Just four weeks into the NFL season and already a lot can be determined about how the year will play out.
At this point, we can tell each team’s strengths and weaknesses, which teams have the best defenses or offenses, and which teams have the best likelihood of making the playoffs.
We can even tell who will make the Super Bowl.
Well maybe not the last one, but we can get pretty close.
Here are the rankings of the best potential Super Bowl matchups based on what we have seen thus far.
The Green Bay Packers have been anything but exceptional thus far. Thanks to a blown call in their Monday night game in Seattle, the Packers are 2-2 and third in the NFC North heading into Week 5.
The high-flying air attack in Green Bay ranks 19th in the NFL in points scored and has allowed Aaron Rodgers to be sacked 16 times, the most in the NFL.
However, the future looks bright for the Packers as they play seven of their remaining 12 games against teams with a .500 record or below.
After finishing last in defense in 2011, Dom Capers’ revitalized unit ranks in the top 10 in total yards allowed and points allowed this season.
Despite Greg Jennings being banged up, the offensive weapons are still there, and the core that led the Packers to a 15-1 record in 2011 remains. It is just a matter of clicking on all cylinders at this point.
Houston, on the other hand, has been the most dominant team in football in 2012. The Texans' margin of victory through the first four weeks is nearly 20 points.
Thanks to a dynamic one-two punch at running back in Arian Foster and Ben Tate, a quality quarterback in Matt Schaub and one of the league’s best receivers in Andre Johnson, the Houston offense is second in the NFL in points scored.
However, the Texans’ offensive line is most responsible for the team's success. Through the first four weeks, the line has allowed only three sacks and helped Foster rush for 380 yards and four touchdowns.
Houston’s defense has also been a big reason for its undefeated start. The defenders have played hard, physical football, and the league has noticed. The Texans have 13 sacks, five interceptions and five forced fumbles.
Keys to the Matchup
Both teams match up extremely well. Green Bay and Houston both have extremely potent offenses and above-average defenses.
I give the edge at this point to the Packers’ passing game and Aaron Rodgers, but clearly give the nod to the Texans’ rushing game.
The Packers’ rush defense has given up 4.4 yards per carry, and they don’t have a corner who could lock down the mighty Andre Johnson. I believe that the slight lack of defense will be decisive.
We may get to see a potential Super Bowl preview when Houston and Green Bay play at Reliant Stadium in Houston in Week 6.
Prediction: Houston 28, Green Bay 24
Atlanta has been the most exciting team to watch in 2012.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has ushered in a new wave of Atlanta Falcons football in which the offense actually lives up to the preseason hype it’s been given.
Matt Ryan leads the NFL with a 112.1 passer rating and ranks second with 11 touchdown passes—surprisingly behind only Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Atlanta’s pass defense has been pretty solid with the exception of last Sunday’s win over Carolina.
The Falcons are ninth in the NFL in passing yards allowed and have given up only four passing touchdowns. By hovering nine players near the line of scrimmage, the Falcons’ defense has confused and shut down quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning.
On the other hand, the Ravens’ defense has only given up two passing touchdowns and allowed only 3.2 yards per carry.
The story of the season for Baltimore, though, is its fourth-ranked passing attack.
Joe Flacco is third in the NFL with 1,269 passing yards, and Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin both have at least 240 receiving yards.
The no-huddle offense has proved exceptional for the Ravens, as they average more than 30 points per game.
Keys to the Matchup
How will Baltimore's pass defense fare against Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ passing game?
The Ravens rank 29th with 1,183 passing yards allowed. Ryan and the Falcons’ wide receivers form the NFL's best passing attack.
The way the Ravens’ defense is playing right now, I expect Ryan to tear them apart.
Then there is Atlanta's rush defense against Ray Rice. The Falcons has been as bad against the rush as the Ravens have been against the pass.
They also rank 29th in the league and have allowed 585 yards, 5.2 yards per carry.
The Ravens’ new offense has not utilized Rice in the ground game as much as in previous years. Still, in 64 carries, Rice has averaged 5.0 yards per touch and scored three touchdowns.
The Ravens will yield to the Falcons’ passing attack and watch this game slowly slip out of reach.
Prediction: Atlanta 31, Baltimore 17
Other than an unexpected slip-up in Minnesota, San Francisco has been absolutely electric.
