Super Bowls Odds 2014: Early Handicapping for Next Year

Nick Kostos@@thekostosContributor IFebruary 4, 2014

Super Bowls Odds 2014: Early Handicapping for Next Year

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    The 2013 NFL season is in the books, and the Seattle Seahawks are Super Bowl champions. They were the best team throughout the season and crushed the Denver Broncos to win the franchise's first Lombardi Trophy.

    Only one team can win the Super Bowl, and that means 31 others ended the campaign with a bitter taste in their mouths. The offseason is now here, and the goal for every team is to construct a roster that is capable of contending for a world championship.

    Some squads are definitely closer than others, while a few clearly have significant work to do to merely get into playoff contention. But we've seen teams come out of nowhere to contend for the Super Bowl before, so optimism should rule the day for the vast majority of NFL fanbases.

    Here are the early Super Bowl odds for the 2014 season as we begin to handicap next year, courtesy of Bovada.

Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Odds: 100/1

    Despite entering the 2013 season as the overwhelming favorite to finish with the worst record, the Jacksonville Jaguars won four of their final eight games to finish 4-12. The fact that they played well down the stretch speaks well for coach Gus Bradley, who inherited a team with a substandard 53-man roster.

    There are pieces on the roster but not many. Bradley and general manager David Caldwell desperately need to infuse the roster with playmakers, particularly ones who rush the passer, as the team managed an NFL-low 31 sacks on the campaign.

    The No. 1 order of business needs to be acquiring a franchise quarterback, and that will likely happen in one of the early rounds of the draft. Jacksonville owns the third overall pick, and the smart money is on it selecting either Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, UCF's Blake Bortles or Fresno State's Derek Carr. Bleacher Report's own Matt Miller projects Carr as the pick in his latest mock draft.

    Bradley and Caldwell have shown enough to earn the benefit of the doubt that they're the right men to turn the Jaguars around. If they can strike gold at the quarterback position, it's not outside the realm of possibility that they could surprise in 2014. But as for winning the Super Bowl? Check back in 2015.

Oakland Raiders

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    Odds: 75/1

    Things were looking up for the Oakland Raiders through the first seven weeks of the season. They entered November with a 3-4 record despite possessing one of the worst 53-man rosters in the league. Terrelle Pryor was turning heads at the quarterback position, and it appeared that coach Dennis Allen had the team moving in the right direction.

    And then the bottom fell out.

    The Raiders only won one game from that point forward and lost their final six games to finish 4-12. The poor finish nearly cost Allen his job, but owner Mark Davis opted to keep him for at least one more season.

    Now, the onus is on general manager Reggie McKenzie and Allen to restock the cupboard with talented players. With the team finally out of the throes of salary-cap hell, McKenzie can open the checkbook, as the Raiders have nearly $70 million in cap space. The smart move would be to make a significant number of signings as opposed to a few flashy ones, but we'll see what McKenzie has up his sleeve.

    The big question is at the quarterback position. The team likes undrafted Matt McGloin, with McKenzie telling Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle:

    I thought McGloin showed some positive things that looked like a real quarterback from the standpoint of getting the ball out of his hands. Not being the greatest of mobile, moving, running guy, he didn’t take a lot of sacks.

    But it remains to be seen if McGloin is "The Guy" or if the team will select a quarterback with the fifth overall pick in the draft. That's the main story to watch this offseason for the Silver and Black.

Minnesota Vikings

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    Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

    Odds: 75/1

    The Minnesota Vikings followed up their surprise wild-card playoff berth in 2012 with a 5-10-1 season in 2013, costing coach Leslie Frazier his job. The albatross slung around the team's neck was the revolving door at quarterback, where Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel and Josh Freeman took turns stinking up the joint.

    Former Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer was hired as the new coach, and he brought along Norv Turner as his offensive coordinator. With Zimmer's defensive background, he needed to slam his OC hire out of the park, and he did just that with Turner.

    Like many of the other teams at the bottom of the Super Bowl odds, the Vikings need to address their issue at quarterback. Ponder is clearly not the answer, and they can't afford to waste another year of star running back Adrian Peterson's prime. Look for the team to select a signal-caller with the eighth overall pick of the draft.

