(*Note: Our preview is broken up into four tiers for clarity. This final tier consists of teams already built for SB contention by their roster, experience and coaching. These teams will be disappointed by anything less than a Championship Game appearance. Here is Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.)
San Francisco 49ers
The Truth: There are layers to this thing and, well, the Niners have all of them available in the running game. We all know about RB Frank Gore and his “making the sausage” style of running, but expect considerable contributions from LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter as well. Opening up acres of open space for them is one of the best O-Lines in the business. However, the passing game has to be a concern. Colin Kapernick hit the NFL like a comet last season, but his return this year comes with a different set of challenges. With Randy Moss retired and Michael Crabtree hurt, the bulk of the catches go to Vernon Davis. That’s not going to be enough. Neither is having Anquan Boldin. Plus, Kaepernick may find the League a harder place now that DCs have scouted his game properly. Of all the upper echelon teams, SF has the shakiest passing game. That can’ t be ignored.
The Difference: Jim Harbaugh will once again have to flex his offensive credentials.
The Outcome: This defense is still capable of otherworldly moments. If need be, Patrick Willis, NaVarro Bowman and the Smiths will hold the fort until the O can catch up. A no doubt SB contender.
The Truth: This is the last year that the Bronco’s championship window will be open. Expect them to go all out.
The Difference: Denver averaged a 30-spot last season, as Peyton Manning led a surprisingly high-powered offense. Adding Wes Welker to what was already a quality WR corps just takes it to a higher level. To get the ultimate prize however, they’ll need a stronger contribution from the running backs. Knowshon Moreno started to turn the corner last year and with the addition of rook Montee Ball, they’ll have the diversity they need.
The Outcome: Not having Von Miller for a third of the season stings, but the secondary is improved, so hopefully they won’t give up anymore game-winning Hail Mary passes. This team, especially in a watered down AFC, has all the requisite tools to make a legit run. Denver is SB-bound people.
The Truth: That secondary is intergalactic, with Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman amongst the best in the game at their positions. The rest of the defense is equally as impressive, with LB Bobby Wagner running point and Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin on the wings. This defense can legitimately dominate any team at any time.
The Difference: I don’t see Russell Wilson having a second season drop-off. He’s too talented and polished to let that happen. His natural 2nd year progression will compensate for a ordinary WR corps, but once Percy Harvin returns from injury it’s on. Also, MarShawn Lynch is still here, and just broke a tackle while you were reading this sentence.
The Outcome: This is obviously a contender, with the sky as their only limit.
The Truth: They lost a lot of major players from last season. More than any team I can recall in recent memory, but the guys still here, are here for a reason. Emboldened by a stellar postseason, I expect Joe Flacco to pick up where he left off after hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. Same for Ray Rice and Torrey Smith. Additionally, there are a few young guys, like WR Marlon Brown that the Ravens are excited about. The drop off on defense won’t be harsh either, as healthy seasons from Lardarius Webb, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs will absolutely hold up that vaunted defensive legacy. Plus, their pass-rush will get a boost with Elvis Dumervil basically falling into their lap.
The Difference: John Harbaugh’s decision to name Jim Caldwell the OC jumpstarted the team late last year. This decision will continue to pay out.
The Outcome: They won’t repeat, but they’ll give someone a fair one, in a hard fought playoff match.
The Truth: It seems counterintuitive to pick in favor of the Falcons, even though they made it to the NFC title game last season and this year are sporting the most talented roster in franchise history. Part of it is the Falcons legacy. This is a team that has put out so many garbage squads over the years, that it’s becomes a reflex imperative to disregard them.
Except that, we can’t disregard their talent. There’s not a better WR combo in the NFL than Roddy White and Julio Jones. Harry Douglass has good size in the slot and the unretired Tony Gonzalez ages like Wolverine. Plus, they have solid RB options in Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers. Additionally, OC Dirk Koetter knows how to put together sharp game plans that take advantage of Matt Ryan’s top-ten QB abilities. The offensive upside here is massive.
The Difference: That O-Line is weak in the knees and LT Sam Baker’s problems, although improved, are still significant enough to be an issue. That will be especially problematic against the rugged defenses that stand in the way of their title aspirations. They have to find a way of improving their line play or this season will end poorly. They’ve gotten better on defense, but aren’t elite. I give them credit for recognizing their problems and going hard to fix them, but their pash rush is going to need more than a slowing Osi Umenyiora. They have some young players who seem poised to make the next step, but, being poised and actually doing it are two different things. On the plus side, Sean Weatherspoon is a tackling machine, and there’s potential in that secondary with Asante Samuel schooling young buck corners like Desmond Truant and Robert Alford.
The Outcome: People forget that they were up 17-0 before SF came back in last year’s NFC Championship Game. They still have some questions, but, overall, they’re better this year. How much better? Enough that I’m picking them to go the Super Bowl.
New England Patriots
The Truth: Geez, that was a rough off-season. Gronk’s injuries, losing Wes Welker and the very serious situation with the player formerly known as Employee No. 81, resulted in a tumultuous few months. Most teams would enter this year in a clean-up mode, but the Pats aren’t most teams.
The Difference: Tom Brady will continue to do what he does. No news here, but where the Pats can really make their mark this season is with the ground game. RB Stevan Ridley became a big-time player last year and coupled with Shane Vereen, and the newly acquired LeGarrette “ LeChin-Check” Blount, gives the Pats all kinds of backfield weapons. Add those guys to their usual stellar line play and NE will have the most potent running game in the NFL. Defensively, they’ll lean on future HOFer Vince Wilfork and a sneaky great LB core to hold down the fort.
The Outlook: Bill Belichick’s game-planning will fix most problems they’ll encounter. Another deep postseason run is guaranteed.