The NFL season begins in earnest today, with a full slate of 13 games Sunday, followed by a Monday Night Football double-header – and all of it preceded by the Thursday night appetizer in which Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos stole the show in historic fashion.
Not a bad way to spend a weekend.
It’s all a race to end up in the first outdoor cold-weather Super Bowl in February at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.
Which teams will be there?
Our statistical crystal ball points to Seahawks vs. Patriots. We hadn’t published this pick yet. But we have announced it on numerous radio shows the past week or two:
Seattle will beat New England in Super Bowl XLVIII.
We outlined last week six detailed reasons why Seattle has the tools to win the Super Bowl. You can see those six reasons here. The short version is this: smart team with rock-solid defense and great young quarterback.
The biggest concern is Seattle's historic Jekyll-and-Hyde existence home and away, a problem that plagued the team even in its breakout 2012 campaign.
The case of the Patriots is less one of confidence in their ability to get there, but more one of reaching the Super Bowl by default in a weakened conference of aging gunslingers.
Even though the AFC’s Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl last year, the NFC is ascending and the AFC is descending in the cyclical inter-conference power struggle. The AFC dominated through the early years of the 21st century, with the Patriots, Steelers and Colts winning six of eight Super Bowls from 2001 to 2008. Baltimore added victories in 2000 and 2012.
But the NFC had won four of the past five championships, including three straight from 2009 to 2011.
And let's face it: the reallity is that most of the exciting young talent in the NFL right now, and especially at quarterback, is in the senior circuit: Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick, etc. Hell, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, the most effective passer in NFL history, is still only 29. And Atlanta’s prolific and clutch Matt Ryan is only 28.
That’s a lot of young talent at the only position in football that really matters.
In the case of the AFC, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger have had a lock on the postseason for more than a decade. They’re all in their 30s, with Manning and Brady pushing their 40s. Joe Flacco has, of course, muscled his way into this group over the last few years, and most notably last season. He's what passes for young guns these days in the AFC.
At the end of the day, we don’t see another quarterback outside this quartet capable of taking his team to the next level.
Andy Dalton and the Bengals are a hot choice as a breakout team. But Dalton’s Bengals were No. 15 last season in Real Quarterback Rating. We don’t see him taking it to the next level yet, let alone the way Flacco did so unexpectedly last season. Flacco at least had already proven himself a competent playoff QB. Dalton’s Bengals are 0-2 in the playoffs – a borderline contender at best.
We had the Houston Texans heading the Super Bowl last year, where they’d lose to the 49ers. Our mistake. Matt Schaub has shown no signs of being a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback. And as his performances declined late last season, Houston’s once-promising 11-1 season unraveled with it.
So New England’s road to the Super Bowl is one paved as much by default among a small pool of true contenders than it is any other reason.
Baltimore’s off-season losses were well documented – and made so apparent Thursday night.
We expect see a great rebound season from Pittsburgh, the premier franchise in football and one that never puts together two bad seasons in a row.
The Steelers are still talented, still have a Super Bowl quarterback and merely have to play smarter football to be in the mix right to the end. Big Ben had a fine season last year. Dick LeBeau's defense was still a leader in Defensive Passing YPA. The team just needs to play smarter in situational football: it's greatest weakness last season (No. 23 on the Intelligence Index).
And Peyton Manning’s teams, whether Colts or now Broncos, are always contenders for reasons on display for the football world to see in his seven-TD performance against the Ravens Thursday. But let's just say confidence in Manning's crew to play the same way in January as they do in September is not high.
New England suffered plenty of off-season losses, too, at the receiving corps. In fact, Tom Brady lost 88 percent of his receiving production from last season, pending the return of injured tight end Rob Gronkowski.
But Brady long ago proved he could reach the Super Bowl with a second-rate class of receivers. The Patriots are the closest thing to a perpetual victory machine for more than a decade than perhaps the NFL has ever produced. And they habitually play smart situational football: No. 2 last year on our Intelligence Index.
The New England offense will take a step back. But remember, they lapped the field last year: only the Broncos were within 100 points scored of New England’s 557 – and Denver was a distant second.
Five of the last six Super Bowl winners scored fewer than 400 points, let alone 500. So the Patriots do not need to set records to contend. They merely need to improve on defense in some critical areas, namely in their Defensive Passer Rating.
If the Patriots can make a handful of those improvements, they’re more likely than anyone to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl from a limited pool of contenders. So here’s our look at the road to Super Bowl XLVIII.
Kansas City (wildcard)
New York Giants
Green Bay Packers
New Orleans Saints
Atlanta Falcons (wildcard)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
San Francisco 49ers (wildcard)
St. Louis Rams
Super Bowl XLVIII
Seattle over New England