The New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks are without question the two best teams in the NFL. This isn’t a case of teams who just got hot at the right time in January. These are teams that earned #1 seeds in their respective conferences and then validated that standing in the playoffs to get to Super Bowl 49. But it’s a common weakness of both that’s weighing on me as we get closer to kickoff on Sunday night in Phoenix.
Neither team has a very good offensive line. Seattle has survived because…well, if you’ve ever watched Marshawn Lynch run, you know he doesn’t need all that much help. And Russell Wilson is at his best when he’s on the move in any case. New England has survived because Tom Brady gets rid of the football so quickly and precisely, and because he has Rob Gronkowski, who can pile up yards after the catch.
Now each offense has to go against a well-coached defensive unit. The reputation of Seattle’s “Legion Of Boom” precedes them. New England has played defense with a toughness much more reminiscent of their championship teamsfrom 2001-04 then of some of the softer units of recent vintage (notably 2011) that came up short.
It’s hard to see either offensive line miraculously having a good game against this caliber of opposition. Therefore, that means the winner of the Super Bowl is almost certainly the team that can somehow manage to move the ball in spite of a lack of blocking.
Based on pure talent, the edge goes to the Seahawks. Lynch is the most physical runner in the league, and while New England’s LeGarrette Blount isn’t far behind, anyone would take Lynch if the contest is about who can drag a pile of bodies with him the longest. Wilson’s mobility and improvisational skill give him the edge over Brady.
There’s a case to be made for New England. The Seahawk offense is often unimaginative, and if the Patriots find a way to keep Wilson in the pocket and neutralize his legs, the edge then shifts to the veteran Brady. He’s rarely had a top wide receiver throughout his career and has become a master and picking the open man among 3-4 receivers running within ten yards of the line of scrimmage and doing so in a split second.
The scenarios for both teams are reasonable, a good reason this game is still a Pick’em in Las Vegas on Friday. I give the slight edge to Seattle. There’s been a strong trend in recent Super Bowls that have favored young quarterbacks—not since 2002 has a quarterback over the age of 30 won the Super Bowl (Brad Johnson for Tampa Bay). Peyton Manning won he was 30 on the nose, in 2006.
And in this case, it’s no ordinary young quarterback. Wilson already has a championship ring, has already led a stunning NFC Championship Game this year and already commands respect as a winner. It doesn’t have to be a choice between the spry young quarterback and the veteran who’s a winner—because the younger guy is both.
There’s no denying Brady’s immense toughness and savvy, and I’m rooting for New England. But the recent track record says football, at least by this point, is a young man’s game, and I’m picking Seattle, 20-16. And if I was a betting man, the Under 47 is where I’d put my money.
The establishment has prevailed in the world of the NFL. Whomever wins the Super Bowl in New York on February 2 will be one of the consensus preseason favorites, and TheSportsNotebook’s season-long campaign against that establishment crashed and burned in the divisional playoff round this past weekend.
When the season began, five teams were priced at odds ranging in a tight window of 3-1 to 6-1, and it was a steep drop to 18-1 for the next team down. The five were the Denver Broncos, San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers. The Packers went out in the first round of the playoffs, but the other four have swept the spots in the conference championship games next Sunday.
TheSportsNotebook carved out a clear and unyielding position all season long—that none of the Big Five would win the Super Bowl, and for icing on the cake, none would even make it. I did feel all five teams were legitimately good, and that it would come down to what happened in the divisional round. We were all set for a showdown—each of the four games over Saturday and Sunday had an establishment team against a challenger.
Those of us who rebelled against the establishment got about as far as the peasants of Ireland did in their rebellions against the British Crown, or Pat Buchanan did in his rebellion against the Republican Party in 2000. One by one, the challengers were crushed. By late afternoon today, I was thinking that if someone had told me in August that my challenge was now exclusively in the hands of the San Diego Chargers, I would have been less than optimistic.
Fortunately, I never wagered real money on my prediction, and consequently I’m able to enjoy the tremendous matchups that we have to look forward to. San Francisco and Seattle is now the top rivalry in the NFL, with real bad blood between the two teams, fueled by an offseason arms race where each kept matching up with the other via trades and free agency.
And what else to say about Denver and New England, but to simply appreciate the opportunity we have to watch Tom Brady and Peyton Manning compete for a Super Bowl trip in the autumn of their careers?
If you subscribed to establishment thinking back in August, you were several steps ahead of TheSportsNotebook, and can now feel like this is what it’s all about. The last four-plus months have just been about deciding where these games would be played, because for most, 49ers-Seahawks and Patriots-Broncos seemed almost preordained.
