The NFL offseason is a time for optimism, with legions of fans believing that their teams are Super Bowl contenders. In recent years, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and the New York Giants have given the eternal optimists hope, as somewhat flawed teams that snuck into the playoffs with a Wild Card, but peaked at just the right time to win the Big Game. In the age of parity, it is rare for any team to go wire-to-wire as the far and away favorite, as the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers once did through the ’80s and ’90s.
Still, there is a fine line between well-meaning support and outright delusion. If anything, the legitimate Super Bowl contenders will prove that solid, if not spectacular, quarterback play is all but necessary to really compete in the NFL. Expect the five following teams to separate themselves from the rest of the competition by Week Four. For the real Super Bowl contenders, anything less than a Lombardi trophy and ticker tape parade would be a major disappointment.
5. Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers, on paper, appeared to have taken a serious step back last season. At first, the Pack raced out to a 6-0 start, heading into a bye week. After the bye, the wheels inexplicably fell off, and Green Bay dropped four of their next five. The Week Nine loss on the road in Charlotte was the proverbial changing of the guard, with the Panthers emerging as the clear favorite to take the NFC.
To close out the regular season, Green Bay lost a showdown at Lambeau Field to the Minnesota Vikings, with the NFC North division title on the line. The Pack, after stumbling into the postseason, ultimately lost an overtime thriller on the road in Arizona. Aaron Rodgers, for his part, put in his worst season as the full-time starter, completing 60% of his passes for 3,821 yards and 31 touchdowns. Rodgers, of course, played pitch-and-catch with the likes of James Jones, Randall Cobb, and Davante Adams, after Jordy Nelson blew out his knee in the preseason and was shut down for the year.
The Packer offense sputtered to 23rd in total offense, without their big-play threat. This season, Nelson will be back to stretch the field, and loosen up coverage underneath for Aaron Rodgers to go to work. Eddie Lacy has also reported to training camp in the best shape of his life, after ballooning to nearly 250 pounds last season and lacking any real burst. The Packers, yet again, will emerge as legitimate Super Bowl contenders behind a high-octane offense and bend-but-don’t-break defense.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers will fire on all cylinders through the stretch run of the 2016–17 regular season, after Le’Veon Bell serves out his three-game suspension. In Bell, the Steelers will get back one of the best dual threats in all of football. In 2014, Bell accounted for 2,215 yards and 11 touchdowns worth of total offense. For passing situations, he will stay on the field and even split out wide of the formation to run quick outs and slant patterns. The Steelers, with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger, Bell, and Antonio Brown will present the most explosive group of triplets in the NFL.
For added measure, tight end Ladarius Green will prove to be a valuable pickup and outlet receiver, stepping in for the recently retired fan-favorite Heath Miller. On defense, the linebackers will be the heart and soul of the group, with the versatile Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier filling holes and flying toward the football. Pittsburgh versus Cincinnati is now the most intense rivalry in football, with neither team hiding their real animosity for each other.
Last season, right tackle Marcus Gilbert went so far as to beg for a Round Three versus the Bengals in the playoffs, “where they choke.” Gilbert did get his wish, with the Steelers surviving an 18-16 Wild Card brawl on the road. Pittsburgh set up for the game-winning field goal after a concussion to Brown, eight personal fouls, coaches taking cheap shots at players out on the field, and roughly $85,000 in fines. Pittsburgh is poised for yet another Super Bowl run, if it can come out on the winning side of these AFC North bloodbaths and take the division.
3. Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks have now become synonymous with slow starts; gathering themselves, somehow rounding into form, and then throttling the competition through another deep postseason run. With every early season loss, the naysayers come out to lecture that the Legion of Boom, Pete Carroll, and Marshawn Lynch were finished, before sheepishly eating their words by midseason.