    If the new quarterback can sparkle, the Vikings could find themselves back in the playoff hunt in 2014, but a run to the Super Bowl seems unlikely.  

Buffalo Bills

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    Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

    Odds: 75/1

    Coach Doug Marrone's Buffalo Bills might have finished 6-10, but they still proved that they're a team on the rise and might soon be capable of ending the 14-year playoff drought.

    Marrone and Doug Whaley had an outstanding first draft class, netting a number of impact players including quarterback EJ Manuel, linebacker Kiko Alonso and receivers Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin. If they can have similar success in this year's draft, they could challenge the Patriots for AFC East supremacy next year.

    But there are still issues to ponder. While Manuel had the look of a franchise signal-caller at times, he also couldn't stay healthy and only played 10 games. Plus, star running back C.J. Spiller battled an ankle injury that sapped his speed and effectiveness for the vast majority of the season, severely limiting the team's options on offense. And defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who led the unit to a top-10 ranking, left to become head coach of the Browns. 

    If Manuel can put it together and Spiller can stay healthy, the offense has the potential to be scary. And Marrone replaced Pettine with former Lions coach Jim Schwartz, who is an excellent fit.

    The Bills aren't that far away, but with the Patriots still holding down the top of the division, a Super Bowl run isn't likely to occur in 2014.

Cleveland Browns

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    Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

    Odds: 66/1

    The Cleveland Browns beat division rival Baltimore in Week 9 to improve to 4-5, and then it all went to hell, as they dropped their final seven games to finish with a putrid 4-12 record. The collapse cost coach Rob Chudzinski his job after only one season and led to a public lambasting of the front office by both media and fans.

    Owner Jimmy Haslam, team president/CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi responded by conducting interviews with everyone under the sun except you and me, and the drawn-out process lasted well into the postseason. Ultimately, they settled on former Jets and Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, and he should work wonders with the defensive talent.

    The bottom line is that there is talent strewn throughout the roster. Receiver Josh Gordon is an absolute stud, and cornerback Joe Haden is one of the best in football at the position. There is pass-rushing talent, with Barkevious Mingo, Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard. 

    But as always, quarterback is the most important position on the field, and right now, it doesn't appear the Browns have a franchise option, unless you're related to Brian Hoyer and believe he's the guy. It's probable that they'll use the fourth overall pick in the draft on a signal-caller, but with the hire of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, formerly of Washington, don't be shocked if the team explores a trade for Redskins backup Kirk Cousins.

    If the Browns get their quarterback, they could be a perennial contender in the AFC.

Tennessee Titans

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    Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

    Odds: 50/1

    The Tennessee Titans struggled through a disappointing season to finish 7-9, and coach Mike Munchak was fired as a result. The team hired former Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt to replace him, and now the organization has many questions to answer.

    The first query is at quarterback, where Jake Locker sparkled when on the field last year. The issue is that he wasn't on the field often enough, only playing seven games while suffering various maladies. He has now only played 18 of a possible 32 games through two seasons and has a $13 million, fourth-year option that vests in March.

    Whisenhunt has a decision to make at quarterback.

    Plus, the team is unlikely to bring back running back Chris Johnson, per Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean. The offense could look significantly different in Whisenhunt's first season.

    There is talent on defense, namely defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and cornerback Alterraun Verner, who is a free agent. The Titans would be wise to lock him up.

    The AFC South isn't a particularly dangerous division, so the Titans could be back in the mix for a playoff berth next year, but until Locker proves he can stay healthy and take the next step, they aren't a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

    Odds: 50/1

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers started 0-8, won four of five and then dropped their final three games to finish 4-12. The losing cost coach Greg Schiano his job, even though the team played hard for him down the stretch. Ultimately, the decision to start the season with Josh Freeman at quarterback sunk him and general manager Mark Dominik, as it's clear they should have rolled with rookie Mike Glennon.

    Glennon impressed in his neophyte campaign and should enter 2014 as the starter under new coach Lovie Smith. Smith compiled an 81-63 record and earned a berth in Super Bowl XLI as the coach of the Bears and was a one-time Bucs assistant under Tony Dungy. He should bring a steady hand to a team in dire need of it.

    There is talent throughout the roster, both on offense and defense. With a solid draft class and smart free-agent signings, there's no reason why the Bucs can't be 2014's Kansas City Chiefs and bounce back in a major way.

