls came in consecutive years in the early 1990s but they lost the lot, and have won just one playoff game since. Now, HC Sean McDermott is looking for his third post-season in four years with the rejuvenated Bills looking like legit contenders for the AFC East title.
For the first time in ages, it’s a coin flip between them and the TB12-free Patriots, though neither has an easy ride fixture-wise. Buffalo has one of the toughest schedules among our bevvy of SB bridesmaids, with the Chiefs, Seahawks and 49ers all lying in wait. The nearest the Bills get to a gimme are their four divisional games against the Jets and Dolphins.
Putting last season’s OT Wild Card loss to the Texans firmly in the rear view mirror, the Bills have much to look forward to. As well as one of the best defences in the league, Stefon Diggs’ arrival from Minnesota should be a boost to their 23rd-ranked offence. He’d better be though: the Bills handed over a bucket-load of draft spots to get him. Averaging 1,000 yards and eight TDs a year, he also has a reputation for down-the-field catches, which should suit Josh Allen nicely. Pairing running back Zack Moss with Devin Singletary could create the best RB duo in the division, even without the ageless Frank Gore in their ranks any more.
So in summary, all is set fair for Buffalo. Don’t be surprised if they edge some of their tougher contests, win their division and go on from there.
1. Tennessee Titans
Of our teams that have never won a Super Bowl, Mike Vrabel’s Tennessee seem the best bet at putting that right in 2020.
Making it all the way to the AFC Championship Game, the Titans exceeded most people’s expectations last year. The decision to replace ineffective QB Marcus Mariota with the Comeback Kid himself, Ryan Tannehill, rescued the team’s season. In their unforeseen push for glory, Tennessee won seven of their last 10 games, and beat the first and third seeds on the road in the process.
So how likely are the Titans to go one better than their only appearance in 2000, when they lost Super Bowl XXXIV to the St Louis Rams? (That was the last time it featured two teams that had never won the title before.) Well, probably more likely than any other team on this list.
With Derrick Henry, who ran the ball 386 times in 2019, on a franchise tag, they can still dominate with their running game. Jack Conklin will be a miss on the O-line, but Isaiah Wilson looks a solid first-round draft pick. Defensively, trading perennial Pro Bowler Jurrell Casey to the Broncos means Jeffery Simmons needs to step up a notch in year 2, while Vic Beasley joining from Atlanta should beef up the pass rush.
With an easier than average schedule, with only the Ravens as a genuine favourite on the fixture list, the Titans seem well-placed to beat Indianapolis and Houston to the AFC South title. Just a win or two more than usual (they’ve finished 9-7 for the last four years) would hold them in good stead going into the playoffs and who knows how far beyond.
How did I do? Do you agree? Let us know @Full10Yards if you’d rank anyone higher than the Titans or want to big up the Jags’ chances