Super Bowl breakthrough: Which of NFL’s 12 title-starved teams is closest to Lombardi Trophy?
Title-starved NFL teams, take heed – I'm talking to you.
Tom Brady is under contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for one more season. So if you're tired of that Super Bowl doughnut after what will be 56 fruitless seasons a year from now, it should be pretty obvious what you need to do next: Engage in a bidding war for TB12, who will be 45 in 2022 … and maybe sign his buddies Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and James White to ensure the deal gets closed.
It's that simple. Reel in Brady, who owns more Super Bowl rings (7) than any NFL franchise, and you'll surely be hoisting your own Lombardi Trophy in no time.
Unfortunately, he's not able to play for 12 teams simultaneously – or any of the championship-devoid dozen in 2021. So, in the interim, let's rank the chances (worst to best) of who might enjoy a Super Bowl breakthrough sans Brady in 2021:
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12. Houston Texans (never appeared in a Super Bowl): QB Deshaun Watson wants out. J.J. Watt is already out. There's no cap space for free agents. There's no first- or second-round pick in this year's draft. And executive vice president of football operations Jack Easterby continues to be a source of controversy. Yikes.
11. Detroit Lions (never appeared in a Super Bowl): New coach Dan Campbell recently told the Detroit Free Press, "We are looking two years out, three years out. And so everything to me starts two years out, and it doesn’t start right now." The recent trade of QB Matthew Stafford to the Rams for QB Jared Goff and a bundle of draft picks, including two first-rounders, suggests the long-term plan is already unfolding … and probably won't offer a whole lot of hope in 2021.
10. Cincinnati Bengals (0-2 Super Bowl record): They appear set under center, QB Joe Burrow in the midst of a solid rookie season in 2020 before an ACL injury ended it after 10 games. The Bengals have a solid group of offensive skill players and more than a few able bodies on defense. But will they break from tradition and aggressively pursue more talent – particularly blocking help in front of Burrow – via the draft and free agency? And can coach Zac Taylor, heading into his third season, definitively prove he's the right guy to get this organization its first playoff win in more than three decades?
9. Carolina Panthers (0-2 Super Bowl record): They were the only team in the league last season with a new head coach, two new coordinators and a new quarterback. Given those circumstances, fairly impressive Matt Rhule won five games while jumping from Baylor to the NFL, though his team now appears intent on replacing QB Teddy Bridgewater. A young club has a steep hill to climb in the deep NFC, but there is plenty of talent on this roster – one likely to perform even better when 2019 All-Pro Christian McCaffrey is available for more than three games.
8. Jacksonville Jaguars (never appeared in a Super Bowl): Head coach Urban Meyer and his highly impressive college résumé are in the building. Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence is almost certain to follow when the draft rolls around. Aside from the No. 1 overall pick presumably earmarked for Lawrence, the Jags have an additional first-rounder this year and two selections in Round 2. Throw in nearly $80 million of available cap space, most in the league according to Over The Cap, and a team that already has a solid core of talented young players could quickly take off.
7. Atlanta Falcons (0-2 Super Bowl record): New coach Arthur Smith has enough star power on offense (QB Matt Ryan, WRs Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley) to catch lightning in a bottle this year. But if Atlanta's championship window isn't quite shut, it's barely cracked – and there isn't available cap space this year to wedge it open. A full-on rebuild doesn't seem far off.
6. Minnesota Vikings (0-4 Super Bowl record): (Recent) playoff history suggests they're in good shape, Mike Zimmer's team reaching postseason in every odd year since he became head coach in 2014. And the Vikes, who reached the divisional round in 2019, should rebound in 2021 if DT Michael Pierce opts back in, key defenders like DE Danielle Hunter (neck surgery) and LB Anthony Barr (torn pectoral) come back healthy, and a young group of corners develops. Of course, QB Kirk Cousins, who finally won his first playoff game in 2019, must prove he can win games with even bigger stakes.
5. Arizona Cardinals (0-1 Super Bowl record): They appear to have an MVP-caliber quarterback in Kyler Murray. They've also got a defensive player of the year candidate on defense, OLB Chandler Jones, when he's healthy. Pro Bowlers DeAndre Hopkins and Budda Baker augment an enviable nucleus. But his team needs to get deeper, especially in the trenches, and coach Kliff Kingsbury must prove he's the guy to take Murray and Co. to the next level – read: postseason – after the quarterback and the rest of the team tailed off to a .500 finish after a 6-3 start in 2020.
4. Los Angeles Chargers (0-1 Super Bowl record): Newly hired coach Brandon Staley, fresh off overseeing the league's No. 1 defense for the cross-town Rams, inherits a roster teeming with talent and headlined by offensive rookie of the year Justin Herbert. If the Bolts can stay healthy for a change – looking at you, Derwin James – cut down on their own mistakes, and Herbert's arrow continues trending up despite the coaching upheaval, there's really no reason they shouldn't be playoff regulars for years to come.
3. Cleveland Browns (never appeared in a Super Bowl): They took so many positive steps in their first season under 2020 coach of the year Kevin Stefanski – reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and winning a postseason game for the first time since 1994, which was also the last time Cleveland won 11 regular-season games. It won't be easy fending off so many capable AFC North foes year in and year out. But if Stefanski can build on the continuity, maybe figure out how to effectively incorporate WR Odell Beckham, help QB Baker Mayfield continue to progress, and identify – alongside promising GM Andrew Berry – where the Browns need to reinvest, then this franchise might soon be primed to take that long-awaited Super Bowl trip.
Might the Titans' Ryan Tannehill or Browns' Baker Mayfield lead their team to the promised land in 2021? (Photo: Andrew Nelles, Tennessean.com)
2. Tennessee Titans (0-1 Super Bowl record): An attack spearheaded by offensive player of the year Derrick Henry, QB Ryan Tannehill and WR A.J. Brown – Tennessee averaged 31 points a game in the regular season – might even improve in 2021 with the return of Pro Bowl LT Taylor Lewan. But a defense that ranked 28th in 2020 and managed just 19 sacks must improve if the Titans don't want 2019's AFC title game appearance to be their high-water mark.
1. Buffalo Bills (0-4 Super Bowl record): A year after the Chiefs vanquished Tennessee on the cusp of the Super Bowl, it was the Bills who fell a game short at Arrowhead Stadium. But given the quantum leap Buffalo QB Josh Allen took in 2020, becoming a surprise contender for league MVP, his team should be a contender for years to come if he continues to ascend. But the Bills shouldn't have to rely so heavily on Allen. Their running game and defense regressed from 2019, but there's little reason to believe both won't improve moving forward – and that could very well be enough to get Buffalo a fifth crack at the Lombardi Trophy in 2021.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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