New York Jets

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    Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

    Odds: 50/1

    There have been many miracles in sports throughout the years, from the United States men's hockey team winning gold in the 1980 Olympics to Villanova upsetting Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA basketball final.

    But perhaps none was as miraculous as coach Rex Ryan guiding a substandard Jets roster to an 8-8 mark in 2013, exceeding all expectations and earning a new contract. Give him credit: He appeared to be dead man walking before the season. He did a fabulous job in rallying his team and deserved to come back.

    The defense is stacked, particularly along the defensive line, with Muhammad Wilkerson and defensive rookie of the year Sheldon Richardson serving as anchors. But it's the offense that causes heart palpitations for Jets fans everywhere, as the talent at the skill positions must be upgraded to give quarterback Geno Smith any chance of success.

    Ryan and general manager John Idzik must fix the offense this offseason. If they do, the Jets could be a dark-horse team in the AFC.

Miami Dolphins

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    Odds: 50/1

    The Miami Dolphins had a golden opportunity to make the postseason.

    They were 8-6 and needed to win one of their final two games against division rivals Buffalo and New York to qualify. But they crashed and burned, losing both in hideous fashion to complete a fifth consecutive season outside of the tournament. It cost general manager Jeff Ireland his job, but coach Joe Philbin retained his.

    While Ireland deserved to be fired, owner Stephen Ross' search for a new general manager was somewhat embarrassing, with the team failing to net several of their initial candidates before settling on former Buccaneers director of player personnel Dennis Hickey. While the power structure in Miami can be questioned, the roster does have some talent.

    It will come down to the development of quarterback Ryan Tannehill. If he can take the next step, the Dolphins could finally push past the 8-8 and 9-7 range and make the playoffs.

Washington Redskins

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    Odds: 40/1

    The Washington Redskins endured a nightmarish campaign in 2013, finishing 4-12 one season after claiming their first NFC East title since 1999. It was a disaster both on and off the field, with coach Mike Shanahan playing the role of ringmaster in a three-ring circus that would have made Barnum and Bailey jealous.

    Shanahan was rightly fired, and owner Daniel Snyder hired former Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden as the team's new coach. While the Bengals offense struggled yet again in a one-and-done playoff appearance, it's actually a good hire, as Gruden works well with young quarterbacks and is a disciplinarian. 

    That leads to quarterback Robert Griffin III. He clearly came back too soon from a torn ACL and didn't look like himself for the vast majority of the season. He's the key to the team's success, and he should have a significantly better campaign in 2014 with a full offseason of practice, minicamp and training camp under his belt.

    The Redskins could surprise in 2014 if Griffin returns to form. 

St. Louis Rams

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    Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

    Odds: 40/1

    While the St. Louis Rams finished in the basement of the NFC West, it's worth noting that their record was just under .500 at 7-9 and no other team in the division finished worse than 10-6. It was the toughest division in football, and coach Jeff Fisher deserves a ton of credit for piloting the team to that record despite only having quarterback Sam Bradford for seven games.

    Bradford tore his ACL and missed the final nine games of the season, and as I wrote a few weeks ago, the team has a major decision to make on his future. His cap number is high, and the Rams own two first-round picks, including the No. 2 overall selection. It's not outside the realm of possibility that the team could cut ties with Bradford and start over at the position.

    There is talent throughout the roster, notably on defense, with end Robert Quinn serving as the dominant force. The team does need a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver, but the Rams aren't that far away from being a contender.

    They loom as a team to watch in 2014, even in the ultra-tough NFC West.

Houston Texans

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    Odds: 40/1

    Anyone remember that the Houston Texans started the season 2-0? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

    The Texans ended up losing their final 14 games in grotesque fashion, earning coach Gary Kubiak a pink slip. Former Penn State coach and Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien is the new man on the team's sideline, and his first major decision will come at quarterback.

    Matt Schaub is likely done as the team's starter, and Case Keenum didn't show enough last year to earn the job. With the team holding the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, it's probable that Houston will select a franchise signal-caller. B/R's Matt Miller projects that it'll be Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater.

    The Texans have a ton of talent on both sides of the ball, and with the AFC South looking suspect, a worst-to-first trip isn't out of the question. Look for Houston to be markedly improved next year.

