The new NFL is a competitive league. No longer are there teams that stand pat with losing and don’t make dramatic changes to improve their situations.
You need look no further than two teams donning red: The Arizona Cardinals and the Buffalo Bills. The Cardinals have locked up arguably their three best players – Larry Fitzgerald, Darnell Dockett, and Calais Campbell – to long-term deals. In the past, they were considered cheap.
Likewise, the Buffalo Bills gave their quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick an extension, then inked free agent DE Mario Williams.
The Browns are fighting hard to build their offense up to the standard of their defense and special teams, using their two first-rounders on RB and QB.
So, in an NFL where only – and no organization is safe from overhaul -, parity reigns supreme. I’m trying to be ahead of the curve, see the whole season unfold before training camp. I’m about to predict Super Bowl XLVII.
My Ravens over Packers Super Bowl prediction didn’t turn out last season, but – even with the Ravens losing Terrell Suggs (for at least the majority of the season) and Jarret Johnson – it’s not a bad idea to pick this for the 2012 season.
Since 2006 when Mike McCarthy took the Packers job, the Packers have had 10+ wins 4 times in 6 seasons, and the Packers won Super Bowl XLV. His success is better than that of John Harbaugh (four seasons as head coach, each with at least a playoff win) and nearly that of Tomlin (10+ wins in 4 of 5 seasons, 1-1 in Super Bowl) and Belichick (10+ wins in 10 of 12 seasons, 3-2 record in Super Bowls), he’s always re-loading at the skill positions, but what keeps me from picking the Packers again is the defense. Like the 2009 Saints, the 2010 Packers thrived off the turnover. They had mostly mediocre talent, and 2011 showed that. The 2012 defense will be without Nick Collins.
NFC Championship: Bears 38, 49ers 31
Even if the Packers offense is phenomenal and the defense is pretty good, I can think of two teams in the NFC that have better balance and I predict them to meet up in the NFC Championship: The Bears and the 49ers.
Both the Bears and the 49ers have leaders galore on both sides of the ball: Patrick Willis, Navarro Bowman, Justin Smith, Alex Smith, Randy Moss, Frank Gore, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, Jay Cutler, Matt Forte and Earl Bennett. They both run the ball well.
The advantages the 49ers defense has is that they are stronger on the back end and they were able to pull through games without their star LB Patrick Willis (2-1 without him), while the Bears defense really struggled without Brian Urlacher in 2009 (21st in points allowed) and also when Peppers was playing hurt.
The Bears and 49ers have pretty much equal rosters – with slight edges to San Francisco at the important offensive line and wide receiver positions -, yet I believe the Bears have a considerably better QB in Jay Cutler. He’s the prototypical quarterback: Tough, strong-armed, quick release, mobile, smart, and accurate. He’s been bogged down by a lack of support in the past, but the Bears made a serious effort to help him take more shots down the field and be the weapon he is. They gave him his old QB’s coach from Denver, Jeremy Bates. They added 3 tall, fast receivers in Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Chris Summers (who I believe will make the roster). He has can now dump it off to two of the five best receiving backs in the NFL in Forte (1985 receiving yards since 2008 is 3rd among RB’s behind Rice and Sproles) and Michael Bush (11.3 yards per catch last season).
AFC Championship: Ravens 28, Steelers 26
Before I look for creativity in play-calling and scheme, I look for how many different match-ups you can win. Nobody has any magical blocking scheme or route combination that hasn’t been used by at least one of the other 31 teams. While the best offenses often have similarities in their aggressive styles and tempos, their playbooks often aren’t more complicated at the core than that of any other team, even if some have a lot more plays than others. My focus turns to Mike Tice, Cam Cameron, and Todd Haley.
The 2002-2005 Vikings (8th, 6th, 6th and 19th in scoring) were dealing with having multiple running backs, no elite tight ends, and an erratic QB during Tice’s tenure while the Rams‘ famous 1999-2004 (1st, 1st, 1st, 23rd, 2nd, 19th) run consistently had Warner and Bulger under center, and the Raiders were trotting out MVP Rich Gannon and multiple future Hall of Famers at WR. Culpepper was a good quarterback in his prime, but would never be considered a strategic surgeon the way Warner was or even to the level of former Vikings QB Warren Moon, who never played with Randy Moss. I would argue Mike Tice did as good of a job with the offense in Minnesota as Martz did with St. Louis and Gruden and Callahan did with the Raiders. It was really Culpepper’s turnovers that held back these offenses from scoring more. Despite missing 11 games during Tice’s head coaching career, Culpepper still racked up 79 turnovers in 53 games. I know injuries played a part in why the Rams and Raiders didn’t score more, but Moss missed three games in ’04 and that was the only season a good #2 emerged in Nate Burleson (1006 yards), and he struggled like everyone else in the “Love Boat” season and never had another 1000-yard season. So, with his exiles in Jacksonville and at Halas Hall, Mike Tice is ready for this job.
