2 dark horse Super Bowl teams for 2017

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 27: (L-R) Derek Barnett of Tennessee poses with Commissioner of the National Football League Roger Goodell after being picked
PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 27: (L-R) Derek Barnett of Tennessee poses with Commissioner of the National Football League Roger Goodell after being picked /

With the preseason complete, the start of the 2017 regular season is now less than a week away and the Philadelphia Eagles and Carolina Panthers are my Super Bowl sleepers.

The Patriots open as overwhelming favourites to repeat as champions. This comes on the back of an unusually high-profile free agent haul that included the addition of former Saints speedster Brandon Cooks, and Pro Bowl cornerback Stephen Gilmore from Buffalo.

And, many of last season’s playoff participants join them as safe bets to make deep postseason runs. The Falcons, Packers and Steelers could all appear in their second straight championship games after strong offseason’s.

But, which dark horse squads could push these early favourites and make the trip to Minneapolis for Super Bowl 52?

Here are two teams that could make the leap if all goes to plan in 2017.

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Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles are coming off a 7-9 season but certainly enter 2017 an improved franchise. Carson Wentz looked every bit a franchise quarterback in his rookie year and will only get better throughout year two.

The 2016 first round pick will have a better running game and more targets on the perimeter to aide him. This is down to the additions of Super Bowl winner LeGarrette Blount, star wideout Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith.

A year of NFL experience and a full offseason should see Wentz eliminating some of the glaring mistakes, reducing interceptions and improving his ability to decipher defence’s on the go.

Wentz will also benefit from protection from one of the premier offensive lines in the NFL. A unit that will be boosted by the return of arguably the top RT in football, Lane Johnson. Johnson, along with two-time Pro Bowl center Jason Kelce and three-time All Pro left tackle Jason Peters, make up part of the top ranked O-Line in football by Pro Football Focus.

On the defensive side, first round pick Derek Barnett will compliment a disruptive front seven that includes rising stars Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham. The additions of Ronald Darby and Patrick Robinson will also help to shore up a less than certain secondary that will need to play better in 2017.

The Eagles face the league’s 10th toughest schedule. But, their division rivals all have it even tougher and this could play into their hands. The draft, free agent pickups and strong home advantage give Philadelphia an excellent chance to win their first division title since 2013.

The playoffs may prove a step too far for most second year signal callers, but Wentz has that Russell Wilson type maturity and grip on the offense that could see his team through some difficult postseason games.

The former North Dakota State QB inspires confidence and has all the physical and mental tools to enable this squad to be the surprise package of the season. The benefit of having former NFL quarterbacks Doug Pederson and Frank Reich as his head coach and offensive coordinator is enormous, so fully expect Wentz to make a big leap in his second year.

This team has the potential to make a deep playoff run if it can come through one of the toughest divisions in football. Bettering the Giants and Cowboys will be tough, but Philadelphia has what it takes.

Carolina Panthers

Carolina is receiving very little postseason hype despite still possessing the mainstay of the roster that was so dominant in 2015 and adding some valuable offensive weapons in the offseason.

2016 was a typical case of the Super Bowl hangover for the Panthers. Cam Newton had a year to forget and injuries plagued the roster.

However, expect this squad to bounce back with a vengeance in 2017. Ron Rivera’s team lost an incredible 7 games by 3 points or less in 2016, a feat that by probability will not occur again.

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  • The loss of Josh Norman was huge for the defense. But, James Bradberry in particular looked good towards the back-end of the year and should kick on in 2017. The addition of Mike Adams will add a much-needed veteran presence in the secondary.

    The front seven is still excellent and the linebacking corp is arguably the best in the league. All Pro tackling machines Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly lead the way, lining up alongside athletic freak Shaq Thompson. If everyone stays healthy this will be a top defense capable of carrying the team to a few wins.

    But, with the offensive additions made through the draft, the defense shouldn’t need to do much carrying. Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel give Newton two dynamic, versatile weapons which will open up the playbook enormously.

    McCaffrey’s ability to catch the ball out of the backfield in particular will add tremendous value to the offense and give Cam the option of the check down much more than he has had in the past.  The former Stanford running back has the ability to make opponents miss all over the field due to his elusive running style and will be a real matchup problem for linebackers across the league both as a runner and a pass catcher in the slot.

    The threat of McCaffrey should also bring Cam’s running game into the equation, more as a surprise than a predictable option, bringing the former MVP back to his best.

    The dual threat of Newton and McCaffrey should help the offense take a huge leap forward. A jump in production will see Carolina playing with the lead a whole lot more than last season, bringing the suffocating nature of their defense into its own and see them close out those tight games.

    Finally, the addition of Pro Bowl left tackle Matt Kalil will afford Newton more time and protection in the pocket, something he certainly needs.

    The Panthers may turn the beneficiaries of a Super Bowl hangover from the Falcons. And, they should better the unpredictable Saints and Buccaneers to either win the division or snag a wildcard spot. Either way, this team is explosive on both sides of the ball and will be a dangerous postseason opponent.

    With an improved offense and healthy defense there’s no reason the Panthers can’t return to the Super Bowl. A lot will rest on the broad shoulders of Cam though; so can the former MVP bounce back?