Which team will raise the Lombardi Trophy in 2014?
Though we're still 92 days away from kickoff of the 2013-14 NFL season, it seems appropriate to begin thinking about the top contenders to win the Super Bowl. While the Baltimore Ravens were able to make a spectacular run to capture the Lombardi trophy, they were hit badly by free agency. In this slide show, I'll take a look at which teams are poised to make their own run at a championship.
My criteria for ranking these teams aren't exactly scientific, but I'll evaluate them based on:
- Additions via free agency and the draft
- Quarterback play
- Expected development of returning roster players
As the Ravens reminded us, the Super Bowl winner can come out of nowhere when playoff time comes around. That being said, I will contend that the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons are the favorites at this juncture.
Sean Payton's return could mean big things in NOLA
Ranking only the top 10 contenders is pretty difficult, so I would be remiss if I failed to recognize a few teams that just missed the cut.
New Orleans Saints
Though the 2012-13 season was a nightmare for the Saints, things are looking good for the upcoming season. Lest we forget, Sean Payton was suspended for the entirety of the season, inflicting turmoil onto a roster that still remains very talented, albeit one-dimensional. Led by Drew Brees and their high-powered offense, the Saints will return to their winning ways in 2013.
You can expect this offense to keep pouring on the points in the coming year, as Brees has shown no signs of slowing down. He just posted arguably his second best statistical year in 2012, and the offense has its usual array of weapons. Despite the addition of safety Kenny Vaccaro in the draft, the defense could still struggle to stay off of the field.
Ultimately, it is the strength of the Atlanta Falcons and the NFC in general that may doom the Saints. While they can't be counted out of any matchup, the Saints have to face the vaunted NFC West. Along with tough divisional games against Atlanta and Carolina, this makes reaching the playoffs a tough task.
For two years in a row, we've seen the Bengals make the playoffs as a wild-card and be defeated by the Texans. Andy Dalton and AJ Green are still inexperienced by most measures, but expectations are higher now. In addition, defensive stars like Michael Johnson and Geno Atkins provide a strong balance to this squad.
In the NFL Draft, the Bengals added two more offensive weapons in Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard. Both players, especially Bernard, should make an immediate impact. In free agency, they signed James Harrison away from the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, fortifying an already strong defensive front.
Still, I see the Bengals as a fringe wild-card team. They call the strong AFC North home and have a very difficult first few games of the season. If they find themselves in an early 0-3 hole, it may be too tough to overcome.
I know, the Lions were 4-12 last year. Still, they have a prolific passing attack and a surprisingly solid defense that ranked 14th in opposing passing yards and 16th in opposing rushing yards last year. Given that they're only one year removed from a playoff berth and much of the roster remains the same, I think they have the tools to turn it around.
Calvin Johnson is still the best receiver in the NFL, and Matthew Stafford has the goods to deliver the ball. While he had a down year with 20 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions, the signing of Reggie Bush and selection of guard Larry Warford should help him out by strengthening a weak running game.
On the other side of the ball, the Lions added defensive end Ezekiel Ansah and cornerback Darius Slay. Slay should make an immediate impact in nickel situations, and Ansah will be used alongside Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley to rush the passer. The Lions reside in the competitive NFC North, but don't be surprised if they return to winning form in 2013.
JJ Watt will continue to terrorize quarterbacks this season
The Texans have now firmly established themselves as one of the AFC's elite. Still, they haven't lived up to expectations in the postseason. Will 2013 be the year that they break through?
The Texans return a large part of their AFC South championship team that dominated for most of the 2012 regular season. Even better, inside linebacker Brian Cushing will come back from injury, and JJ Watt is now fully healthy. Let that sink in for just a second.
In free agency, the Texans added Ed Reed to replace the departing Glover Quin. Other than that, the selection of Clemson's DeAndre Hopkins should solidify the number two wide receiver spot across from Andre Johnson.
