by Rob Joyce
Football is back… sort of. Training camp and preseason games are underway, so although we still have a few weeks before the real thing begins, consider our appetites whetted as the battle for roster spots ensues.
In today’s NFL the league wants parity to reign supreme. Yet as the regular season nears and the sprint to the Lombardi Trophy gets underway, the five biggest favorites to win the Super Bowl are the same familiar faces as in recent years past – including a juggernaut in the northeast once again acting as the team to beat. Here are the five favorites to leave U.S. Bank Stadium on February 4, 2018 as champions:
5) Seattle Seahawks:
So there has been more chippiness than usual at camp so far. It’s almost expected with Seattle, and this year the game plan for them is no different than in recent history. The offense will score enough points with Russell Wilson and company – though the run game could be a concern. The defense will set the tone as long as Earl Thomas stays healthy. With him on the field last year Seattle’s pass defense was among the best in the league. As soon as he went out with a fractured tibia in Week 13, though, it quickly became mediocre.
Also a concern is the schedule, with trips to the Packers (Week 1), Titans (Week 3), Giants (Week 7) and Cowboys (Week 16) making for a daunting slate.
4) Atlanta Falcons:
The bad news: the chance at a hangover after blowing a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl is very real. Now the good: Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman and Taylor Gabriel are all back. Even with the departure of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan (now the 49ers’ head coach) the offense that led the league in scoring and finished second in yards per game should be just as dangerous. If the defense (24th in points allowed) can improve even a little, a return to the Super Bowl can be in the works.
3) Pittsburgh Steelers:
The potential for the Pittsburgh offense is sky-high, but the last two years they haven’t lived up to said expectations. That’s because their Killer B’s can’t seem to stay on the field at the same time. Assuming Le’Veon Bell signs his franchise tag in time for the regular season, we’ll finally get the chance to see things hum at full throttle. Ben Roethlisberger – perhaps in his final season – can hand off or pass to Bell, while also having Antonio Brown (100-catches in four straight seasons) and Martavis Bryant (back from a year-long suspension) on the outside.
With a young defense that’s quickly improving, the only thing standing in their way is the team who ended their 2016 campaign in the AFC title game. The Patriots – and Tom Brady in particular – own the Steelers, and unless an upset occurs, they’ll have to find a way to slay the dragon for a shot at seventh Super Bowl.
2) Dallas Cowboys:
Last year’s script could not have gone any better for the Cowboys. Behind the league’s best offensive line, Ezekiel Elliott led the league in rushing and fellow rookie Dak Prescott rarely had to shoulder too much of the weight (though when he did have to, he proves his worth). Heading into Year 2 expectations are even higher for a team that won 13 games a season ago. The only things that could get in Dallas’ way: a lingering suspension is possible for Elliott to start the season, and Prescott’s miniscule interception rate (0.9 percent) is bound to regress, meaning more turnovers.
1) New England Patriots:
Who else would it be? The defending champions hold that title for a reason, and the future looks bright for a repeat in Foxboro. Despite turning 40 last week Tom Brady looks as good as ever, and he has a few fancy new toys to play with in wide out Brandin Cooks (traded from New Orleans) and running back Mike Gillislee (signed away from Buffalo). More importantly, Rob Gronkowski appears healthy once again after missing the second half of last year.
Even if a player or two goes down, as long as Brady and Bill Belichick are there, the path to the Super Bowl runs through Foxboro.