Each year around this time, I break out my schedule database and try to project surprise teams.
Surprise teams are the ones you least expect to be playoff contenders but, when you think about it, you realize they have a chance. The formula is simple: Give a team better quarterback play and an easy schedule, and it usually has a chance to improve its record.
In 2006, I looked at the Ravens and figured the addition of Steve McNair at quarterback to an offense that scored only 16.6 points a game in 2005 could make Baltimore a surprise. The Ravens went from 6-10 to 13-3, improving their scoring to 22.1 points a game.
A year of reflection has helped with some refinements. You learn from mistakes and grow from thoughts you pick up during the year. One thing I learned last season is that some division must suffer for other teams to benefit from what is projected to be an easy schedule.
I learned this from looking at the 2008 Oakland Raiders. The only team with a 2007 winning record they faced before December was the San Diego Chargers. The Raiders entered the year with a .438 schedule. At the very least, I thought the Raiders would go into their final four games with a 6-6 record. Instead, they finished 5-11, waking me up to the notion that the Raiders and other teams in the AFC West were going to help teams in the AFC East and the NFC South to be surprise teams.
Here are the main areas I study when coming up with surprise teams.
If a schedule is .020 easier than the previous year, it gives a team a chance to add a win. If the schedule is .020 harder, it usually translates to a loss. The Panthers were coming off a 7-9 season in 2007 after playing a tough .523 schedule. Their projected strength of schedule for the 2008 season was .465, .058 easier. That pointed to a 2.9-game improvement, or about three more victories. In 2008, the Panthers exceeded even that projection: They were five games better than in 2007, finishing at 12-4.
Offense means everything in projecting surprise teams. Usually a one-point increase in scoring can add a win for a team. That's one of the reasons you look for a team to be a surprise if it has a good quarterback who's coming back from a season in which he missed a bunch of games because of injuries. If a team hits on the right quarterback in free agency or the draft, that also works in projecting surprise teams. The Falcons hit on Matt Ryan last season. Their offense improved from 16.2 to 24.2 ppg. Their record went from 4-12 to 11-5, a seven-game improvement.
A new category in my database involves a team's out-of-division schedule. A year ago, I had the idea that most of the teams in the AFC East would improve because they played the AFC West and the NFC East. I thought most of the AFC East teams could end up 7-3 or better in non-division games. Only the New York Jets ruined that prediction with road losses in San Francisco and Oakland.
In 2009, the circuits to look at this season with decent chances to sport multiple teams with at least 7-3 records in non-division games are the NFC North and the AFC North. It's hard to project the Detroit Lions to have that type of success, but there is a chance that five or six of the teams in those two divisions combined could go 7-3 or better in non-division games.
Here are my surprise teams in 2009:
1. Seattle Seahawks: The return of Matt Hasselbeck as a healthy quarterback is the key here. With Hasselbeck hobbled with a back problem and the receiving corps injured from the first week of the season, the Seahawks scored only 18.4 points a game, a 6.2 drop-off from the previous season. The Seahawks added wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Plus, tight end John Carlson has developed into a threat in the middle of the field. Houshmandzadeh and Carlson are also taller than the recent vintage of Seahawks pass-catchers; their height could translate into more touchdowns in the red zone. Playing the NFC North and the AFC South won't be easy, but the NFC West's poor records take the Seahawks' projected strength of schedule from a .498 to a .457. The Seahawks could improve by two games. When Hasselbeck is on, he usually leads a team that averages 24.0 points. That should project to around a five-game improvement from the 2008 season's miserable 4-12 record.
2. Chicago Bears: It might not be right to place a 9-7 team near the top of any surprise list, but you can't ignore the Bears. They play the league's easiest schedule (.414). They added quarterback Jay Cutler. The Bears played a .475 schedule last season, so the database says there could be a three-game improvement. I'm not sure that the Bears will significantly improve their points scored. They averaged 23.5 ppg last season, but they also benefited with seven touchdowns on returns. Cutler, with the easy schedule, should put up 23 or 24 points a game on his own, so I'm going with a two-game improvement to 11-5.
3. Cincinnati Bengals: For all the Bengals fans who complained in my mailbag about my not including the team in last week's top 10 offseasons, take heart. The Bengals will rise this year because of the return of Carson Palmer. The schedule should work for a four-game improvement. Going from a .553 strength of schedule to a .465 projected SOS helps. The Bengals face the AFC West and NFC North. A Palmer-led offense usually averages between 23.0 and 26.0 points a game. Last season, Palmer was sidelined most of the season and the Bengals averaged 12.8 points per game. Put me in for at least a four-game improvement based on my formulas. That could put the Bengals, 4-11-1 last season, near .500 in 2009. Their problem is the AFC North. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens are better teams at the moment.
4. Green Bay Packers: The NFC North is going to be similar to the AFC East of a year ago. Teams in the NFC North rank among the teams with the easiest schedules in the league. The Packers go from a .504 schedule to a projected .428 SOS, which could potentially lead to a four-game improvement. The NFC North plays the AFC West and the AFC North. Aaron Rodgers established himself as a top NFC quarterbacking talent last year. In his second season as starter, he should improve in performance in the final four minutes of games, enabling him to do better in close games at the finish. The Packers might not be able to make the biggest jump because the team averaged 26.2 points a game in 2008, but it would be surprising if the Packers don't finish 8-8 or better after last year's 6-10 post-Favre clunker.
5. Houston Texans: Yes, this could be the year the Texans get over .500 and make that playoff run. They've been 8-8 the past two seasons. They were 6-4 in non-division games in 2008 and 7-3 the year before. Their downfall has been a 3-9 division record the past two seasons combined. Their key to getting over .500 is winning at least three AFC South games, which is possible. The other key? Their "non-common" out-of-division games are coming off their third-place finish of a year ago. The Texans play Oakland and Cincinnati, potentially winnable games. Overall, their strength of schedule goes from a .518 last season to a .506 projected SOS, which could give them an additional win.
6. Washington Redskins: Thanks in part to two games -- non-common dates against the Lions and St. Louis Rams -- the Redskins' non-division schedule is .406, second-easiest in the league. You also have to figure the offense should improve. It scored only 16.6 ppg last season. Jason Campbell is better than that. Everyone is going to be talking up the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles, but don't forget the Redskins.
7. Buffalo Bills: This one might be a surprise because I'm going against the formula. The Bills' .570 schedule is the sixth-hardest in the league. Whether they've played hard schedules or easy schedules, the Bills have finished 7-9 for three straight seasons. Their break is "non-common" non-division games against the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs, which are winnable. Plus, Terrell Owens should add scoring punch to their offense. He usually takes an offense to an average of 24.0 ppg or better because of his ability to catch touchdown passes. The Bills averaged 21.0 ppg last year. A two-point improvement could put them at 9-7.
8. Cleveland Browns: I'm adding the Browns solely because of the numbers. Their schedule goes from a .572 to a .449. Their offense averaged only 14.5 ppg, and they have talented quarterbacks in Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn. Say what you want about new head coach Eric Mangini, but he does some good things. I'm not forecasting the Browns to be a surprise team. I'm just putting them on the radar in case the numbers work out.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.