As a Green Bay Packers owner, I really wanted to predict the Vince Lombardi Trophy would come home for 2013.
NFL fans and analysts are fond of two things at this time of the year: Super Bowl and regular-season predictions. It does not matter how often we are all wrong—increasingly so as the game's balance has narrowed the talent gap between teams to make outcomes more uncertain.
Both groups will also routinely dismiss the regular season. After all, the 2010 Green Bay Packers and 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl as sixth seeds.
Still, teams have to survive the regular season to qualify for playoff spots, and there is no doubt playing the games at home is preferable to trying to win on the road. The regular season matters so far as it determines where and against whom teams will play if they want to make it to February.
After that, the team that is playing best will win. That includes either staying healthy or overcoming tremendous injuries as the Packers did in 2010 and the New York Giants did in 2007.
It always takes character to win even a conference title. Teams are being judged on having shown they can rise up in big moments as well as having potential talent that will develop throughout the season.
At the completion of the regular season, I see the following matchups and results from the second season that is for keeps.
A lot of people seem to be forgetting about the Houston Texans. If you are looking for a dark horse out of the AFC, they are the team to watch.
This is still an incredible defense. It has some problems in the secondary but gets enough pass rush to compensate.
Houston also has one of the most balanced offenses in the NFL. Arian Foster gives it the ability to play in even bad weather, and the aerial attack makes it potent on fast surfaces.
Meanwhile, the Miami Dolphins are a much-improved team. Their free-agent pickups (always overrated) notwithstanding, they are a developing as a team while their quarterback develops as a player.
Ryan Tannehill will also suffer less in his second NFL season and is the most conventional of the already historic 2012 draft class. The Dolphins have a solid defense behind them, including one of the game's most underrated defensive ends in Cameron Wake.
That will be enough to ride into the playoffs thanks to a weak division that starts a raw rookie and another the first rookie undrafted free agent at the position since the merger. It will not be enough against a true AFC contender.
Of all the young quarterbacks to get their first start in the 2012 NFL season, Andrew Luck will have the best season. As defenses adjust to the athleticism of most of the others, he will be adjusting to them.
The Indianapolis Colts are building more talent around them and already made the playoffs. As they develop together, the interceptions will drop and they will challenge for the AFC South title. However, outside of Luck, they do not win the positional matchups with the Houston Texans.
They also do not win most of those matchups with the Cincinnati Bengals. Easily the most balanced team in the competitive AFC North, Indianapolis can match Cincinnati's passing attack but not their run game. That small drop-off is duplicated on defense, where a very solid unit has a better secondary but not the front seven.
Luck can make the difference (both the quarterback and the fortune) against the Bengals. Even the home field will not be enough to end Cincinnati's streak of playoff futility, which includes their only other major teams in baseball and college basketball since the Reds won the World Series in 1990.
Matt Ryan finally got his first playoff win last year, and it was a doozy. After his Atlanta Falcons choked away a three-score lead in the final minute of the game, he made every play he had to.
That win and the pending retirement of Tony Gonzalez will propel them to another title in a very competitive division. Stephen Jackson can give them a versatile back even if the looming wear-down happens in 2013. They have a very potent passing attack and a competent defense.
That is more than enough to beat whomever they face. Finding a team to earn that last spot is tough.
None of the NFC North teams outside of the Green Bay Packers have what it takes to make the playoffs (quarterback or discipline questions). The talent at the top of the NFC West will make it impossible for any other team to make the postseason from there.
The next best team might be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the final spot will go to a team from the competitive but weaker NFC East because that team will not have to survive as much top-end competition.
The New York Giants lost too much. The Philadelphia Eagles are too erratic and defensively deficient. The Dallas Cowboys have always had the talent on paper, and this year they have an upgrade in play-calling on both sides the ball.
With its goal to simply make the playoffs fulfilled, Dallas is up against a team that got a very large monkey off its back last season. This time the Falcons can avoid a nail-biter.
Peter King recently decided against using the racially-insensitive nickname of the Washington football team. As a mere blogger whose actions will not stir up controversy, I have long referred to them as the Offensively Named Ones.
They certainly have issues on the field, too. At the very least, their coach and franchise quarterback do not see eye to eye. Robert Griffin III is unlikely to be able to play as aggressively this season, as he must recover from a knee injury and protect himself from further injury. The league will also adjust to him.
Nevertheless, they have the most complete team in the NFC East and already won it in 2012. Unfortunately, they will face a tougher matchup in the playoffs than their own division.
The Seattle Seahawks are completely overrated. They were legitimately only 10-6 (sorry Golden Tate and Pete Carroll, but the language is simultaneous catch and M.D. Jennings was first to get his hands on the ball...not to mention the other two bad calls that kept that drive alive) and gained little in the offseason.
