They all watch. Come January, when hundreds of NFL players are finished for the season, they sit in front of television screens and watch others play on. They see the 2007 Giants win a Super Bowl after going 8--8 the previous year and then losing four of their last eight regular-season games. They see the 2008 Cardinals climb from .500 to 9--7 and the Super Bowl despite losing four games by more than 20 points (one by 40). ¬∂ They watch all this, see the possibilities and ask, Why not us? "Tell me, would anybody have thought the Giants would be in the Super Bowl two years ago?" asked Saints quarterback Drew Brees on Sunday. "Would anybody have thought the Cardinals were going to play in the Super Bowl last year? You look at it and you say to yourself, Three, four, five games all came down to one or two plays for us, and if we make those plays, that's us in the Super Bowl. Absolutely you do that."
On kickoff weekend in the NFL, the relentless leaguewide optimism of August, when any team can win the Super Bowl, yields to sober reality for some (hello, Houston) and temporary validation for others (nice throw, Aaron Rodgers). But it is just one week. "People put so much into that first game," says former Ravens coach Brian Billick. "And a win in September is as important as a win in December. But not more important."
Now the chase begins in earnest, with a workaday intensity that replaces the pomp and circumstance of the openers. Chances are, for some team it will end as it did for the '07 Giants and the '08 Cardinals, or even the '05 Seahawks, with a rise from one season's mediocrity—or worse—to the NFL's ultimate game. In nine of the last 11 seasons, a team that had been 9--7 or worse the previous year made the Super Bowl. The NFL is uniquely structured to boost such dark horses, with its devious scheduling, its punishing salary cap and its violence, which makes every snap a crapshoot that can end in injury to a vital player. One team will unexpectedly survive.
Perhaps that team is the Saints. On Sunday in the Superdome, Brees threw a career-high six touchdown passes (and lamented missing chances for two more) as New Orleans's rampaging offense—No. 1 in the NFL a year ago—rolled up 515 yards on the overmatched Lions in a 45--27 victory. The road immediately becomes rougher with a game at Philadelphia this weekend, but among aspiring climbers, the Saints are more hardened to, and more aware of, the challenges than most.
New Orleans U-turned from 3--13 to 10--6 in 2006 and reached the NFC title game. The Saints slipped to 7--9 and 8--8 in the last two seasons, during which Brees threw for an aggregate 9,492 yards, but the defense struggled. Gregg Williams was brought on this year as defensive coordinator, and New Orleans expects to be better just by having endured two seasons of disappointment.
"We've gained a ton of experience in the last two years," said Brees after Sunday's win (the first witnessed by his eight-month-old son, Baylen). "We felt like we were a playoff team both of those years, but you've got to finish games. You've got to take care of the football, and you've got to not look too far ahead. You have to stay poised."
Fullback Heath Evans, signed as a free agent in the off-season after four years in New England, sensed a familiar vibe. "There were teams I would not have considered, no matter how much money they offered me," said Evans. "But I felt a humility with these guys. If there's anything I learned from Bill Belichick, it's that you have to stay hungry. Never be satisfied with where you are. I got that from [Saints] Coach [Sean] Payton and the veterans on this team."
One of those veterans is Reggie Bush, four seasons in the NFL after winning the Heisman Trophy at USC. "I thought we were focused last year," Bush said. "We really weren't. Wins are hard to come by in this league. We have to stay in the present."
The Saints are seeking the same small edge as every other team that missed the playoffs a year ago and feels that just a handful of plays, or a couple fewer injuries, would have made the difference. Among them: the Bears (9--7 in 2008), Cowboys (9--7), Jets (9--7), Saints (8--8), Texans (8--8), 49ers (7--9), Packers (6--10) and Seahawks (4--12). (Not included in this discussion are the Patriots, who are nobody's dark horse.) All aspire to be this year's Cardinals. It is an uncertain process, at times like groping around a dark room in search of a door. "There is no blueprint," says former Chiefs personnel boss Bill Kuharich. "There's no 'Do A and B, and you'll get C.'"
Which teams offer the best possibility? Ask the following questions:
Can the quarterback get hot?