For the Texans, though, there is one player that can change their playoff misfortunes. If Matt Schaub can elevate his level of play, then they have a chance to make some noise. If not, then expect teams with better quarterbacks like Denver, New England or Baltimore to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
The Texans will be around in the playoffs, as their schedule is pretty weak. However, it remains to be seen whether they will be taking the next step.
John Harbaugh's Ravens are poised for a Super Bowl hangover
They may have won Super Bowl XLVII, but I'm selling the Ravens for the upcoming season. With the retirement of Ray Lewis and the exodus of Dannell Ellerbe, Ed Reed, Paul Kruger and Anquan Boldin, the team took a big hit. The signing of Joe Flacco to a huge extension ensures some stability, but I'm not sure that they can match their postseason run in 2013.
To counteract their free agency losses, the Ravens added Chris Canty and Elvis Dumervil. To add to that, they drafted safety Matt Elam in the first round and linebacker Arthur Brown in the second.
More concerning for me than any losses on the defensive side of the ball is the trade of Anquan Boldin. Sure, Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones are a solid combination, but anyone who watched the playoffs knows that Boldin was a huge part of their offensive success.
With a reasonable schedule, the Ravens shouldn't have too much difficulty making the postseason. To add to that, Joe Flacco has finally established himself as a prime-time performer, which puts them ahead of the Texans. However, I'd argue that the Ravens might be worse with these offseason subtractions, leaving them behind the Patriots and Broncos in the AFC.
Can quarterback guru Marc Trestman help Jay Cutler take the next step?
A quick look at the statistics will show that Chicago's biggest weakness in 2012 was their passing game. They ranked 10th in rushing yards, 8th in rushing yards allowed and 8th in passing yards allowed, yet finished 29th in passing yards. So what do they do in the offseason? They hired the quarterback guru shown above, Marc Trestman.
Now in his fifth year in Chicago, it's time for Jay Cutler to prove his worth. Despite getting a lot of publicity, he only has 136 career touchdown passes versus 100 interceptions. Put simply, the Bears are expecting more from their franchise quarterback.
To help out Jay Cutler, the Bears selected guard Kyle Long in the first round of the NFL draft. To top that off, they added guard Matt Slauson, tackle Jermon Bushrod and tight end Martellus Bennett in free agency. It seems that they finally are committing to protecting Cutler and ensuring his success.
One more player to remember for the success of the Bears offense is second-year receiver Alshon Jeffery. He didn't make much of an impact in year one, but that is expected to change this year. If he can put a strong season together across from Brandon Marshall, the Bears passing attack could be significantly improved.
With no regression in sight for the Bears defense, we could see a big bounce-back year from Chicago. They have a tough schedule being in the NFC North, but they have the talent to make a run in the ultra-competitive NFC. With these key offseason additions and the offensive prowess of Trestman, I believe that the Bears are even more dangerous than the defending champs.
Tom Coughlin's Giants are frustrating, but very dangerous
The Giants are the most frustrating team in football. The team seemingly plays up and down to its competition every single year, dismantling top teams like the 49ers and falling to cupcakes like last year's version of the Eagles. Still, quarterback Eli Manning and newly crowned No. 14 coach of all time, Tom Coughlin, lead a sturdy crew.
The Giants haven't done a ton in this offseason. They let Martellus Bennett sign with Chicago, but replaced him with Brandon Myers from Oakland. On top of that, they made the low-key signing of Louis Murphy that could pay solid dividends this season. Adding Dan Connor for linebacker depth was also an astute move.
In the draft, the Giants added Syracuse's Justin Pugh to their offensive line and selected Johnathan Hankins and Damontre Moore for pass-rush depth. I feel that each of these additions will play a role in New York's upcoming season.
Eli Manning is still one of the top-tier quarterbacks in football, and if his top two receivers are on the field, they will undoubtedly put up some points. For them to be successful as a team, their defense has to improve from a pitiful showing last year. If they can continue to be opportunistic and force turnovers, the Giants will make their way back to the postseason.