This year, Thomas Rawls will step in to fill the big cleats of retired Skittles Man Lynch. Rawls did start seven games last season and rumble for 830 yards and four touchdowns, off a strong 5.6 yards-per-carry average. At the same time, Jimmy Graham will be back and more comfortable within the offense. For 2016–17, this playmaking tight end may close in on 80 receptions — if he stays healthy. On the other side of the football, Seattle is only losing linebacker Bruce Irvin and defensive tackle Brandon Mebane from a unit that ranked first in scoring defense last season.
Perhaps most importantly is the fact that the oft-underrated Russell Wilson made “the leap” through 2015. He posted career highs in completion percentage (68.1), yardage (4,024), touchdowns (34), and rating (110.1). To top off this career year, Wilson also racked up 553 yards on the ground, while a banged up Lynch mostly watched from the sidelines. Two years ago, it was he who went down as the Super Bowl GOAT, after throwing a late pick on a quick slant in the end zone. This season, a more confident Wilson will be back to make amends.
2. New England Patriots
The long-running Patriots Dynasty has made six trips to the Super Bowl in 15 years and won four (2001, 2003, 2004, and 2014). In 2007, a high-octane Patriots roster torched the competition for a then-record 589 points, going 16-0 through the regular season. This team, like the 73-9 Golden State Warriors this year, would have been in the “greatest team of all time” conversation, if they had actually closed the deal for the title.
Throughout this dominant run, Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady have stood as the cornerstones of this oft-hated, but much-respected organization. For 2016–17, the Patriots will lack the services of Tom Brady for four games while he serves out his Deflategate suspension. In his place, Jimmy Garoppolo will hope to manage the game properly and ride a stingy defense against the Cardinals, Dolphins, Texans, and Bills. Against this lineup, the Pats may go 2-2, before Brady even takes the field as the starter.
The Patriots have claimed 13 AFC East titles in 15 years. Expect New England to run roughshod over a weak AFC East, yet again, with the only drama coming out of Buffalo and the swashbuckling Ryan brothers. An AFC East title would likely gift-wrap a first-round bye for the Patriots as well as home-field advantage for at least one playoff game. Like clockwork, New England would be on the fast track to the Super Bowl through a shortened postseason. Last season, the Patriots were one failed two-point conversion away from tying up the AFC Championship Game at Mile High. Tom Brady, like Peyton Manning, may also have one last Super Bowl run left in him before he hangs up his own cleats.
1. Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers will surprise nobody this season. Last year, they ripped off 14 straight wins to start the season before taking their first loss at Atlanta. For some, the Panthers had arrived as the team to beat, after a convincing win at home against the Packers in Week Eight.
Still, Vegas somehow listed the then-undefeated Panthers as two-point underdogs against the 3-7 Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day. Carolina responded in kind, to win a 33-14 beat-down on the road. From there, Neil Paine and FiveThirtyEight went on the record to dismiss the Panthers as “the worst team to ever start 11-0.” The patronizing column appeared to light a fire beneath this bunch, with the Panthers apparently saving their best for last to roll through the NFC.
First, Carolina raced out to a 31-0 lead against the apparently white hot Seattle Seahawks in the Divisional Round. Next, the Panthers put together their most complete game of the season, in blowing the doors off the Arizona Cardinals 49-15 for the NFC Championship. The Panthers, however, ran into a brick wall, in the form of the Denver Bronco defense, in losing Super Bowl 50. Still, the team far exceeded expectations, in ranking a respective first and sixth in scoring offense and defense. Cam Newton was in MVP form, in going over the top for 3,589 yards and 35 touchdowns through the air.
After forcing the defense to commit and scanning the field, Cam often tucked the ball in and took off to pick up large chunks of yardage on the ground. The 2016-2017 Panthers, like Green Bay, will also be welcoming lead receiver Kelvin Benjamin back from a season ending injury. In 2014, Benjamin hauled in 73 receptions for 1,008 yards as a rookie out of Florida State. The Carolina offense will be that more dynamic, with Newton airing out the football to the likes of Benjamin and Ted Ginn on the outside, while security blanket Greg Olsen works the soft zone underneath. From here, Super Bowl LI may come down to Cam Newton going play-action at the goal-line, and rolling out towards the edge: Pick your Poison.