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Bob Sanders kisses the Vince Lombardi Trophy Sunday, Feb. 4, 2007. (Tribune photo by Jim Prisching)

Bob Sanders kisses the Vince Lombardi Trophy Sunday, Feb. 4, 2007.
(Tribune photo by Jim Prisching)

By Conor Langs, Mount Carmel 

It’s that time of year, folks.  NFL football is back, giving ravaging fans across the country excitement that they haven’t experienced in months.  Starting now, the journey to Houston will begin.  32 teams will be competing for the most prized possession in sports: the Vince Lombardi Trophy.  Many teams have a chance, but who REALLY has a chance?  

AFC:

The AFC consists of several teams who are playoff ready but aren’t quite Super Bowl caliber yet.  The only true contenders in this conference are the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers, with the rest of the pack not really having a chance of knocking off either of those teams.  This is what the AFC playoff rankings should look like:

  • New England Patriots (13-3)What else is new?  Over the past decade and a half, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have set the standards for Super Bowl contending teams, hoisting four Lombardi Trophies and solidifying their statuses as Hall of Fame locks.  The quarterback and head coach will look to add to their resumes this season, with their strongest-looking roster in years.  The Patriots offense could be the best in pro football, with All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, and running backs Dion Lewis and Legarrette Blount all returning.  Belichick also added a few more signature players to catch passes from Brady, including Pro Bowl tight end Martellus Bennett and receiver Chris Hogan.  The defense is strong as well.  The unit finished second in the league in sacks in 2015, and the secondary was graded the third best in the league (PFF).  

Bottom Line : Despite losing Brady to suspension for the first four games of the season, New England’s power on both sides of the football should keep them intact.  The AFC is New England’s to lose, and there would be no excuses if they aren’t in Houston playing for their fifth title in February.

  1. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)Pittsburgh has always been the team that’s right up there with New England.  They have the talent, but have never really been healthy to challenge the AFC.  That could very well change this season, as the unit looks stronger than ever.  On paper, the Steelers have the best offense in football, with the likes of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger,  wide receivers Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton, and versatile running back Le’veon Bell.  The defense has some question marks, but the front seven did finish with the third most sacks in the league a year ago, with 48.

Bottom Line : The Steelers stand as New England’s biggest threat, but their questionable defense won’t be enough to slow down Tom Brady’s prolific passing game.  AFC championship berth will best situation for them this season.

  1. Denver Broncos (10-6) – The Denver Broncos will look to repeat as Super Bowl champions this season, but tough tasks lie ahead.  They play in one of the toughest divisions in the NFL, having to compete against playoff caliber teams such as Oakland and Kansas City.  Nonetheless, I believe Denver has enough defensive power to take the division for the sixth year in a row.  In 2015, the Broncos proved that defense does truly win championships, putting on one of the greatest defensive playoff runs ever.  Their ferocious pass rush and sticky secondary put the clamps on quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, and Cam Newton.  If Denver’s defense wasn’t so dominant, the team wouldn’t have made the playoffs.  The defense this season is almost entirely the same, with Super Bowl MVP linebacker Von Miller and All-Pro cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris leading the way.  The offense looks even better than it was a year ago, with Northwestern product Trevor Siemian replacing Peyton Manning at quarterback.

Bottom Line : With an improved offense and Super Bowl defense, the Broncos should be able to hold off division rivals to get themselves the third seed.  On the other hand, their offense is weaker in comparison to other AFC playoff teams, and having a defensive-based team repeat as Super Bowl champions has never been done before.

  1. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) – The Jaguars come into the 2016 as one of the most improved teams in the league.  After such a successful offseason, the Jags should be able to experience their first playoff run since 2007.  The offense looks very strong, with young quarterback Blake Bortles and wide receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns leading the unit.  The free agency signing of RB Chris Ivory will be a great compliment to TJ Yeldon in the backfield, giving Bortles options if he can’t throw.  On defense, Jacksonville addressed its needs by drafting CB Jalen Ramsey in the first round, and nabbed Myles Jack in the second round to add to their young pass rush.  

Bottom Line : The future is bright in northern Florida, and this season will be a huge step for this young team.  With playoff caliber teams such as Indianapolis and Houston competing in the same division, Jacksonville’s talent on both sides of the ball should triumph over both of those teams.

  1. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5) – Cincy is one of the best-looking teams on paper, but can they finally earn their first playoff win since 1991?  It’s hard to say, but they definitely have the talent to.  QB Andy Dalton was in the MVP conversation last season, and he’s leading the same offense this year that includes WR AJ Green, TE Tyler Eifert, and RB Jeremy Hill.  The defense is one of the best in the conference, with LB Vontaze Burfict as the leader of the group.

Bottom Line : The Bengals have the talent to make a deep run in January, but it’s the same old story every year.  Will they finally win a playoff game?  Guess we’ll have to see this winter.

6.  Oakland Raiders (10-6) – Oakland is another up-and-coming squad, looking for their first playoff berth in 13 seasons.  That infamous streak should end this season.  QB Derek Carr showed that he’s the future in Oakland, throwing for nearly 4,000 yards and 33 touchdowns in his sophomore campaign.  His top weapon, WR Amari Cooper, showed incredible flashes of stardom too, hauling in nearly 1,000 receiving yards in his rookie season.  On the other side of the ball, the defense looks strong, with the hopes of offseason acquisitions of CB Sean Smith and LB Bruce Irvin elevating the unit.

