Super Bowl champions seem to slowly evolve from the cellar of the league, to a mediocre fringe team, to a playoff contender, to finally a champion. They typically take years to develop and endure missteps to learn from. Fans of the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers can certainly recite the struggles of their respective squads. So which teams are poised to break through and become the next Super Bowl contender?
Here are five teams on the rise:
1. Arizona Cardinals
Few teams, if any, had a better off season than the Arizona Cardinals. After landing free agent running back Edgerrin James, former Heisman trophy winner Matt Leinart practically fell into their laps on draft day. They also added former Georgia Bulldog tight end Leonard Pope in the draft, which completes would could be a scary-good offense. At the skill positions alone, the Cardinals feature the best tandem of wide receivers in the league in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, one of the three best running backs in James and probably the best quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning left Tennessee. The opening of a new retractable roof stadium in Arizona also will add excitement to this once pitiful franchise.
2. Cincinnati Bengals
It's tough to call a division champion a "team on the rise" but the Bengals may have only scratched the surface of what they can do. Following an 11-5 season, the Bengals had a solid draft, focusing on defense in hopes it will eventually catch up to their high-octane offense. The Bengals also signed Pro Bowl defensive tackle Sam Adams to bolster their line. However, this ranking comes with a disclaimer. The Bengals will only be able to compete if quarterback Carson Palmer fully recovers from the shredded knee he suffered in the Bengals' first-round playoff loss to Pittsburgh last season.
3. Miami Dolphins
When other teams around the league were mailing it in at the of last season, the Dolphins went on a tear, winning their last six games and finishing only a game back of division champion New England. The Dolphins got the quarterback they have longed for since Dan Marino retired in Daunte Culpepper. Now that Ricky Williams has received his comeuppance with a year suspension, the Dolphins have been rid of that distraction and can focus on the development of Ronnie Brown, who rushed for 907 in his rookie season. Nick Saban could be the next "it" coach in the league.
4. Cleveland Browns
Yes, you read right. The Browns, under second year coach Romeo Crennel, are finally rising out of the ashes in Cleveland. The brought in the off-season's most impressive haul of free agents, signing Willie McGinest, LeCharles Bentley and Ted Washington and had a great draft, picking up Florida State's Kamerion Wimbley and Maryland's D'Qwell Jackson in the first two rounds. The offense is in the hands of a young quarterback, Charlie Frye, who took over the starting job at the end of last season and was impressive.
5. Minnesota Vikings
New head coach Brad Childress takes over a team in transition. The Vikings aren't quite in a position to begin rebuilding because they did manage a 9-7 record last season. Quarterback Brad Johnson has always played well as a Viking and should be able to put together at least an adequate year until Kellen Clemens, who the Vikings drafted in the second round out of Oregon, is ready. The Vikings' image has taken its fair share of hits recently with the "Love Boat" saga and the recent firing of personnel chief Fran Foley. But the Vikings fared well in free agency, especially with the signing of Steve Hutchison to improve the offensive line. It may take a few years to wipe away the cob webs, but the Vikings are headed in the right direction.
Brian Walzel writes for the Texan Blitz, the Houston Texans affiliate of the Scout.com network
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