We’ve been running NFL team previews here for the last month at TheSportsNotebook, including projections on whether teams would hit their Las Vegas over/under number for wins. We’ve also had contributor Isaac Huss weigh in with key storylines and predictions for both the NFC & AFC, and then yesterday Isaac laid out why he thought the New England Patriots would win the Super Bowl. Now it’s time for me to jump in with my own final set of NFL predictions.
A couple notes on the picks. I made sure that the predicted W-L records did average out to 8-8 across the board, so it’s realistic. But if you read the individual team preview and then the final record, you may notice a discrepancy between my Over/Under prediction in those articles and the exact record predicted here. The reason is that I view the O/U number as more about range—set about a four-game window for where you think a team will fall and just pick what side there’s more room. For these, I’ll play my hunches as to who will get to their ceiling, who will hit their floor and then further adjust to make sure everything adds up to a .500 composite record for the league as a whole. So with that said, here we go. An asterisk is next to the two teams in each conference I’m picking for wild-card berths…
NY Giants (10-6)*
Green Bay (12-4)
Tampa Bay (8-8)
New Orleans (7-9)
San Francisco (10-6)
St. Louis (6-10)
NOTES: As you can see, I’m a believer that the effects of Bounty Gate are going to hit New Orleans hard this year and overall I think the balance of power has shifted back to the NFC, as I’ve got two 10-win teams, Chicago and Carolina, missing the playoffs, along with a 9-7 Dallas team. All three of these teams would be in the league’s best 12 overall though.
New England (11-5)
NY Jets (8-8)
Kansas City (9-7)*
San Diego (9-7)*
NOTES: Picking up the NFC Is Stronger Theme, there is no team in this conference that really stands out for me, and I hate myself for picking the Chargers to make the playoffs. But I’m even more convinced that the Steelers & Ravens—who’ve joined together to be the best rivalry in professional sports the last four years—are going to see their window close and that AFC North race will be a study in mediocrity. If it does work out that way, fans in the four cities can take heart—that’s how the NFC East was a year ago and we saw what happened with the Giants once they survived it.
1st-Round Playoff Games
(3)Philadelphia over (6)Detroit—the last teams these teams met in the playoffs was 1995 and the Eagles won 58-37. Not that crazy this time around. (5)NY Giants over (4)San Francisco—another thriller to the road team in a carbon copy of the NFC Championship Games from both last year and 1990. (5)Kansas City over (4)Cincinnati—suffice it to say this won’t be the matchup getting a lot of hype. (3)Denver over (6) San Diego—can this finally get A.J. Smith and Norv Turner fired in San Diego?
2nd-Round Playoff Games
(1)Green Bay over NY Giants—Rematch Road doesn’t go as well for Eli and the Giants this time. Philadelphia over (2)Atlanta—Overall I think the Eagles are a better team, but they finish with a lower regular season seed based on the presumption Michael Vick misses a few games. He’s healthy here and returns to his old stomping grounds to continue Atlanta’s playoff frustration. (1)Houston over Kansas City—A raucous crowd at Reliant Stadium wills Matt Schaub to his first playoff win, after he was injured during last year’s postseason. (2)New England over Denver—Peyton comes back to Foxboro and in a repeat of playoff losses in 2003 & 2004, again comes up short in the cold.
Conference Championship Games
Green Bay over Philadelphia–If both teams are at full health, this is an even-money battle, but the guess here is that Mike McCarthy figures out a way to piece together some pass protection over the course of the year and just enough of a running game to enable Aaron Rodgers to complete this two-game playoff run through the NFC East.
Houston over New England—If this matchup really comes to fruition(and since I’m picking such, it’s highly unlikely) this would be an incredible storyline. The Texans are clearly the more talented team. They’ll also have a coach who’s never won a championship and a quarterback who entered the season never even played in, much less won in a postseason game. Is it pointing out the obvious to say New England doesn’t have those problems? Yeah, probably. But it’s not obvious that Bill Belichick would have had an entire year to get rookies Dont’a Hightower and Chandler Jones integrated into his front seven. Still, I’ll give Houston the benefit of the doubt and say their time has come.
Green Bay over Houston—There’s no better tandem of playmakers than Rodgers on offense and Clay Matthews on defense, which is why I’m making this the third year in a row I’ve picked Green Bay to make the Super Bowl and the second straight I’ve picked them to win it.
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.
Defense 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
Special Teams 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
Coaching 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!