Bottom Line : With the potential the Raiders showed last season, they should be able to sneak into the playoffs.  But due to their inexperience, they likely won’t go far.

NFC:

Can Aaron Rodgers finally get back to the Super Bowl?  Will 2015 MVP Cam Newton and the Panthers look to avenge their devastating Super Bowl loss from last season?  Can Carson Palmer get over his playoff jitters?  Will Seattle look to attain a third Super Bowl appearance in four years?  Your guesses are just as good as mine.  The NFC consists of many more lethal teams, but who will take the conference crown?  As of now, there are more questions than answers.  But for now, the NFC playoff seeding should look like this:

1.  Seattle Seahawks (12-4) – The 2015 season was considered a disappointment for the Hawks.  They were eliminated in the divisional round by Carolina, which was a downgrade in comparison to their Super Bowl berths in the two previous seasons.  Nonetheless, Seattle looks to get back to the promised land this season, and the look of their team definitely makes it possible.  QB Russell Wilson played at an MVP level last season, throwing 34 touchdowns and just 9 interceptions.  As he looks to elevate those stats, he has several options to help him.  Wide receivers Doug Baldwin, Tyler Lockett, and Jermaine Kearse are returning.  Head coach Pete Carroll seems to have found his Marshawn Lynch replacement, awarding RB Thomas Rawls the starting job in the backfield.  Rawls impressed many last season, averaging 5.6 yards per carry as a rookie.  The defense is its dominant self, with All-Pros Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor leading the way.

Bottom Line : With the combination of powerful offense and defense, the Seahawks are one of the most complete teams in football.  With the experience of this team and emergence of Russell Wilson, anything short of a Super Bowl would be a major disappointment to this organization.  

  1. Green Bay Packers (12-4) – After coming off a sloppy season by his standards, QB Aaron Rodgers looks to redeem himself and get to Super Bowl LI.  But does he have the supporting cast to do it?  That remains to be seen, but the team does look solid overall.  Both sides of the ball mostly consist of returning members, along with free agent signing TE Jared Cook joining the Pack.  Rodgers’ favorite target Jordy Nelson is returning to the offense after missing the entire 2015 season with an ACL injury, so that is definitely a plus.

Bottom Line : The Packers have solid team that can make a deep playoff run, but their roster won’t be enough to knock off other NFC powerhouses, such as Seattle or Arizona.

  1. Carolina Panthers (11-5) – The Panthers will look to repeat as NFC champs this season, but it won’t be easy.  Cam Newton will get his top target in Kelvin Benjamin back catching passes, and everyone else on offense has returned.  The defense is returning as a top unit, led by LB Luke Kuechly.  The loss of All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman will hurt, but head coach Ron Rivera’s efficient zone schemes will keep the secondary thriving.  

Bottom Line : Carolina will likely start the season off slow, which is typical for previous Super Bowl teams.  They will eventually pick back up in the second month of the season, and continue being one of the NFC’s top teams.  But they won’t be back in the Super Bowl.  Not this year.

  1.  New York Giants (10-6)The Giants have not reached the postseason since their last Super Bowl win five years ago, but it looks like that will change this season.  Eli Manning has several throwing options this season, which include wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr., Victor Cruz, and rookie Sterling Shepard.  The defense had many holes last season, but they addressed that in the draft.  Eli Apple was drafted by the team in the first round, who will play alongside star CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the secondary.

Bottom Line : Although division rivals such as the Redskins and Cowboys are competing for the postseason, Eli finally has the help he needs.  The Giants will get into the playoffs, but likely won’t get far due to all the dangerous teams they would face.

  1.  Arizona Cardinals (12-4) – After a NFC conference game appearance last season, the Arizona Cardinals will look to advance even further in 2016.  On defense, they filled their weaknesses by acquiring defensive end Chandler Jones from New England.  Jones’ presence up front will only help the secondary, which was one of the best in the league last season.  Star defensive back Tyrann Mathieu is recovering from an ACL tear, but is expected to be on the field at the start of the season.  Top-notch cornerback Patrick Peterson will play across from Mathieu, as he will look to have another impressive year.  On offense, the Cards finished as the best overall unit in the league.  QB Carson Palmer will have his weapons from a year ago, when he set personal records.  

Bottom Line : The Cardinals may be the top team in the NFC, but it’s a quarterback’s game.  Palmer’s postseason play was atrocious in 2015, mainly because of lack of experience.  It is unlikely that Palmer outplays experienced QB’s such as Wilson, Rodgers, or Newton under the brightest lights.

  1.  Minnesota Vikings (11-5)The Vikings took a huge step forward last season, winning the division and nearly capping off a playoff victory against the Seattle Seahawks.  With one of the best defenses in the league, the young team will look to go even further this season.  The team took a step backward in the preseason, when QB Teddy Bridgewater was lost for the year with a knee injury.  Without hesitation, the team traded for veteran QB Sam Bradford.  Bradford is a capable backup, so the quarterback position shouldn’t be an issue.

Bottom Line : The Vikings should be even better than last season, but they are still a year or two away from becoming dangerous contenders.   

Super Bowl LI – Seahawks over Patriots

A Super Bowl XLIX rematch, but this time it goes in Seattle’s favor.  Russell Wilson outplays Tom Brady to give the organization its second title.  Seahawks win 24-20.

 

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