Baltimore Ravens

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    Odds: 40/1

    The Baltimore Ravens followed up their Super Bowl-winning 2012 season with an 8-8 mark in 2013, missing the postseason for the first time since coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco came to town in 2008.

    Ultimately, the team's failings in the offense—specifically the run gamekept them out of the tournament. The Ravens averaged a putrid 3.0 yards per carry on the ground, which is stunning considering they employ Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce at the running back position. The offensive line couldn't get it together despite a midseason trade for Jaguars tackle Eugene Monroe. Not having tight end Dennis Pitta for 12 games didn't help matters either.

    Pitta and Monroe are both free agents whom the team would be wise to retain. With talent on defense and Flacco at quarterback, it should surprise no one if the Ravens are back in the postseason in 2014.

San Diego Chargers

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    Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

    Odds: 33/1

    The San Diego Chargers shocked the world (pun intended) in 2013, finishing with a 9-7 record and advancing to the divisional round of the postseason. First-year coach Mike McCoy did a marvelous job with a questionable 53-man roster and worked wonders with quarterback Philip Rivers, who experienced a career renaissance that would have made Galileo jealous.

    2013 showed that the Chargers are on the upswing. Rookies D.J. Fluker (offensive tackle) and Keenan Allen (receiver) both sparkled, particularly Allen, and running back Ryan Mathews finally proved to be a durable workhorse. Plus, the defense came on late in the season.

    With Rivers looking rejuvenated and McCoy appearing to be an excellent coach, the Chargers will be back in the mix next year. Because of Rivers, a Super Bowl run is possible.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Odds: 33/1

    The Pittsburgh Steelers appeared dead in the water after a dreadful 0-4 start, but they pulled it together over the season's final three-quarters, finishing 8-8 and barely missing the postseason.

    The directives for the team are clear: Add more playmakers and youth on defense and fix the offensive line. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had a fantastic season in offensive coordinator Todd Haley's system, and there is talent at the skill positions, notably running back Le'Veon Bell and receiver Antonio Brown. But the offensive line and defense just weren't good enough in 2013.

    A situation to watch is at outside linebacker, where the team likely can't afford to keep Jason Worilds and LaMarr Woodley. Woodley was a disappointment in 2013, while Worlids burst onto the scene and led the team in sacks. Look for general manager Kevin Colbert to do everything in his power to keep Worilds in black and gold.

    Because of Roethlisberger and coach Mike Tomlin, the Steelers will be contenders who do everything in their power to end the franchise's two-year playoff drought.

New York Giants

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    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

    Odds: 33/1

    To paraphrase the great author Charles Dickens, it was a tale of two seasons for the New York Giants. They started 0-6 before winning seven of their final 10 games to finish 7-9, but they missed the postseason for the second consecutive season.

    Quarterback Eli Manning was dreadful, as he tossed 27 interceptions, but his offensive line was even worse and gave him almost zero chance for success. Manning has proved in the past that he can get the job done, so he deserves the benefit of the doubt. General manager Jerry Reese must upgrade the offensive line for the Giants to have a shot next year.

    The team has a new offensive coordinator in former Packers quarterback coach Ben McAdoo, and Big Blue will look to upset the status quo and get back on the Super Bowl track.

    If the offensive line can improve and the team develops a semblance of a run game, the Giants could find themselves  back in the thick of things. And as Manning and Coughlin have proved twice in the past, all they need to do is qualify for the postseason to have a chance at an NFL championship.

Detroit Lions

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    Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

    Odds: 33/1

    In 2013, the NFC North title was all but gift-wrapped for the Detroit Lions, but much like the antagonist in George Michael's famous holiday tune, they gave it away. 

    The 7-9 finish cost coach Jim Schwartz his job and deservedly so. With Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers both hurt throughout the season, it's a disgrace that a healthy Lions team couldn't claim the division title.

    Former Colts coach Jim Caldwell was hired to replace Schwartz, and to call the move uninspiring would be like saying Kate Upton looks decent. Caldwell will be charged with fixing the mechanics of quarterback Matthew Stafford and instilling discipline into a team sorely lacking it.

