The Browns and Raiders are among the NFL’s five dark horse rivals


When the calendar pages turn to December, NFL football coaches know it’s time to prepare for playoff football. The energy and intensity of these win-or-go home games brings out the best in players and coaches who want to win the World Cup and feel the confetti fall on their shoulders.

For some teams, the stretch run is part of a wire-to-wire race that had high expectations for their preseason opponents. For others, the final month of the season offers a chance to sneak into the postseason as a dark horse candidate who finds his stride at the right time.

As a young player Jacksonville Jaguars In 1996, I was part of a team that went 3-6 before winning six of its last seven games and making the playoffs as a wild card. We qualified for the Asian Championship by defeating several high seeds, including the 1st seed. Denver BroncosI believe there are always a few dark horse candidates who can make a great run that brings them a playoff spot.

After spending some time exploring the NFL landscape, here are five teams I’ll be watching as dark horse contenders…

New England Patriots

Despite occupying the basement in the AFC East and struggling to pass the ball, the Patriots remain a dangerous team thanks to Bill Belichick’s intelligence and impressive defense. Then Thursday night game against Securities, I understand the skepticism. But the six-time Super Bowl winner is a master tactician who knows how to win games, and his schemes will get his team in shape to become a playoff contender. Matthew Judon and Co. can suffocate opponents with a combination of coverage and passing tactics that test the patience and discipline of opposing defenders and offensive play-callers. Mistakes led to turnovers and extra possessions Mc Jones scoring offense on short pitches. Given how well the situational football formula has worked for the Patriots in the past, Belichick could get his growing team back into contention at the end of the season.

Carolina Panthers

Steve Wilkes was credited with transforming the Panthers into a competitive unit after replacing Matt Rhule midseason. Not only has the interim coach helped rebuild the defense into a blue-collar-minded, fundamentally sound lineup, but he’s also transformed the offense into a ground-and-pound machine where tough backs pound opponents. If Wilks can continue to be effective at quarterback while hitting his teammates on both sides of the ball. Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield or PJ WalkerThe Panthers could steal the division and help their bench coach land a full-time captain’s job.

Las Vegas Raiders

Josh McDaniels’ team is focused on offense, but it’s hard to find a better Big 3 than that. Derek Carr, Josh Jacobs and Davante Adams. The Raiders were able to overwhelm opponents with their arsenal and the old-fashioned way of defensive coordinators coming up with tactics to stop five-star players capable of taking over a game at any moment. While it’s tough to consistently win with two of the most offensive contributors, the Raiders’ dynamic duo has thrived over the past month as McDaniels has forced his best players to touch the ball early and often. Given that the Raiders have lost a couple of big wins (six one-point losses), this formula could make for a drastic change that makes the playoffs unlikely.

Washington Commanders

Ron Rivera turned his team into a playoff contender, giving the ball to his backup quarterback with confidence and excitement. Taylor Henike has thrived as a high-level game manager for a team that has implemented a run-of-the-mill approach during a streak that has won six of its last seven games. In addition, include Brian Robinson Adding a physical element of attack to the starting line-up allows commanders to reduce the play behind the ball-control approach. As defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio begins to impose his will on opponents behind a talented front that dominates the offensive line, the Commanders have an awkward team with the key components (run and pass) needed to win games like the playoffs. to extend.

Cleveland Browns

After receiving an 11-game suspension for sexually assaulting massage therapists as defined by the NFL and violating the league’s personal conduct policy, Deshaun Watson Joining the Browns makes the team a top-5 running back. The veteran is a bit of a magician inside and outside the pocket. A-grade sleight of hand, athleticism and defensive discipline are tested every step of the way. A star-studded cast surrounds Watson (Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, David Njokuand Amari Cooper) and defenses with sufficiently damaged players (Miles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowneyand Denzel Ward), the Browns have enough firepower to make a playoff run. If Watson can shake off the rust from a two-year layoff, the Browns could be a dark horse contender in the AFC.

Shannon Sharp and Michael Vick discuss Cleveland Browns QB Deshaun Watson.

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Bucky Brooks is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He is a regular on Speak for Yourself, breaks down games for NFL Network and is a co-host on the Moving the Sticks podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BackyBrooks.

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