While the Giants have to be concerned with the recent surgery of Jason Pierre-Paul, I feel that they will take the NFC East division crown. With a reasonably easy schedule for an NFC team, all that this experienced squad needs to do is make it to the playoffs in order to have a shot. This schedule, paired with proven quarterback play, makes the Giants stronger contenders than the Bears.
Fresh off of a new contract, Aaron Rodgers is ready to lead the Packers back to the promised land
The Packers have the luxury of owning the best quarterback in the NFL. With that kind of talent, you can win a lot of games without having a balanced team. But what happens when you add a rushing attack to that offense?
In the NFL Draft, the Packers wisely selected Alabama running back Eddie Lacy with their second-round pick. To top it all off, they picked Johnathan Franklin in the fourth to add depth to the backfield. Both players should make an immediate impact in an offense that now looks even more lethal.
While Green Bay's defense doesn't get much credit from the media, I think it's only fair to point out that they ranked 11th in opposing passing yards and 17th in opposing rushing yards. That's not too shabby for the supposed glaring weakness of a team.
This year, the Packers hope to have a healthy Clay Matthews back to his dominant form. Add in first-round selection Datone Jones to their defensive line, and suddenly the defense looks solid. That could be the key to winning yet another Super Bowl for this storied franchise.
The Packers play in the grueling NFC North, but I still see them winning the division and making the playoffs. With the best quarterback in football, their weaknesses become less glaring. Even still, I'll argue that the Packers are more balanced than the New York Giants.
Peyton Manning has to be happy with his new toy, Wes Welker
Wasn't it enough to just have Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker? Wasn't Peyton Manning good enough with just two great wide-outs? Apparently not, because the Broncos brought in long-time Patriot Wes Welker in the offseason.
For a team that lost in double overtime to the eventual Super Bowl champions, it was a fairly active offseason. The Broncos lost Elvis Dumervil in one of the weirder situations that I've seen in recent memory, but they added the talented Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to their secondary. They will definitely miss Dumervil, but don't expect the defense to take much of a step back.
In the draft, the Broncos added defensive tackle Sylvester Williams to start on the line and Montee Ball to start at running back. Both project as impact players for Denver.
On offense, the Broncos should improve from a stellar first year for Manning (5th in passing yards, 16th in rushing yards). On defense, third-year linebacker Von Miller looks to continue his dominance and establish himself as one of the league's best. Throw a very solid special teams unit in the mix, and you have one of the NFL's most well balanced teams.
As if the Broncos needed any help, they also call the AFC West home. With some consideration given to the AFC East, I think this is the weakest division in football. They should roll through their competition on their way to a playoff bye.
For the Broncos, it's a championship or bust. Peyton Manning isn't getting any younger. While the Packers have the better quarterback at this stage of both of their careers, the team strength of Denver and the weak AFC ensure an easier road to the Super Bowl for the Broncos.
This tandem is as good as it gets in the National Football League
What can I say about the New England Patriots? I'll start with this: they're going to win the AFC East for the 11th time in 13 years. For those who think the offseason champion Dolphins will make a push: I'm sorry, but you're wrong.
The Patriots lost Wes Welker to the rival Broncos and cut Brandon Lloyd, signaling a changing of the guard in New England. For those who are concerned, check out Wes Welker's stat-line before he came to Foxboro. As you now know, Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Donald Jones and Aaron Dobson will suffice for "Tom Terrific."
The Patriots weren't all that active in free agency, and for once they didn't have a ridiculous amount of draft picks. That being said, look for second-year players like Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower to take a big step forward. This team just reloads year after year, so don't be shocked if other players come out of nowhere, either.
Calling the AFC East home, the Patriots don't have a particularly challenging road to the playoffs. They'll likely win 11-12 games and have a bye week, as usual.
Many will say the Broncos are the team to beat in the AFC, and that's a perfectly respectable opinion. However, when it comes to the playoffs, Brady has three rings to Manning's one. I like New England's chances to come out of the AFC.
