The Duel

3 Dark Horse 2021 Super Bowl Contenders That Could Be Next Year's 49ers

Max Staley
T.J. Watt had 14.5 sacks in 2019.
T.J. Watt had 14.5 sacks in 2019. / Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The 2019-20 NFL season has come to a close, and while the Kansas City Chiefs were a trendy preseason pick, few predicted their opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, would be playing in Super Bowl LIV this time last year.

Point being, the NFL is perhaps the most unpredictable professional sports league in the world, and a new contender seemingly emerges each year – often from out of nowhere.

With that in mind, let's take a way-too-early look at three teams that could be dark horse Super Bowl contenders next season.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (+2200)

Ben Roethlisberger throws a pass against the Seattle Seahawks.
Ben Roethlisberger throws a pass against the Seattle Seahawks. / Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers' fate seemingly depends entirely on the health of Ben Roethlisberger. While there's no concrete update on his status, this team could quickly turn it around if he can get back on the field. The Steelers were finally an elite defense again last season, finishing No. 3 in Football Outsiders' DVOA metrics, and No. 1 in weighted defensive DVOA. It was Roethlisberger's replacements that largely held Pittsburgh back, as Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges were among the league's worst passers in most major statistical categories. There's still plenty of talent on this offense though. If Roethlisberger can right the ship, the Steelers' fearsome pass-rush, which ranked No. 1 in sack percentage, could make this team really difficult to handle next season.

2. Houston Texans (+3200)

Deshaun Watson passes against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Deshaun Watson passes against the Kansas City Chiefs. / Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

The Houston Texans are seemingly mainstays on lists like these, but 2021 could finally be their time to make good on all that potential. For one, the duo of DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller makes for one of the most lethal combinations in the NFL. And while giving Deshaun Watson time to find those players has historically been a problem, things finally started to improve with the addition of Laremy Tunsil, as Watson was sacked 18 fewer times in 2019 (44) than he was in 2018. Still not ideal, but it's undoubtedly an improvement. Passing defense was this team's Achilles heel, ranking as the league's seventh-worst unit against the pass in DVOA, but if the Texans can address the secondary in the offseason, this team could get better in a hurry.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+3500)

Jameis Winston throws a pass against the Atlanta Falcons.
Jameis Winston throws a pass against the Atlanta Falcons. / Michael Reaves/Getty Images

I know, this one is a tough sell. But the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were actually a lot better than most people gave them credit for last season. Defensively, they were the No. 5 defense in DVOA, grading out as the league's best run defense. Offensively, they scored the fourth most points in the league. It was Jameis Winston, and more specifically his 35 turnovers, that put a ceiling on this team's potential. Asking Winston to change his stripes at this point might not be entirely feasible, but quarterbacks have typically struggled with INTs in their first year under Bruce Arians before turning it around in year two. Take Carson Palmer, for example. Palmer threw a career-high 22 picks (3.8 INT percentage) in his first year under Arians in 2013, then dropped that to 1.3 percent in an injury-shortened 2014 campaign and 2.0 in 2015. Winston could also end up being replaced by a proven veteran like Philip Rivers. Notably, Tampa Bay was the only team to rank as both a top-five scoring offense and top-five in defensive DVOA that didn't win at least 13 games last season. If Winston can rein in the INTs, or if he gets replaced with a strong veteran free agent QB, this team could get really good, really fast.

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Max Staley is not a FanDuel employee. In addition to providing DFS gameplay advice, Max Staley also participates in DFS contests on FanDuel using his personal account, username mstaley1212. While the strategies and player selections recommended in his articles are his personal views, he may deploy different strategies and player selections when entering contests with his personal account. The views expressed in their articles are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of FanDuel.