In 2007 Eli Manning was inconsistent through most of the season but brilliant in leading the Giants to three road wins in the playoffs and a Super Bowl upset of New England. Likewise, Kurt Warner—at one time considered veteran insurance for Matt Leinart—threw 11 touchdown passes in last year's postseason, at age 37.
"The competitive level in the NFL is such that the difference between 10--6 and 3--13 is really not all that much," says Kuharich. "You can call it parity or mediocrity or whatever you want, but it's a big reason the league is so popular. But because of that, when you get to the postseason, I'm saying it's the quarterback who can get hot and make a huge difference."
Teams that fit: The New Orleans offense seems unlikely to stall anytime soon, as Brees has been rolling for three years. "Seattle has a chance if Matt Hasselbeck is healthy," says one veteran front-office man, "but they won't be functional without him." The Seahawks looked more than just functional on Sunday in dispatching the Rams, 28--0, at home. Hasselbeck, who missed nine games last year because of back and knee injuries and was subpar when he did play, showed the form of his Super Bowl season, throwing for 279 yards and three touchdowns. The Cowboys' Tony Romo has been the opposite of the '07 Manning: hot in the fall, cold in the winter. The Packers' Rodgers and new Bears starter Jay Cutler are talented but playoff unknowns.
Have they been quietly getting better?
Billick's Ravens went 8--8 in 1999, his first year as coach, after having won 16 games, total, in the previous three seasons under Ted Marchibroda. Suddenly in 2000 Baltimore emerged as one of the most dominant Super Bowl champions in the last quarter century, winning its last seven regular-season games and rolling through the playoffs and the Super Bowl.
But Billick says it wasn't sudden: "It took us a full year and a little more, as a coaching staff, to get the veterans to trust us. It's never a one-year process. You can even look at Arizona. They had a great year last year, but if they go back to sub-.500 this year, you'll hear, 'Same old Cardinals.' Winning is about changing the culture."
Arizona safety Adrian Wilson says his team's veteran core had been improving under Dennis Green (2004 to '06) and continued to do so when Ken Whisenhunt took over in '07. "Whenever you have a core group of guys like we have now," says Wilson, referring specifically to linebacker Karlos Dansby, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and wideout Larry Fitzgerald, all drafted in 2004, "the team can build together."
Teams that fit: The Bears, Cowboys, Packers and Saints have all been to the playoffs within the last three years and have relatively entrenched systems, so it would be hard to argue they're on the verge of an unforeseen breakthrough. The 49ers, in Mike Singletary's first full season, are different. The Hall of Fame linebacker is attempting first and foremost to restore pride and purpose to a San Francisco club that had been adrift in recent years—and the fact that his Niners went on the road to Arizona on opening weekend and beat last year's Cinderellas 20--16 could portend good things. The Texans, in Gary Kubiak's fourth year but still in search of their first playoff bid, are another such candidate. "But their division is very tough," says the veteran front-office man, "and something just seems to be missing from that team, year after year."
The 2009 Jets could add a major twist to this theory: Take a nucleus of improving players, add an off-the-reservation rookie coach and a hotshot rookie quarterback, and watch the magic. On Sunday at Houston it was the Jets of coach Rex Ryan (whose swarming defense gave up just 183 yards to last year's third-ranked attack) and quarterback Mark Sanchez (18 of 31 for 272 yards, one TD and one pick) who looked more like a playoff-caliber team than Kubiak's Texans.
Are they solid up front?
Manning threw the TD pass that took down the Patriots, but the Giants' defensive line was tenacious throughout that postseason, and the offensive line was nearly as good. "Look what happened just this year," says former Raiders personnel boss Mike Lombardi. "Three teams [Buffalo, Kansas City and Tampa Bay] fired their offensive coordinators before the season, and all three don't have very good offensive lines. If you're looking for somebody to make a run, look at their lines, because it's very hard without them."
A year ago Arizona's offensive line protected Warner in the playoffs, and the defensive front seven, led by Dockett, developed into a serviceable complement. In 2005 Seattle went from 9--7 to 13--3 (and the Super Bowl) behind an offensive line that powered the Seahawks to a No. 3 ranking in rushing and No. 2 overall in offense.