    Still, the roster has talent with star receiver Calvin Johnson, so a playoff run isn't out of the question. But until Stafford can ascend to the next level and eliminate the mistakes that have plagued him throughout his career, it's tough to take the Lions seriously as Super Bowl contenders.

Dallas Cowboys

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    Odds: 33/1

    For the third consecutive year, the Dallas Cowboys finished 8-8 and lost the de facto NFC East title game in Week 17. Hey, they're nothing if not consistent.

    So of course, owner Jerry Jones opted to stay the course and retain coach Jason Garrett, because that makes a lot of sense. The noted physicist Albert Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results, but who are we to argue with genius?

    Jones also made the brilliant decision to make former Lions coach Scott Linehan the offensive play-caller, demoting Bill Callahan only one season after placing him in the role. At least Jones replaced the hopelessly overmatched Monte Kiffin at defensive coordinator with Rod Marinelli.

    The Cowboys are in salary-cap hell and will have a lot of finagling to do to get under the cap before they can spend in typically aggressive fashion. Quarterback Tony Romo will likely have to restructure his deal, and he's coming off a back injury that kept him out of the Week 17 loss to Philadelphia.

    It's almost impossible to take the Cowboys seriously as a Super Bowl threat with Jones running the show and Garrett on the sideline.

Arizona Cardinals

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Odds: 33/1

    If you had told me before the 2013 season that the Arizona Cardinals would go 10-6, I'd have called you crazy. So give coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim a ton of credit for overachieving and nearly qualifying for the postseason.

    The Cardinals are the only team in the last two seasons to beat the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field and are a tough bunch. The defense is stout with playmakers, and the offense improved as the season went along.

    Carson Palmer isn't the long-term answer at quarterback, so look for Keim to add one (or two) signal-callers in the draft. The offensive line also must be upgraded, although the return of injured guard Jonathan Cooper, last year's first-round pick, should help.

    The Cardinals loom as a Super Bowl threat if Palmer doesn't play hot potato with the football in 2014.

Kansas City Chiefs

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Odds: 28/1

    The Kansas City Chiefs were the NFL's last remaining unbeaten team at 9-0, but they ended up losing six of their last eight games (including the postseason) and suffered a crushing playoff defeat at the hands of the Colts. In the Wild Card Game, the Chiefs blew the second-largest lead in playoff history (28 points) en route to a 45-44 loss.

    While the team's defense was its strength during the 9-0 start, the unit completely collapsed down the stretch, and it was quarterback Alex Smith and the offense that carried the day. Running back Jamaal Charles is a stud, but the offense needs help, specifically at receiver. General manager John Dorsey and coach Andy Reid must surround Smith with more offensive weaponry.

    The defense should bounce back, as there's a ton of talent at each position. Reid did a sensational job of piloting the team to the postseason in 2013, and there's no reason to believe the Chiefs won't be a contender again next year.

Philadelphia Eagles

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    Odds: 25/1

    The Philadelphia Eagles soared to the NFC East title in coach Chip Kelly's first year on the job, buoyed by an outstanding season at quarterback by Nick Foles, who threw 27 touchdown passes against only two interceptions. Even though the team fell in the Wild Card Round to New Orleans, the season was still a massive success.

    With Foles and 2013 NFL rushing champion LeSean McCoy anchoring the offense, it's hard to imagine the unit not succeeding again in 2014. Adding more talent on defense needs to be the priority, as more often than not, the group came up flat.

    Receivers Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin are both free agents; look for both to be re-signed.

    Kelly proved he can coach in the NFL, and Foles burst onto the scene with an epic season. With the NFC East very much up for grabs, count out the Eagles at your own peril.

Indianapolis Colts

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    Odds: 25/1

    The Indianapolis Colts won 11 games for the second consecutive season, this time claiming the AFC South title and a playoff win in the Wild Card Round over the Chiefs. While their season ended in the divisional round against the Patriots, the season must be considered a success.

    Quarterback Andrew Luck is a stud, but he can't do it by himself. The offense was never the same after receiver Reggie Wayne tore his ACL in Week 7's win over Denver. General manager Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano need to add talent at receiver.

    The team is flush with cap space, so adding a receiver and help on defense are paramount. Expect the aggressive front office to act early and often in the free-agent period.

    Remember that this team beat both Super Bowl participants (Seattle and Denver) and the 49ers last season. Because of Luck, the Colts are definitely Super Bowl contenders.

