Every year, there are Super Bowl favorites and easy choices to pick for potential Super Bowl runs before the season even begins. At the same time, there’s also a slew of dark horse candidates: teams that don’t generate the same buzz as Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs or Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
We’re now 10 weeks (plus a Thursday Night Football game) into the season, and there are a plethora of teams at and under .500 looking to make a push into the playoffs and beyond. Here are the dark horse candidates that, as of now, seem to have the best shot of contending for a title in February.
Carolina Panthers (5-5)
Remaining Opponent Win Pct: .508
Don’t count out the Panthers just yet. Three of their five losses were by one score, and a lot of the poor play in those games boiled down to bad quarterbacking from Sam Darnold. While it may be too early to say Carolina has completely turned around since the return of Cam Newton, their 34-10 shellacking of the Arizona Cardinals was a really good start. Running back Christian McCaffrey looked more like himself, and the oft-maligned offensive line didn’t allow a single sack and led the way for a big day on the ground.
Head coach Matt Rhule has announced—unsurprisingly—that Newton is taking over as the starter for Week 11 (and likely beyond). With their former first overall pick back at Bank of America Stadium for the first time and a week of learning the playbook under his belt, the Panthers could start a nice little winning streak this Sunday. After taking on Washington and former head coach Ron Rivera, they’ll take on the Dolphins in Miami then the Atlanta Falcons at home. Should things go the way they should against those under-.500 teams, Carolina could be 8-5 heading into a home stretch against the Buffalo Bills, Buccaneers (twice), and New Orleans Saints.
Assuming Newton looks good in his first start with the Panthers since 2019, Carolina will be in a prime position to turn their season around and secure a playoff spot. They could push on through the playoffs if McCaffrey and the offensive line also continue to build on their big games against Arizona. They also could even get talented rookie cornerback Jaycee Horn back from a foot injury just in time to bolster the secondary for a postseason run.
Minnesota Vikings (4-5)
Remaining Opponent Win Pct: .520
The Vikings have just had a hard time closing out games this season. The result? Four losses of five points or fewer and one loss of seven points. That’s right, all five of Minnesota’s losses have been by one score.
While on one hand that’s an indictment of Mike Zimmer’s late-game coaching, it’s also an indicator of how capable this Vikings team is of staying in games late. They’ve played two of the top-seeded teams in the NFC, the Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys, within one point and four points, respectively. They’re coming off a win in which they completely shut down one of the most talented young arms in the NFL in Justin Herbert, and Kirk Cousins has been playing very, very well this year.
Some questions remain about Minnesota’s offensive line and late-game play calling, but they’ve done plenty to prove they can stick with the top talent of the NFC’s toughest opponents. They’re just outside of the current playoff picture, but they have more than enough time to prove their worth with their remaining schedule, including two divisional matchups each with the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears.
San Francisco 49ers (4-5)
Remaining Opponent Win Pct: .453
Just behind the Vikings in the current NFC Playoff Picture at NFL.com are the 49ers. They’ve had a tough go this season, especially at home, where they’re 1-4. As with the other teams on this list, they’ve also experienced some difficult one-score losses, too, including a two-point loss and a seven-point one to the Packers and Cardinals, respectively.
Last Monday’s shellacking of the Los Angeles Rams at home could be the impetus for turning around the 2021 season in its back half. George Kittle and Deebo Samuel have proven to be among the NFL’s top tight end-receiver duos, and Elijah Mitchell has been a rookie revelation that has thrived in the starting role in a decimated San Francisco backfield. Getting Trey Lance more involved in the offense going forward might not hurt, either. Their defense (both rushing and passing) looked improved on Monday night as well, completing tackles and forcing the Rams to be patient and string plays to drive the ball.
The 49ers have a big chance to build off of their huge prime-time win at home. With a matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars this weekend and games against the Falcons and Houston Texans further down the road, they’re in a good spot to keep tallying wins and growing in confidence.
San Francisco could make their win over the Rams a launchpad for a strong finish to their season, pushing into playoff contention and beyond. Or they could fizzle out and end another season under head coach Kyle Shanahan in disappointment. The games remaining on their schedule are all winnable ones, and they could forge a path to another Super Bowl run if they continue to adjust and perform at a high level against talented opponents like the Rams.