San Francisco 49ers
Just two seasons removed from a Super Bowl that came down to the final moments, Jim Harbaugh has molded his squad into a perennial force in the NFC. The only question now is whether he can push them over the top.
San Francisco hasn’t been without its issues, and they’ll likely be without the services of NaVorro Bowman for part of the season, in the aftermath of a gruesome knee injury in last season’s NFC Championship game. Still, Harbaugh’s defense is led by Patrick Willis, probably the NFL’s best overall linebacker, and he has wunderkind/pet project Colin Kaepernick at the helm of the offense.
If a couple bounces go another way, it would have been San Francisco representing the NFC in last year’s Super Bowl. Seattle may be the favorite in the division and the conference, but the Niners are nipping at their heels.
New England Patriots
Plenty of fans around the league would love to see Tom Brady and Bill Belichick ride off into the sunset already, after a decade plus as fixtures at the top of the AFC standings. It’s about time for some new blood, and with Brady nearing the end of his career, a new era will be upon us before you know it.
But it’s not time for a curtain call just yet. The Patriots were able to acquire cornerback Darrelle Revis during the offseason, hoping that a partnership between he and Brandon Browner – once he serves a four-game suspension – will assist in bringing back the defensive edge that helped Belichick’s teams win Super Bowls. Brady may get the face time, but he’ll need help on the other side of the ball.
This team is very much built to win this season, as Revis’ contract will likely prohibit him from sticking around long-term. The hope in New England is that one season is all they’ll need to seal the deal.
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Led by upstart Chip Kelly, the Eagles overcame an identity crisis at the quarterback position before settling on Nick Foles, who promptly had one of the best stretches in the history of the league. Expected to do little other than figure out who fit his plans long term, Kelly captured a division crown and the attention of the league in his first season, behind the strength of his innovative, up-tempo offense.
After adding weapons to the attack and getting a badly-needed upgrade at safety in Malcolm Jenkins, Kelly’s Eagles are primed to deliver a stellar sophomore campaign. Philadelphia has promised that their breakneck offense will strive to move even faster this season, an idea that is sure to scare even the most confident of defensive coordinators. If Jenkins can stabilize the back end and the offense can make up for the loss of DeSean Jackson, this is a team nobody wants to deal with come January.
Green Bay Packers
Despite losing their Pro Bowl quarterback for a seven-game stretch, the Packers were able to make the playoffs and stand toe-to-toe with conference finalists San Francisco, losing by a margin of just three last-second points. With a healthy Aaron Rodgers leading the troops, the Packers are always a threat to go deep into the playoffs.
Rookie running back Eddie Lacy showed he was up to being the counterpunch Green Bay needed at the running back position, and fellow Crimson Tide alum Ha Ha Clinton Dix should help close a hole in the Packers secondary. Rodgers will need to play at peak level to navigate the Packers through a loaded NFC, though he’ll be able to lean on the supporting cast more than in recent years. Keep an eye on Green Bay.
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NFL football is finally getting started, which means that it’s about time to start forecasting the upcoming 2014-15 season. Quarterback competitions and division battles will draw plenty of attention, but ultimately only one question matters: Can anyone unseat the Seattle Seahawks as Super Bowl champions?
The bruising boys from the Pacific Northwest laid the smackdown in the latest iteration of the NFL’s annual championship, leaving no doubt as to who the best team in the league was. Their road to the championship was not without its blips, however, and given the unpredictable nature of the league, repeating is a tall order.
Who are the heirs to the throne? Let’s take a look at a short list of contenders for the Lombardi trophy this year.
Follow Kyle on Twitter at @KyleNeubeck