The Packers are one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl but the next three teams have a chance to mess up those plans. Or flame out altogether.
When I go buy a scratchcard, I usually buy one of those $20 ones. One can't really expect to win a whole lot of money when they go buy a one-dollar scratchcard. Whether one wins a free ticket or a couple bucks, it just doesn't feel like a win. However, with a $20 scratchcard (which might not seem like that much to you, but for an unemployed college student like myself, this is essentially, for lack of a better term and redundant gambling analogies, going all-in) there is a higher chance of winning more money.
Most likely, I'll end up tossing the losing ticket in the trash can in a couple seconds but the risk/reward is worth it.
The National Football League this year hosts several overwhelming favorites that cannot be disputed: the Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots, and the San Francisco 49ers are the prohibitive teams that can make a deep playoff run. According to Bovada.lv, they have the best chances of winning the Lombardi Trophy, with the Patriots at 11/2, Packers at 6/1, and the Niners at 9/1.
Then there are the solid teams like the Steelers, Texans, and Ravens who are in the running barring any disastrous collapses. These teams have the sufficient tools on offense, defense, and special teams to sustain injuries, but may not hold the potential upside that the other wild-card teams have. One can't really lose gambling with these teams, but the bigger prize isn't in their sights either.
The next three teams are the ones to keep an eye on all season. While the risk/reward is high for each and every one of them, they all possess the ability to make a dark-horse run through the playoffs and win the whole thing or fall prey to significant flaws that will catapult them into the lower rungs of the draft order.
Simply put, either that $20 scratchcard is going to make you a lot of money, or you'll spend another 20 next time hoping for better results.
With the defense in flux, keeping Jay Cutler upright will be the key to their Super Bowl hopes.
Remember the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl just a couple years back? When their defense was so suffocating that they were able to win in spite of Rex Grossman's mediocre-at-best quarterbacking. Well, this year they bring back none of those aspects that made that team an NFC champion except for Devin Hester, who now splits wide as a receiver, albeit a relatively unsuccessful one so far.
They have the tools to own one of the most potent offenses in the NFL. In an age where the passing offense has reached its pinnacle, the Chicago Bears own a quarterback that has the rifle arm and weapons in newcomer Brandon Marshall and do-it-all running back Matt Forte to maximize its offensive potential. According to ESPN.com, with the exception of the 49ers, who rank near the bottom with their conservative offense, the top five passing offenses all made the playoffs, with seven out of the top 10 also making it in.
Such a crude statistic may not be what changes your mind in what makes a contender, but keep in mind that the Green Bay Packers don't seem to care who runs the ball as long as they have Aaron Rodgers throw the ball 50 times a game, and the Patriots would much rather run two tight end sets than hand the ball off. Easy to understand when their running backs were Ryan Grant and BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Not to mention that the Steelers and Ravens are shifting to no-huddle offenses this off-season in order to force a more up-tempo offense to become more efficient. They join the Lions and Saints as team who will likely look to pass first, pass second, and pass third.
The Bears, on offense, will be able to do the same, but with one flaw that can potentially destroy all the talent of Marshall, Cutler, and Forte: the offensive line. The reason they didn't make the playoffs was due to Cutler's absence, in which they went 1-5. If they stumbled to a mere 3-3, they would have won 10 games. Whether or not the freak thumb injury was due to the line or not, they will need to keep him upright as much as possible. With 52 sacks in 2010 and 23 in 2011, the Bears will once again be in trouble if they can't keep the defense off him. Contrast that to Tom Brady, who had 32 sacks in the whole season.
If Cutler can stay healthy, they certainly have the resources with the additions of freakishly athletic Alshon Jeffery, Cutler's reliable wideout Earl Bennett (both attended the same college, Vanderbilt), and big tight end Kellen Davis.
Oh, how the tide has changed. Whereas the offense can and probably will carry this team this year, they might have to do it mostly to pick up the slack of the defense. With Brian Urlacher still sidelined with knee issues and compounded with an aging defensive front, they may have issues stopping the other team from scoring.
They ranked 17th in total defense last year, according to ESPN. Seeing as that there were no significant depth changes or new players coming in to fill the much-needed secondary void, they will have to make do with cornerback Tim Jennings and an aging Charles Tillman as their top two cornerbacks. If Urlacher is unable to come back healthy as the quarterback of that defense, they may suffer on the defensive side of the ball.
They may just end up merely average, even with a healthy Urlacher.
Hard to quantify how effective special teams is every year, as anything can happen because of the lack of star players, but the one constant that they do have is Devin Hester returning kicks. That will remain a plus and sometimes deciding factor in tight games.
The dreams of a Lombardi Trophy start and end with their new quarterback, Peyton Manning. Haven't we heard that before?
