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Surprise picks: Chiefs, Vikings up, Cowboys, Broncos down

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The Sports Xchange

The NFL makes a point each year of touting how many teams make the playoffs after missing the previous season; there have been at least five new playoff entrants in all but two seasons over the last quarter-century.

But while they are touting the upwardly mobile surprise teams, they never say anything about the teams that fall on their faces. So we’ll save them the trouble.

The call here is that Minnesota and Kansas City will be the league’s two biggest surprises in 2015, and that Denver and Dallas will be the league’s biggest disappointments.

What both the Vikings and Chiefs have going for them are excellent defenses that operate somewhat under the radar for small-market teams who between them have won just three playoff games, all by the Vikings, in 15 years. The Chiefs last won a playoff game in 1993.

Dallas and Denver, meanwhile, have been trendy Super Bowl picks for several years now, supposedly because the Cowboys have reached a level of steadiness with coach Jason Garrett and quarterback Tony Romo, and because the Broncos have Peyton Manning.

Unfortunately for both of them, what happens to teams that keep coming close is that eventually they get there or take a big fall. They have not gotten there, and the big fall is what’s coming.

Taking those teams one at a time:

—Kansas City. Few NFL quarterbacks have had a more interesting career arc than Alex Smith, who lost his job in San Francisco due to injury in the midst of his best season, and was shipped to KC, where a year ago he had statistically his second best season even while failing to throw a single touchdown pass to a wide receiver.

The addition of ex-Eagles wideout Jeremy Maclin, a 1,300-yard receiver last year, should help to solve the problem of Smith’s lack of touchdown throws. There is not much question about a defense with a pair of players, Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, who have averaged double-digit sacks in recent seasons.

—Minnesota. Can the return of Adrian Peterson really make that much difference to the Vikings? Yes, it can. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater showed flashes as a rookie last year and now he has Peterson to give him a running game and take the pressure off.

It will help Bridgewater and the Vikings if tight end Kyle Rudolph, who missed nearly half the games the last two years due to injury, can stay healthy. With speedy Mike Wallace to take the coverage deep and Peterson to occupy the defense near the line, Rudolph should get plenty of chances. There is little question about coach Mike Zimmer’s ability to put together a defense and the improvement the Vikings showed in December last year bodes well.

—Dallas. The Cowboys allowed rushing champ DeMarco Murray to take a hike after he led the league by nearly 500 yards because they believe their offensive line is so good that any running back will succeed behind it. No guarantee of that, and while the Cowboys have said they are satisfied with their backs, the late trade for Seattle’s Christine Michael says otherwise.

Dallas added Greg Hardy to shore up a defense that a year ago was the worst, statistically, of any division winner, but he begins the season on the suspended list. Linebacker Rolando McClain is also suspended for the first four games.

—Denver. The Broncos appear to have improved on defense, which needed help, but let’s face it, this team will go as Peyton Manning goes, and he’s going to be 40 a few weeks after the next Super Bowl. Denver’s concern is not that Manning has historically been a great regular season quarterback who fizzles in the playoffs, but that time and age and injuries have eroded his skills.

Unless you believe that the late-season slump he experienced in 2014 was simply a hiccup, you’d have to be concerned about Manning’s staying power at this stage of his career. In the last four regular-season games a year ago, he threw just three touchdown passes and six interceptions and had a passer rating above 80.1 just once. To put that in perspective, he had a rating below 80.1 just twice in the previous 42 games.

And the bottom line to all this?

Just a reminder that getting into the playoffs and doing something once there are two different battles.

When New England beat Seattle in Super Bowl 49, it was the ninth time in 11 years that the Super Bowl winner had been in the playoffs the year before and the seventh time in 11 years that both teams had been in the playoffs the year before.

With that in mind, we’ll split the difference and pick playoff veteran Green Bay to defeat playoff novice Kansas City in Super Bowl 50, perhaps an appropriate outcome to reprise Super Bowl I.

–Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than four decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.


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