For 13 NFL franchises, the “wait till next year” mantra has become all too familiar.
This is the unlucky number of clubs that have yet to reach a Super Bowl. Among that group, four of them — Houston, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Detroit — have never even enjoyed the chance to play for the Lombardi Trophy. The last first-time participant was the 2009 New Orleans Saints.
Despite that history, hope springs eternal during the offseason. Here is a ranking of the 13 teams with the best odds to finally bring home the trophy that the Denver Broncos hoisted high after Super Bowl 50.
1. Carolina (15-1 in 2015)
Think the Panthers feel bad after losing to the Broncos? Wait until Carolina reviews the video and sees all the chances missed in last Sunday’s 24-10 defeat. The Panthers went from tight to shell-shocked as the game unfolded, particularly quarterback Cam Newton. The best Carolina can do is learn from the experience if another chance comes at Super Bowl 51, which is likely if the Panthers duplicate last season’s success.
2. Minnesota (11-5)
A four-time Super Bowl loser, the Vikings‘ penchant for heartbreak continued during the playoffs when Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard field goal in the closing seconds of a 10-9 home loss to Seattle. A strong nucleus of young talent, along with NFL rushing leader Adrian Peterson, gives Minnesota a bona fide chance to exorcise those ghosts this season.
3. Arizona (13-3)
The Cardinals have improved in each season under head coach Bruce Arians. The key to breaking through in Year 4 is getting quarterback Carson Palmer back on track after a turnover-plagued postseason.
4. Cincinnati (12-4)
The Bengals should field one of the NFL’s most talented rosters again in 2016. But it does no good without a playoff victory — something that has eluded this club after an unprecedented five straight first-round losses. Just like after the 2014 season, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis must get his team to leave the negativity in the past and concentrate on forging its own trail to prosperity.
5. Detroit (7-9)
The Lions were among the NFL’s hottest teams during the second half of last season with a 6-2 record. Especially impressive was the improvement of quarterback Matt Stafford once head coach Jim Caldwell installed Jim Bob Cooter as his offensive coordinator. There is still work to be done by new general manager Bob Quinn: The Lions must upgrade their running game and formulate a plan to try and compensate for the absence of Calvin Johnson, should the star wide receiver decide to retire this offseason.
6. Houston (9-7)
The defense is Super Bowl-caliber. The offense? Not so much. Head coach Bill O’Brien and general manager Rick Smith must find answers at quarterback and running back if the Texans are to become the first team to play a Super Bowl inside their home stadium.
7. Philadelphia (7-9)
As much of a mess as Chip Kelly’s final season with the Eagles became, he did leave behind plenty of talent for replacement head coach Doug Pederson to work with. But this is another team, like the Texans, looking at a .500-level season without finding a quarterback remedy.
8. Atlanta (8-8)
A 6-0 start proved a mirage for the 2015 Falcons. Atlanta will have a better chance to make strides this season with an improved pass rush (a common refrain for the Falcons from recent years) and better ball security, especially inside the red zone.
9. Jacksonville (5-11)
Expect the Jaguars to become this year’s offseason media darlings as the losing team sets to make the leap into the playoffs. Such progress is possible if Jacksonville betters the NFL’s 29th-ranked pass defense. As for the Super Bowl, let’s not get carried away just yet.
10. Buffalo (8-8)
Few fan bases were ever as devastated as the #BillsMafia when the franchise lost four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s. Before they even dream of getting back there, the Bills must take care of the most essential part of a championship run: getting into the playoffs — something Buffalo hasn’t done for 16 seasons and counting. Head coach Rex Ryan needs to deliver on last year’s promise to end that drought in the upcoming campaign or he may be out of a job.
11. San Diego (4-12)
Teams forced to deal with the possibility of relocation generally don’t fare well — see: the 2015 Chargers, Oakland Raiders (7-9) and now-Los Angeles Rams (7-9). The Chargers will deal with the same distraction again this season as team owner Dean Spanos tries to land financing for a new stadium from local voters.
12. Cleveland (3-13)
The hope is that it won’t be the same old Browns under new head coach Hue Jackson. We’ll see.
13. Tennessee (3-13)
No team has ever made the humongous leap of finishing with the NFL’s worst record one season to reaching the Super Bowl in the next. Tennessee won’t either. The best thing Titans fans can hope for is continued improvement from second-year quarterback Marcus Mariota, and head coach Mike Mularkey being given the chance to run the show after filling the job on an interim basis for half of last season.