Julio Jones and Roddy White are superstars for Atlanta
The Atlanta Falcons were on the wrong side of an incredible comeback in last year's NFC Championship game with the 49ers. Still, this team is loaded, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Could this be the year that the "Dirty Birds" break through?
This offseason, the Falcons received welcome news when future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez decided to return. They'll miss right tackle Tyson Clabo, who left for the money in Miami, but their running game got much more dangerous. Though he's on the wrong side of 30, Steven Jackson is a massive upgrade over Michael Turner.
While Roddy White is still a great receiver, this is the year that Julio Jones will take over in Atlanta. The third-year pro is a physical freak and creates matchup problems for the poor souls that have the task of covering him. Look for him to establish himself as one of the top few receivers in the league.
On defense, the Falcons took a bit of a hit. They lost cornerbacks Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes, as well as defensive end John Abraham, to free agency. They hope that former Giant Osi Umenyiora and rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant can help to fill those shoes.
In terms of their schedule, the Falcons don't have an easy road to the playoffs. However, I believe that they are the cream of the crop in the NFC South and will take the divisional crown. If the defense and running game can take a small step forward, this team could be making an appearance in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Though it's a close call for me, I see the Falcons as a team that is more talented than New England. Despite Tom Brady's clear advantage over Matt Ryan, Tom Brady doesn't have guys like Jones or White.
Colin Kaepernick burst onto the scene in 2012. Can he replicate that success this year?
The 49ers came very close to winning yet another Super Bowl this past season, and are poised to make another run in the upcoming year. Led by third-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick and a smash-mouth defense, San Francisco is built for playoff football, especially at this year's site of MetLife Stadium.
Though they'll miss DaShon Goldson in the secondary, the 49ers replaced him with first-round pick Eric Reid. In free agency, they took a flier on cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, a move that appears to be low-risk, high-reward. In addition, they traded a sixth-round pick for Anquan Boldin, who torched them in the Super Bowl.
I don't see any reason to worry about the 49ers defense taking a step back, but one has to wonder whether Colin Kaepernick can repeat his success from last year. The bigger concern for me, though, is the loss of Michael Crabtree to a torn Achilles tendon. The 49ers have to hope that Mario Manningham and last year's first-round pick AJ Jenkins can fill the void, along with tight end Vernon Davis.
If Kaepernick can replicate last year's success, which I think he will, the 49ers will be making a deep playoff run. And if they can make it through the gauntlet that is the NFC, I don't see them losing in the title bout.
San Francisco, for me, is the better team than Atlanta. Though Atlanta's offense is a juggernaut, I like the established balance of this 49ers squad. To top it off, Kaepernick has the tools to blow Matt Ryan out of the water.
Can Russell Wilson bring Seattle its first Lombardi Trophy?
The Seattle Seahawks are currently the toast of the NFL. From general manager down to head coach and all of the players, they are loaded. After a loss in the divisional round of last year's playoffs, the Seahawks look to make a much bigger splash in this upcoming season.
In the offseason, GM John Schneider went to work. In addition to signing free agents Cliff Avril and Antoine Winfield, he pulled off the big one. Seattle traded their first-round pick for Percy Harvin, immediately upgrading the wide receiver position, one of the team's weaknesses.
In adding Harvin, the Seahawks now have a big time home run threat. Harvin, Marshawn Lynch, Sidney Rice, Golden Tate and Zach Miller are some huge weapons for Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson to work with. With this upgrade, they become all the more explosive.
On defense, Seattle has one of the best secondaries in the league, anchored by All-Pro team members Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas. To make matters worse for opponents, their pass rush features a devastating rotation of Red Bryant, Michael Bennett, Bruce Irvin and Avril. Against the Seahawks, you have to pick your poison.
If Russell Wilson can avoid a sophomore slump, this team has all the makings of a Super Bowl winner. Given Wilson's notoriously tireless work ethic, I don't think that will be a problem. Picking between Seattle and San Francisco is splitting hairs for me, but if I have to choose one, I'm going with Russell Wilson's team.