Cincinnati Bengals

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    Odds: 25/1

    The good news is that the Cincinnati Bengals finally broke through and won the AFC North for the first time since 2009. The bad news is that they went one-and-done in the postseason for the third consecutive season, with quarterback Andy Dalton laying his third consecutive egg in the process.

    He was dreadful in the wild-card loss to San Diego and is way too inconsistent for the Bengals to be taken seriously as Super Bowl contenders. The team possessed arguably the most talented 53-man roster in the league, but with Dalton playing hot potato with the football, the Bengals can't beat elite teams in the postseason.

    Plus, the team lost both coordinators to head coaching positions, and Hue Jackson (offense) and Paul Guenther (defense) will step in. Coach Marvin Lewis has his work cut out for him.

    There's no denying the surplus of talent on the roster, but it all comes back to Dalton. If he can't elevate his level of play, the Bengals will never win a Super Bowl as long as he's under center.

Chicago Bears

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    Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

    Odds: 25/1

    The Chicago Bears started the 2013 season like gangbusters, winning their first three games behind an explosive offense and stout defense. But the defense was never the same after the season-ending injury to defensive tackle Henry Melton in Week 3, and Chicago ended up missing the postseason after losing the de facto NFC North title game in Week 17 to Green Bay.

    The run defense was nothing short of abysmal, as the Bears gave up 5.3 yards per carry on the season. Getting Melton and other injured players back will help, but coach Marc Trestman and general manager Phil Emery must continue to fix the defense.

    Signing quarterback Jay Cutler to a long-term deal was the right move. While backup Josh McCown played well in Cutler's absence, there's a reason why he's the backup to begin with. Cutler is poised to have a monster season in 2014 with running back Matt Forte, receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett serving as his primary weapons.

    If the Bears can fix the run game and Cutler can stay healthy, the Bears could be Super Bowl contenders. But right now, they look like the second-best team in their own division behind the Packers.

Carolina Panthers

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Odds: 25/1

    The Carolina Panthers started the season 1-3, and it looked like coach Ron Rivera's hot seat would burst into flames at any moment. But they won 11 of their final 12 games to win the NFC South, earning a first-round playoff bye and the Coach of the Year award for Rivera.

    Even though they lost to the 49ers in the divisional round, the season was a massive success. Quarterback Cam Newton elevated his level of play and proved he's a winner at the NFL level, and the defense, keyed by linebacker Luke Kuechly (the defensive player of the year), was marvelous.

    Now, Rivera and GM Dave Gettleman need to tinker with the offense, specifically at receiver, in an effort to push the team to the next level. The Panthers aren't that far off.

    They are absolutely Super Bowl contenders, even in the tough NFC South.

Atlanta Falcons

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    Odds: 25/1

    You're probably asking yourself why the Atlanta Falcons, owners of a putrid 4-12 record in 2013, find themselves with decent Super Bowl odds.

    It's because there is a ton of talent on the roster, and last year was likely an anomaly—a perfect storm of injuries and uneven play. Expect the Falcons to bounce back in a major way.

    Getting receiver Julio Jones back in the fold will prove a significant boon, and fellow receiver Roddy White's health will also help. General manager Thomas Dimitroff must add youthful playmakers on defense, especially in the pass rush.

    Quarterback Matt Ryan has proved to be one of the NFL's better signal-callers, and he should have a better season in 2014. Look for him to keep the Falcons in playoff contention and position them as Super Bowl contenders.

New Orleans Saints

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    Odds: 18/1

    The New Orleans Saints season ended in the divisional round in Seattle, but there's no shame in losing to the eventual Super Bowl champions. The campaign was still a success for coach Sean Payton's club.

    The Saints aren't that far off from being on the same level as the Seahawks and 49ers. Bringing back tight end Jimmy Graham is an absolute must, as he caught an outrageous 16 touchdown passes last season. Signing him to a long-term deal or franchise tagging him is the team's top offseason priority.

    Because the team employs quarterback Drew Brees and coordinator Rob Ryan did a spectacular job with the defense, the Saints loom once again as Super Bowl contenders.