Frank Gore and the 49ers average 167 rushing yards a game, the third-highest total in the NFL. San Francisco has averaged 5.4 yards per carry and scored five rushing touchdowns.
The 49ers defense has been a brick wall once again, as projected. The Niners rank fifth in both opposing rushing yards and passing yards per game. They allow 3.2 rushing yards per touch and have allowed only one rushing touchdown.
Keys to the Matchup
How much success will Houston’s pass rush have against San Francisco's offensive line?
As impressive as Alex Smith has been this season, he has yet to see a defensive line as aggressive as the Houston Texans’. They are averaging more than three sacks a game and have caused mass confusion and frustration for opposing offensive coordinators all year.
Pass-blocking is an area the 49ers need to improve. The offensive line has allowed 12 sacks this season.
How will San Francisco's rush defense fare against Arian Foster? Foster, generally known as the NFL's best running back, facing the Niners’ top rushing defense? What could be better?
Linebacker Patrick Willis and the 49ers’ defense will handle the Texans’ running game. But in the end, Houston’s defense will create enough mistakes from the 49ers’ offense to eke out a win.
Prediction: Houston 21, San Francisco 17
Moving on down to the top two potential Super Bowl matchups, we have reached the Harbowl.
The battle of the brothers: 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and Ravens coach John Harbaugh.
In the highly anticipated Thanksgiving game in 2011, John Harbaugh and the mighty Ravens defense shut down the 49ers in a 16-6 victory.
I predict that this year’s possible edition of the Harbowl will go much differently
Keys to the Matchup
Can this Ravens pass defense shut down a much improved 49ers air attack?
None of the 49ers’ passing numbers will jump out at you. They don’t have anyone leading the league in yards or touchdowns. However, they run one of the most effective passing attacks in the league.
How, you might ask?
It starts with Alex Smith. He has been one of the most consistent quarterbacks in the NFL. His 98.1 passer rating is third in the NFC, and he has only thrown one interception since Week 11 of the 2011 season.
Not to take anything away from Smith’s season, but it does help to have a talented receiving corps. Michael Crabtree is developing into one of the league’s top young receivers, with the help of advice from veteran Randy Moss, and tight end Vernon Davis’s combination of size and speed makes him nearly impossible to cover.
So how will the Ravens fair?
Close, but no cigar.
The Ravens will not be able to shut down all the 49ers offensive weapons. Whether it is Crabtree, Davis or Mario Manningham, someone will be open and have a huge receiving day.
While I do believe this matchup will be one of the most heavily watched sporting events of all time and will live up to the hype, the Ravens’ downfall will be their pass defense if they don’t start making changes now.
Prediction: San Francisco 24, Baltimore 17
Finally, we have reached the best potential Super Bowl matchup: the undefeated Atlanta Falcons against the likewise undefeated Houston Texans.
It is hard to imagine another Super Bowl being as exciting as the one in 2011. In the fourth quarter, Eli Manning led a game-winning, 88-yard touchdown drive, as the Giants scored with 57 seconds left to defeat Patriots 21-17 in Super Bowl XLVI.
But the 47th edition of the Super Bowl in New Orleans this season will be just as exciting.
The Texans and Falcons are clearly the two most impressive teams so far.
Together, they average more than 60 points and 735.6 yards per game. They both also allow fewer than 19 points per game.
So what will be the difference in this matchup between these well-rounded teams?
Keys to the Matchup
How will Arian Foster fare against the Falcons' rush defense.
He should have a field day running against the Falcons’ 29th-ranked rush defense. The Texans’ offensive line will open up enormous holes that will allow Foster to run free, which in turn will open up the passing game for Matt Schaub.
How will Houston’s defense hold up against Atlanta’s high-powered passing attack?
The Texans have yet to be tested in the air, other than by Peyton Manning—who in my opinion has yet to return to his true form.
In the next few weeks, Houston will have to face the Packers and Ravens. Only then will we catch a glimpse of the real Houston secondary. I have a feeling standout corners Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson and the rest of the Texans' defensive backs will hold their own and prove that this is their year.
Only one problem: the Falcons’ passing attack is better than the Packers’ and Ravens’ this season.
It won’t matter.
J.J. Watt and the Texans’ defense will wear down the Falcons’ offensive line, which has given up 11 sacks, and make Matt Ryan play on the run. He won’t have time to watch routes develop, thus causing turnovers and the Falcons’ eventual demise.
Prediction: Houston 27 Atlanta 21
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