As for Ravens OC Cam Cameron, he’s had nearly every offensive skill position player – and more than a few players on the other side of the ball – go public with their criticism of the style of offense. That said, they’ve reached that threshold where the overabundance of talent is going to outweigh any simplicity of play-calling. Pitta and Dickson have begun working the middle of the field, and they now have size-speed-vert freaks like Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones and Tommy Streeter all over the field. Most importantly, I believe they addressed the conservatism of the offense by bringing in another Flacco ally in Jim Caldwell (they fired Flacco’s buddy Jim Zorn after 2010) to push for a shotgun-spread attack that can let Flacco use his incredible arm strength and velocity. Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s Arizona offenses never reached their potential, even when Beanie Wells and Anquan Boldin were healthy. Some of the blame has to go on Kurt Warner, who was calling much of the plays. Haley also had issues in Kansas City (and he picked up play-calling, then put it down, then picked it up again), but Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller and this wide receiving corps is a vast upgrade over the Chiefs starters.
So, I think two of the final four offensive coordinators are below average – Cam, and Todd – and another one has something to prove after so much time away, Mike Tice.
All that said, the teams that possess the two best, most complete sets of weapons in the AFC are the Ravens and Steelers. The Texans have no #2 receiver, and the Patriots have no running back as dynamic as Ray Rice or even as dynamic as new Steelers back Chris Rainey.
I can’t think of two angrier teams right now than the Ravens and Steelers. They are both ticked about how their seasons ended, and will take out their anger on opponents.
So, I’m picking the teams with the most intriguing and diverse offense weapons with probably – by the time the postseason starts – the top 2 defenses not hailing from Houston.
I love that the Ravens (Joe Flacco and Ray Rice) and Steelers (Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace) will each get great performances out of angry players who want new contracts. In the end, the Ravens will find a way to attack the corners for the Steelers, and the Ravens secondary and run defense will make just enough plays to make it to the Super Bowl.
It goes back to what I said about having more faith in winning match-ups than out-scheming teams (especially when both teams have weaknesses at OC). The Ravens can win more match-ups and score more ways than the Steelers, than even the Patriots.
SUPER BOWL XLVII: Ravens 32, Bears 21
The Bears and Ravens have done such a great job of drafting and signing freak talents and both rosters are loaded with players who can do a lot of different things. The Bears have 10 players who’ve scored non-offensive TDs (Major Wright, Israel Idonije, D.J. Moore, Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs, Earl Bennett, Charles Tillman, Devin Hester, Brian Urlacher, and Johnny Knox). The Ravens have 10 as well (Haloti Ngata, Lardarius Webb, Ed Reed, David Reed, Jacoby Jones, Corey Graham, Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis, Bernard Pollard, and Jameel McClain). It’s a pretty good bet that this game will feature one.
The Ravens and Bears also have a mutual appreciation for special teams, not only hiring a former a special teams coordinator for head coach (John Harbaugh, who also spent one year with the Eagles coaching defensive backs), but also have signed away two of the Pro Bowl special teamers the Bears have had (Corey Graham and Brendon Ayanbadejo).
It may be odd to be banking on two quarterbacks that have yet to make even a leap statistically to lead their teams to the Super Bowl, instead of predicting guys that have done it before like Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and/or Tom Brady. The time is right. This will be Flacco’s fifth season with Rice, third season with Boldin. They are all still in their prime. Both field generals break the sound barrier with the velocity on their throws (there’s a famous story about Harbaugh and Cam joking and exaggerating that Joe could hit the scoreboard at the place they were working him out; he then did it).
The draft picks of both teams were “win now” moves, adding pass rushers in Shea McClellin from Boise State (Bears) and Courtney Upshaw from Alabama (Ravens).
Truthfully, listening to players, you play a lot better in your second Super Bowl than your first, because you are less in awe, more understanding of how hard it is to get there. In that regard, – after Ray Lewis, who is outworked by no one – three of the next most-ready players would be Bears: Charles Tillman, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs (Anquan Boldin, having lost a Super Bowl while hurt for the Cardinals, would be the other).
The bottom line is that the trio of Lardarius Webb, Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith have the physicality, athleticism and closing speed to keep the Bears passing attack out of the end zone.
And, I feel like the Ravens – already a family – will unify behind a “win one for Ray and Ed” narrative.
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