Teams that fit: Two from Texas. The Cowboys are loaded with experience (nearly five decades among the starting blockers), and the Texans have been maturing on both sides of the line. The Saints get an asterisk. "They're not great on the offensive line," says Lombardi, "but Brees throws it so quickly, it almost doesn't matter." Something must be going right: Backup Mike Bell gashed the Lions for 143 rushing yards on Sunday.
Can they handle the ride?
The NFL season stretches from early September into February, and during that time teams are certain to encounter major obstacles, in the form of injuries, unexpected and disheartening defeats, internal squabbles and public criticism.
The '07 Giants not only were a .500 team over the second half of the season but had also needed to overcome a 17--3 halftime deficit at Washington to avoid an 0--3 start, from which no team has ever rallied to win the Super Bowl. They lost tight end Jeremy Shockey, a vital cog in the offense, with two games remaining in the regular season.
Last year's Cardinals trailed the Patriots 47--0 at one point in the second-to-last game of the regular season. "If you had told me even before the first round of the playoffs that Arizona was going to the Super Bowl," says Kuharich, "I would have said that isn't happening." In the Bears' Super Bowl year of '06 they endured a seasonlong public referendum on the worthiness of up-and-down quarterback Rex Grossman.
"You are going to face some serious adversity at some point," says Brees. "Just about every team that rises up and makes a run to the Super Bowl has a bad stretch. Problems are a given. You have to deal with them."
Teams that fit: No one can know how a team will handle rough seas. Sometimes veteran leadership or a strong coach is the steadying influence. Chicago started the season with 11 regulars left from its Super Bowl team and a six-year veteran coach in Lovie Smith, and they'll need strength early after an opening loss at Green Bay in which Cutler looked awful and linebacker Brian Urlacher was lost for the year. The Seahawks have six current starters from their Super Bowl season, including the unflappable Hasselbeck. Dallas and New Orleans have playoff experience, so the same roster component that works against them under the steady-climb theory is a positive factor here.
Yet none of the dark-horse hopefuls can do much more in September than hang on tightly and try to squeeze out early wins. "People say it's time for the Houston Texans to win," says Billick. "Well, it is time, but that doesn't mean they will. With that offense New Orleans should be a lot better than .500, but it might not be. There's no silver bullet."
On Sunday afternoon Saints fans lingered on exit catwalks, trying to catch a glimpse as players walked from the locker room below to a postgame reception. A palpable euphoria filled the hulking Superdome, as it did many other stadiums around the league. For half the teams in the NFL, anything was still possible. Evans voiced reason. "Nice win," he said, "but this thing is a marathon."
They run, they survive, they hope to get hot at Christmas.
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Peter King previews the hot story lines of Week 2 in the Game Plan, at SI.com/bonus
With its devious scheduling, punishing salary cap and risk of injury, the NFL is made for dark horses.
A turnaround "is never a one-year process," says Billick. "Winning is about changing the culture."
"When you have a core group like we have," says Arizona's Wilson, "the team can build together."
"Every team that makes a run has a bad stretch," says Brees. "Problems are a given. You deal with them."
Photographs by AL TIELEMANS
SCORCHING QB? CHECK All Brees did in Week 1 was throw for six TDs (including two to Shockey, opposite); now if the defense can hold its own, New Orleans could be going places.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
THE RIGHT STUFF Evans, who scored against Detroit in his first game as a Saint, was drawn to New Orleans as a free agent because of the hunger he saw in the franchise.
MARK J. REBILAS/US PRESSWIRE
SINGLETARY-MINDED Frank Gore and the Niners reaped the benefits of their coach's steadying approach in a big divisional road win over last year's Cinderella.
BREAKING THE MOLD The Jets lack some traits of a surprise Super Bowl team, but rookie QB Sanchez turned in a postseason-worthy performance in his debut against the Texans.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
BALANCING ACT Strong play on both sides of the line helped Seattle to its last Super Bowl, and Darryl Tapp (55) and his trenchmates looked mighty against the lowly Rams.
¬†TURN ON THEJETSAfter ThomasJones's second touchdown run of the day closed the scoring in a 24--7 romp, NewYork was looking more like a bona fide dark horse than host Houston.
PIECES INPLACERomo's Cowboyshave experienced players in an established system—and after cruising past theBucs in Tampa, a solid start to 2009.