Green Bay Packers

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    Odds: 16/1

    The Green Bay Packers' 2013 season was an epic roller-coaster ride that was full of twists and turns that would have fit right in at Disney World.

    Despite being without star quarterback Aaron Rodgers for nearly half the season, the Packers managed to scratch and claw to remain in contention, and when he returned in Week 17, he engineered a comeback victory over the Bears in Chicago to win the NFC North title. The team fell in the Wild Card Round to San Francisco in bitter fashion, but the 49ers were clearly the better team.

    The directive for coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson will be to continue to add playmakers on defense. Because Rodgers is such a special player, the Packers must be taken seriously as Super Bowl contenders.

New England Patriots

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    Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

    Odds: 14/1

    The New England Patriots overachieved to the tune of a 12-4 season in 2013 in what might have been the finest coaching job of Bill Belichick's career. But ultimately, they fell to a superior Broncos team in the AFC Championship Game.

    Because Belichick remains the coach and Tom Brady remains the quarterback, the Patriots are a threat to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, but as of now, they aren't good enough to beat the elite teams in the NFC. Belichick must continue to improve the defense, and the young receivers must step up to help out Brady next year. The health of tight end Rob Gronkowski is something to monitor in the offseason, as he's a significant difference-maker when on the field.

    The Patriots are still the class of the AFC East, but they're clearly behind Denver in the race for conference supremacy.

Denver Broncos

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Odds: 17/2

    In the end, an NFL-record 606 points scored and 55 touchdown passes by quarterback Peyton Manning weren't enough. The Denver Broncos and their historic offense were crushed in Super Bowl XLVIII by the Seahawks.

    It was a bitter end to a spectacular season.

    With Manning planning on returning in 2015, the Broncos will once again be a Super Bowl threat. The offense should still be explosive, even if the team loses receiver Eric Decker and running back Knowshon Moreno in free agency. And the defense came on late in the season and didn't embarrass itself in the Super Bowl. The return of pass-rushing demon Von Miller, who was lost in Week 16 with a torn ACL, should greatly help.

    But the Broncos need more team speed and toughness to contend with the likes of Seattle and San Francisco. While they are still the class of the AFC, it's difficult to imagine them beating the Seahawks or 49ers as currently constituted. Team president John Elway has work to do, and the mission should be to construct a roster that can contend against the NFC's elite.

San Francisco 49ers

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Odds: 14/2

    The San Francisco 49ers and their fans had to be sick watching the Seahawks destroy the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. If quarterback Colin Kaepernick's ill-fated pass at the end of the NFC Championship Game to receiver Michael Crabtree had been just a few inches farther, the 49ers might have been on the right side of a Super Bowl blowout.

    But the best laid plans of mice and men and all that jazz, and instead, coach Jim Harbaugh's team suffered a third consecutive heartbreaking postseason defeat. Despite that, the 49ers should find themselves right back in playoff contention next season.

    The roster is just too good and Harbaugh is too phenomenal of a coach for the 49ers not to be in the playoff hunt next season. Kaepernick is an ascending player, which is a scary proposition for the rest of the league considering how good he is already. Plus, the defense is magnificent.

    The 49ers were the second-best team in football in 2013. And right now, they look like the second-best team headed into 2014.

Seattle Seahawks

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Odds: 9/2

    The Seattle Seahawks are on top of the NFL world after pulverizing the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII to claim the first Lombardi Trophy in franchise history. And they aren't going anywhere.

    Coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider did a masterful job of constructing what could be the deepest and most talented roster in the history of the salary-cap era. That can only happen with outstanding drafting and shrewd free-agent signings, and the Seahawks have done both with aplomb.

    It helps when your Super Bowl-winning quarterback, Russell Wilson, was selected in the third round and is only slated to earn a little more than $660,000 next year. That gives the Seahawks a major advantage over NFC teams like Green Bay and New Orleans, who are paying mega-buck deals to their signal-caller—who thus occupy more salary-cap space and constrict the team's ability to bring in new players.

    The bottom line is that Seattle is set up for prolonged success. There is talent on every level of the roster, especially on defense, where the 2013 iteration earned itself a place alongside the 1985 Bears and 2000 Ravens as the best units of this generation. 

    No one should be shocked if the Seahawks are back in the Super Bowl next season. They must be considered the favorites to win it all next February.