Cliff Avril adds little to an already incredible defensive line. Percy Harvin adds nothing for most games because he cannot stay healthy. Russell Wilson will struggle against big defensive lines that keep him in the pocket.
That being said, they are still a true contender with far fewer questions than Washington.
The matchup much of the league would love to see in the first round is the new franchise quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts taking on the old one. There is no question the Denver Broncos have the better current signal-caller and the better team around him.
Denver was so deep at running back that they dumped Willis McGahee. Once Von Miller returns, they will still have a good pass rush and solid all-around defense, and their receiving corps is in the top half of the NFL.
Moreover, they are in a weak division. The San Diego Chargers were not that good when they had the talent. The Kansas City Chiefs will be competitive—which is more than anyone can say of the Oakland Raiders—but may be the only divisional team to beat the Broncos head-to-head.
That leaves the Broncos with all the advantages on paper during the regular season to earn the top seed. It also will be too much for Andrew Luck and the Colts.
The most overrated team in the NFL every year is the New England Patriots. Their defense has been suspect for years, and they no longer have much of a receiving corps.
Behind a tremendous offensive line that Tom Brady apologists like Skip Bayless ignore when dismissing Aaron Rodgers due to his superior receiving talent, Brady will still get fat off the weak AFC East, but any team that put a four-man pass rush on him can turn him into a mediocre quarterback.
That is why Tom has not been terrific in his last 11 playoff games, none of which were on the road: 5-6 while going 232-for-373 (.622) for 2,470 yards (a mere 6.6 per attempt) with 19 TDs and 13 interceptions and a passer rating under 84. Playoff teams like the Houston Texans get pressure with a four-man rush.
In the beginning, the San Francisco 49ers will have to battle through rookie mistakes from Eric Reid. By the end of the season, he will be performing better on pass defense than his predecessor, Dashon Goldson.
Unfortunately, Justin Smith will begin to wear down by then. The Seattle Seahawks can keep up with the Niners offensively in good weather and bad. They are nearly as good on defense and may have better special teams.
However, the Niners are not going to allow their last game at Candlestick Park to be a loss in their first playoff game—especially to a division rival. Colin Kaepernick will need to watch his slow delivery in the pocket, but his physical superiority over Russell Wilson will allow him to overcome adjusting defenses better.
The Green Bay Packers have a running attack for the first time since Aaron Rodgers became the starting quarterback. They lost Bryan Bulaga from an already weak offensive line, but otherwise appear healthier than they have been since Brett Favre.
If 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry and 2013 first-round pick Datone Jones have anything to say about it, the front seven will be as good as it was in the 2010 championship season. That is a lethal combination, and any hope that the Packers would be rusty or have lost their edge from the bye week is a pipe dream.
The Atlanta Falcons have not been able to have any sustained success against Green Bay. Since a narrow three-point win at home in the 2010 regular season, they have dropped three straight, including two at home.
With the bitter cold affecting their will and the balanced team with a championship pedigree (you have to win one to have that, Roddy White) on the other side of the line of scrimmage, expect the home crowd at Lambeau to have a lot to cheer about.
Both teams are balanced. The Houston Texans have a playoff win under their belt last season, but the Denver Broncos are stinging from a narrow first-round loss to the eventual champion Baltimore Ravens.
To add to their motivation, Peyton Manning and the Broncos know his window is closing and he will be hard to replace. They have greater urgency and a greater quarterback with greater experience going against a lesser secondary.
They are not losing at home with all that on the line.
I do not like picking repeat champions in either conference. Last season was the first time that a Super Bowl loser even returned to their conference championship game since the the 1993 Buffalo Bills had won their fourth consecutive AFC title.
The Green Bay Packers have the talent to take down the Super Bowl XLVII losing San Francisco 49ers. Just as Eric Reid will be better in the secondary by the end of the season, the two young tackles for the Green and Gold should be better at the end of the year.
The Packers have a much better receiving corps, a little better secondary and the more experienced quarterback. But the Niners have a slightly better running game, better front seven and much better offensive line.
The team that controls the line of scrimmage still wins more often than the team with the slightly better quarterback. Add to that the inspiration of the last game at Candlestick Park and I just cannot pick against the Niners—someone will beat them, but they are the best bet to come out of the NFC.
If the San Francisco 49ers actually make it to Super Bowl XLVIII, they will be ready to win it this time. But the Denver Broncos are my pick to win the title next February because they have the best chance.
They are in a weak division, making their appearance in the playoffs an almost certainty. They should get to play most of those games at home, and they are in a conference with only a couple other contenders, giving them the best chance to advance to the Big Dance.
They also have the most balanced team and the urgency of needing to win now. Even if Michael Crabtree were back at full health (very doubtful), the Niners lack the receivers to move the ball consistently through the air.