Editor’s Note: Earlier in August, Notebook contributor Isaac Huss offered key storylines to watch in both the NFC & AFC, and as part of those pieces, picked New England and Green Bay to reach the Super Bowl. Here he ties it all together and lays out why he thinks the Patriots will win the whole thing.
Preseason predictions are an inexact science, to say the least. Obviously, that’s why you play the games- what’s important is not which team some random dude thinks is going to win the Super Bowl, we care about who actually goes out and wins the damn thing.
So why bother reading an article about which team some random dude thinks is going to win the Super Bowl? Because we have nothing better to do before the teams actually start playing, that’s why.
In case you do have better things to do, here’s the cliffs notes version: The Packers, in my mind, were the best team in the NFC over the course of the entire season a year ago. That being said, it was obvious that the Giants were the better team in the end, but they’ve lost significant players.
The Patriots came thisclose, again, to beating the Giants in the Super Bowl, and there’s no reason to believe they can’t get right back there again. So how did I choose between the Packers and the Patriots? Well, I’m a Vikings fan, so I can’t choose the Packers, and that left the Patriots. Juuuuust kidding. Mostly.
So the rest of this article will flesh out just why I think the Patriots the best pick to win the Super Bowl this year, and why the Packers the next best choice.
First things first: it’s worth saying that I’m not sure that either the Pats or the Pack are the best team in the NFL. That’s because a big part of either teams, aren’t very good at all. When it’s time to play defense, both teams might as well roll out a bunch of dice on to the field, because I’m not sure even the coaches know what to expect from that side of the ball.
And as for their running games, Cedric Benson and Stevan Ridley might as well be life-sized (er, NFL running back-sized) question marks, because it’s largely unknown what sort of contributions to expect from either, albeit for different reasons.
For both teams, the reason they are Super Bowl contenders yet again is thanks to their all-world, record-setting, Super Bowl champion quarterbacks, and don’t you forget it. Which of the two ends up winning another Super Bowl will be decided by how much of a complete team actually ends up surrounding each quarterback.
Both of these units were suspect a year ago, and both of these units will again be liabilities. New England’s pass defense was 31st in the league, while Green Bay’s was 32nd in the league. Both were better against the run, at 17th and 14th respectively, but why run on either of these teams when it was so easy to throw?
Incredibly, they finished 15th and 19th in points given up (21.4 and 22.4 ppg, respectively), thanks largely to turnovers. Green Bay intercepted 31 passes (thanks, Christian Ponder) in addition to seven forced fumbles, while the Pats had 23 and 11, allowing them to lead their respective leagues.
Clearly, these were feast and famine, opportunistic defenses a year ago. Can they again, by smoke and mirrors, keep their teams in the game to allow their quarterbacks to do the rest? Much will rely on rookies. USC OLB Nick Perry could pair with Clay Matthews in the Green Bay to terrorize QB’s all the more. Meanwhile, the Pats spent their first six draft picks on the defense, including two first-rounders, LB Dont’a Hightower and DE Chandler Jones.
Neither team suffered significant losses in the offseason, so what you see is what you get here. I can’t imagine Green Bay reaching 31 interceptions again, and New England was slightly better last year overall.
Edge: Patriots (barely)
Again, these teams are almost identical. New England was second in the league in passing yards, Green Bay third. Green Bay was first in points scored, New England second. Where they start to diverge is in the running game, where the Pats were a semi-respectable 20th while GB was 27th. However, NE let their starting running back, BenJarvus Green-Ellis walk, expecting/hoping that Stevan Ridley is ready for the lead role.
Meanwhile, Green Bay upgraded with Cedric Benson, although it’s a legitimate question as to what he has left in the tank, enough of a question that he was a free agent through mid-August. The Patriots’ main offensive upgrade is WR Brandon Lloyd, who should provide QB Tom Brady with his most dynamic downfield threat since Randy Moss.
Then there’s the two-headed Patriots TE monster of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and with Lloyd and WR Wes Welker, add it all up and you have the best set of receivers in the league. But Rodgers’ set ain’t bad, either, while perhaps without the same top-end talent. The wild card here is Jordy Nelson, who came out of nowhere to lead the team in yards and touchdowns. Flash in the pan or just the beginning? It’d be tough to match his incredible numbers (over 1,200 yards, 15 TD’s) again, but I think he’s legit.
The Packers’ weakness on offense, other than the running game, was in protecting their prized quarterback. They did add C Jeff Saturday, who should be a slight upgrade in the middle, but the left side remains unchanged, unfortunately for Rogers. Meanwhile, the Patriots’ struggles in protecting Tom Brady this preseason has been well-documented, and at the ripe old age of 35, he can only take so many hits.
And that’s why we’ll give the Pack the slight edge here. Brady, while turning in one of his best seasons last year, has to slow down sometime. Meanwhile, Aaron Rodgers is younger and can provide the extra threat of moving out of the pocket and running if need be. As long as that running doesn’t lead to another concussion…
Slight edge: Packers
The Patriots were fourth in the league in net yards per punt, thanks to P Zoltan Mesko, who might have the best name in the league. They were also better in covering kickoffs. However, the Packers were better in field goal %, thanks to K Mason Crosby, and kick and punt returns, thanks to rookie WR/Returner Randall Cobb.
Razor’s edge: Packers
Comparing coaching performance is an iffy proposition. Mike McCarthy and Bill Belichick are two of the best in the biz, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Few coaches get the most out of their players like these two, and can both be credited with proving that even an average running game is simply unnecessary to a dominant offense. Both have won the Big One, but the edge here goes to Belichick. Love him or hate him, he led his team to three Super Bowl wins in four years from 2002-2005, and near-misses last year and in 2008. There simply isn’t a better coach in the game today. But he hasn’t won one in seven seasons, suggesting that the gap may be shrinking.
Legitimate Edge: Patriots
Both the Pack and the Pats have significant motivation this year, coming off heartbreaking losses in the playoffs and Super Bowl, respectively. Both have made veteran upgrades to their offenses and have added promising rookies to their defenses. Most importantly, however, they employ the two best quarterbacks in the universe, and are led by two of the very best coaches in football. The coaching edge, however, that Belichick gives his team puts them over the top. Soon enough we’ll see for ourselves which of these two teams (or another one) is best. Bring on the games!