Seemingly every year in the National Football League there arises an underdog team that flies under the radar and stuns NFL fans across the country. In 2022 it was the Jacksonville Jaguars, resurrected from the year long crucifixion that was Urban Meyer’s tumultuous tenure to win a playoff game in incredible fashion. The year prior, the Cincinnati Bengals, led by Bayou Burrow himself, leaped out of decades of obscurity straight into Super Bowl 56. These and countless other “out-of-nowhere” teams have graced the annals of NFL history across the years. Who doesn’t enjoy a good odds-defying run? It’s only human to love a dramatic “David vs Goliath” tale.
Which teams will seize the day and rise to the occasion this season? Who is being overlooked by the media and fans alike? Today, in an effort to answer those questions, we’ll take a look at five of the top sleeper picks for the 2023 NFL season.
5. Miami Dolphins
In a loaded AFC, the Dolphins seem to be left out of many pundit’s playoff predictions. Yes it’s true that they aren’t the best team in their own division (The Bills take that), and it’s true that they struggle greatly with staying healthy historically. Miami will make highlights and have entertaining high scoring games, but when push comes to shove, most fans and media experts would probably say that the Dolphins don’t have what it takes to make a playoff run, much less a Super Bowl run.
But is that truly the case?
Recall that it was only a year ago that the Dolphins went 8-0 in the first eight full games that QB Tua Tagovailoa was healthy before a combination of playing through injuries (and thus compounding his various issues) forced Tua to the sideline after an end of season skid for the Dolphins. Additionally, Miami was a mere 3 points away from beating the Bills on the road in the wild card round of the playoffs with 3rd string rookie QB Skylar Thompson playing over half the contest.
This offseason, the Dolphins have only improved, adding star CB Jalen Ramsey and LB David Long to bolster an already underrated defense. And with Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle returning, the Dolphins should have no shortage of offense yet again.
The bottom line is this: If Tua can finally stay healthy for a full season, the Dolphins not only have a solid chance to win their division, but they have a chance to make a run in 2023.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers aren’t what they were in the 2010’s. That nobody can deny. But while the once mighty franchise has fallen on hard times in recent years, future Hall of Fame head coach Mike Tomlin has quietly kept them competitive.
Tomlin has never had a losing season as the head coach of Pittsburgh, and it doesn’t look as though he’ll be breaking his trend this season. The Steelers even managed a winning record in a major transition year last season as the Steelers moved on from Ben Rothlisberger and started rookie 1st round pick Kenny Pickett and veteran placeholder Mitch Trubisky at QB.
The defense in Pittsburgh is still rock solid, with Minkah Fitzpatrick, TJ Watt, and Cam Heyward holding down the fort. And the offense looks to be on a positive track with Pickett and emerging star WR George Pickens beginning their sophomore campaigns.
The Steelers won’t win their division- Joe Burrow and the Bengals as well as Lamar Jackson and the Ravens will see to that. The Steelers have a decent chance to not only go over their over/under win total of 8.5, but also to compete for a wildcard playoff berth.
3. Tennessee Titans
Yes, the quarterback situation is far from ideal. Yes, the team is made up of a vast majority of aging veterans. But veteran presence is not necessarily a negative, especially with veterans like Derrick Henry and Deandre Hopkins in the fold.
Over the three seasons prior to last season, the Titans made the playoffs all three years, won the AFC South Division twice, made it to the conference championship game in 2019, and won 11+ games in 2020 and 2021. To put it bluntly, the Titans have just flat-out won football games across recent history. Even last season, in a year where Tennessee was plagued by injury after injury, the Titans still won 7 games, finishing 2nd in the AFC South. If veteran QB Ryan Tannehill is healthy, he can do enough to manage this team into the postseason yet again
Derrick Henry will remain the backbone of this team, while the addition of Hopkins will add a nice change of pace through the air that will only help Henry and his offensive line.
It’ll be another ground and pound year for the Titans, and there’s no reason to think they can’t be successful as they have been in the past
2. Seattle Seahawks
The renaissance of Geno Smith’s career was a fantastic story last season. However, the general public have moved on from Seattle to the next shiny story. To most, it was cute while it lasted, but it’s more likely than not to be a fluke.
However, quietly, almost behind the scenes in a way, Pete Carroll has built the Seahawks into an extremely promising young team. With offensive weapons like DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, Kenneth Walker, and rookie Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Seattle will be able to put up points against any defense in the league. The defense has improved immensely with secondary studs Quandre Diggs and Jamal Adams returning, CB Devon Witherspoon being picked 5th overall in the draft, and the heralded return of longtime franchise staple, LB Bobby Wagner.
On paper at least, Seattle could be one of the more balanced and solid teams in the entirety of the NFL this season. While the Seahawks will have a tough time unseating the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC South, don’t count the Seahawks out in a top-heavy conference this season.
1. Denver Broncos
To put it politely, the Denver Broncos were the dumpster fire of the NFL last season. A promising season went up in smoke as first year head coach Nathaniel Hackett and QB Russell Wilson cooked up a 5-12 record for the Broncos, ending Hackett’s head coaching job after just one season and dragging Wilson’s previously stellar reputation as a quarterback through the mile-high mud.
But things are not the same in Denver this year.
The hire of former Super Bowl winning coach Sean Payton as head coach will immensely help this Broncos squad. Payton has inherited a roster loaded with talent just waiting to be unlocked. With players like WR Jerry Jeudy, CB Patrick Surtain, S Justin Simmons, RB Javonte Williams, and so many more, the Denver roster is built to succeed. For the Broncos to contend for a playoff spot in 2023, Wilson will simply have to be better than he was last season. There’s no way around that.
The Broncos will be hard pressed to compete in a division with the reigning Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs as well as a very talented Los Angeles Chargers Squad. That said, the pieces of the Broncos puzzle all seem to be present. Can Sean Payton put them together? I believe he can.
Who can possibly know?
I may end up regretting my brash decision to make predictions.
More likely than not, I will end up being spectacularly wrong on many counts from this article. But never fear- you, the reader, can be assured that I will take full credit if I am right and you can be equally certain that I shall purposely forget this ever happened if things turn out poorly.
In the end, lists and predictions like this aren’t exceptionally useful. It’s up to the players and teams on the field to determine how the 2023 NFL Season will go. And folks, I’m happy to say that that time is almost here. It’s the time that underdogs rise up. It’s the time where David takes on Goliath. It’s the time for “Nobody believed in us” and “Against all odds.” That’s football, baby, and it’s finally back.