Sensing a theme? It's a passing league now and Peyton Manning's health will be key towards their playoff drive. They certainly have the weapons in Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Joel Dreessen, Jacob Tamme, and Brandon Stokley to get them there.
On the offensive side of the ball, they have the play-makers around Manning to jump into the upper echelon of offenses in the NFL. No longer needing to be the rushing leaders in order to compete, they have finally found a real quarterback able to direct an offense downfield at will—albeit his seeming lack of a strong arm and inability to throw right, according to an ESPN report by Bill Williamson.
But just how healthy can Peyton Manning stay? Neck surgeries are no joke and can prove tough to come back from. Already with decreased arm strength, a couple wrong hits here and there may result in the end of Denver's Super Bowl dreams.
The one key area they will improve is third-down efficiency. With a combination of Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow at the helm, they sputtered to an abysmal third-down conversion rate of 30.8 percent, according to ESPN Stats. Manning's command at the line will also help hide some of the deficiencies of the offensive line, where they gave up 42 sacks to their quarterbacks last season, according to Pro Football Reference. That number may have also been skewed due to Tebow's love for running around at the first sign of trouble.
Another alarming stat that must and will be much improved is the -67.25 expected points contributed by passing offense that ranked 31st out of 32 possible teams, according to Pro Football Reference. To make it worse, their expected points contributed by total offense was a -92.02. It's a miracle how they won eight games last year.
That can only go up with Manning's arrival. With Decker's refined route-running, Thomas' big-play ability, and two tight ends that can cover underneath routes, they have the potential to flirt with top-ten statistics.
A defense that ranked 24th in all of the National Football League last year will have to be better. Reigning Rookie of the Year Von Miller will come back and Elvis Dumervil will have to duplicate his sack success of 2010 in order for them to improve. What remains key to their success will be Manning's ability to keep them off the field, to get them some rest.
Last year, they were a -12 in turnover/differential, ranking 26th, making it hard on the offense to run its run-game-heavy schemes all game. This year, they'll have a chance to improve on those numbers simply because they won't be playing behind the eight-ball all season. Instead of three-and-outs, Peyton's short passing game will keep drives alive and alleviate some of the make-or-break situations the Broncos were in last year.
Again, the numbers fluctuate every year but they did own the ninth-best kick and punt return numbers, for what it's worth. Also, Matt Prater is one the most reliable kickers in the game, going 8-8 from 30-39 yards and 3-4 from 50+.
Sensing a theme? Eagles fans will hope they see none of these images when the season starts.
For better or worse, that's everything and nothing for the Philadelphia Eagles this year. Even though rookie quarterback Nick Foles has looked good this preseason, he's still a rookie, and a rookie not named Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III for that matter.
A couple games into the preseason and Vick is already experiencing the type of injury problems that can seriously hamper this team's chances of a playoff run. However, when he isn't busy diving headfirst or spraining ribs, he has the ability to run the NFL's most potent, quick-strike offense.
In other words, Vick and his cast of characters turn the football field into a track field, making it impossible for other teams to catch up.
Pretty tough to defend when you consider they can run out a starting lineup of Jeremy Maclin, LeSean McCoy, and an apparently happy DeSean Jackson. Imagine that. The issue, of course, is keeping the man in control healthy. Losing offensive tackle Jason Peters to a ruptured Achilles certainly does not help.
Even though Vick played mediocre, at best, last year, he was hampered by injuries, along with Maclin, and lackluster performances by Jackson. The intense scrutiny built by last off-season's hype machine only fueled the fire. The last time Vick was healthy was in 2010: the Eagles were sparked by a great run where Vick threw for 21 touchdowns and had a 100.2 QB rating, according to Pro Football Reference. They'll need him to stay upright in order to repeat and surpass that performance for a chance at the Super Bowl.
Luckily for the Eagles, they have just the weapons on the offensive side of the ball to do so.
Their expected win-loss was actually 9.8-6.2 last year, perhaps showing that they were a bit unlucky last year. Part of that is how unpredictable and fickle turnovers are. A lot of that depends on how the ball bounces, therefore luck plays a huge part in it. They ranked 30th in the league with a negative 14 turnover ratio. Part of this was attributed to Vick and Young's combined 23 interceptions, but the defense should be expected to play better this season.
Another season for Nnamdi Asomugha to familiarize himself with the zone-defensive schemes, along with the addition of former Pro Bowler DeMeco Ryans, should combine to bring stable forces to the back end and middle of the defense. Jason Babin's injury is a concern, but the return of Trent Cole's 11 sacks and 12th pick Fletcher Fox will help solidify that line.
Alex Henery is also a kicker who didn't miss many kicks last season, hitting 88.9 percent of his field goals. Without DeSean Jackson returning punts, it will seem to be an issue. There is simply not many people who can provide the spark he can.