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|Matt Ryan's Atlanta Falcons and Matt Schaub's Houston Texans are two of the NFL's three remaining undefeateds.|
With the first four Sundays of the 2012 campaign in the books, it's time to start thinking about New Orleans. No, not the 0-4 Saints; we're talking about the location for Super Bowl XLVII. At the quarter pole, which two teams do you think will square off in the Big Easy in February?
Battle of the birds: Falcons vs. RavensI am going to stick with my preseason AFC pick: the Baltimore Ravens. It just seems like such a complete team, but it might take getting home-field advantage to withstand the Houston Texans.
From the NFC, I like the Atlanta Falcons. Although the Arizona Cardinals look legit and the San Francisco 49ers are a dominant team, I'm just not sure either of them could score with Atlanta. I selected the Green Bay Packers at the beginning of the season and definitely think they're still in the hunt, but there are some holes. The key isn't about which team is hot right now; it's about who is playing well in the guts of the season and which team is healthiest in January.
A lot can -- and probably will -- change. For now, though, I'll roll with the battle of the birds: Falcons vs. Ravens.
Texans and Falcons are NFL's most complete teams at quarter poleIn the AFC, I will go with the Houston Texans. They are the most balanced team in the NFL. On offense, they can both run and pass with great efficiency. They can control the clock and be explosive, on the ground or through the air. This is rare. If Matt Schaub had been healthy for last season's playoffs, the Texans definitely could have made Super Bowl XLVI. I think they will be unbeatable at home in the postseason this time around.
In the NFC, I'm going with the Atlanta Falcons. New coordinator Mike Nolan has taken the defense to a new level with a more aggressive style of play. On offense, Julio Jones has taken the next step to being a premier receiver. Matt Ryan has done the same thing at the quarterback position. He is more decisive with his decisions. Also, the Falcons' offensive line is playing much better under the direction of Pat Hill. They have been a complete team so far.
No reason to abandon my preseason prediction: Eagles vs. PatriotsBefore the season, I named my two Super Bowl favorites, going out on a limb for at least one of them. And through four games, I don't see the need to change. I'm sticking with the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots.
Though they had a rough start, I see no reason why the Patriots won't evolve to a point where they'll be in that position. Blitzing the Buffalo Bills in the second half on Sunday -- atoning for a turnover-happy start -- only hammered that home. And this year, they hit and play defense.
On the other hand, no one has escaped like the Eagles. Yet they are 3-1, and quarterback Michael Vick is coming off his most efficient game yet. He's knocked off the rust after missing much of the preseason and is beginning to see the field. Have the Eagles made mistakes? Sure. But imagine when they start hitting their stride.
Recent history favors 3-1 teams, so I'll go with Ravens vs. 49ersIt's easy to look at the Texans and Falcons as the favorites to play in New Orleans in February because of their sparkling 4-0 records, but the last two Super Bowl winners (Green Bay Packers and New York Giants) were 3-1 at the quarter pole, so early perfection is not a requirement for the eventual champions. In fact, the losing teams in the last two title games (Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots) also won three of their first four games.
This portends great things for two defensive-minded 3-1 teams in Baltimore and San Francisco, especially if the Ravens can rely on the Joe Flacco-to-Torrey Smith combination and the 49ers continue their knack for winning the turnover battle.
Rolling the dice with Rodgers' Packers and Brady's PatriotsAny writer that changes their preseason pick at this point should be fined. Unless they chose the Saints. My picks were the Patriots and Packers, and I see no reason to make a move despite their 2-2 records.
New England has lost two games by a combined two feet worth of field goals. Their running game and defense are vastly improved. The Packers' efforts have been more troubling, but their defense also looks better. Look to the quarterbacks: I'll take my chances with Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.
This will be the Chargers' year in the AFCIt's hard for me to go against the Texans, but I will. San Diego is atop the AFC West without getting anything from Ryan Mathews. They've yet to hit their stride offensively, and they're 3-1. Normally the Chargers start out 1-6 and then win their last nine. It's a different season now, and it's one in which their defense is sixth in the league in rushing yards allowed - which plays favorably into a playoff matchup with either the Texans or Ravens. I know we expect San Diego to get close and then fall short every season, but so far, I think this is their year.
It's hard for me to go against San Francisco, but I will. Atlanta is rolling not only to a division title with a three-game lead after four weeks, but also home-field advantage to New Orleans. The NFC South is not as good as we thought, so Atlanta will be favored to win every week the remainder of the season. All their weapons are peaking; even Michael Turner is on pace for his normal 1,300-yard season. Look out. The Falcons are a steamroller.
Why not the Cardinals in the NFC?If I had to choose one team from the NFC to make it, I would choose the Birds. Why the Birds? Well, it gives me three chances to be right with the Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles. The Falcons and Eagles are two teams many at least gave a realistic shot to making the Super Bowl before the season started. But the Cardinals are the true surprise team of 2012.
And why not the Cardinals? The defense has played really well, save a few big Brian Hartline plays Sunday. The Cardinals have been on a roll when you look back to last season, and even Kevin Kolb has made big plays when he's needed. It kind of reminds me of the Chicago Bears team that reached the Super Bowl a few seasons ago with Rex Grossman.
As for the AFC, give me the Patriots. Just when it looked like the Patriots were going to be beaten by the Bills on Sunday, the Patriots pushed the proverbial switch to get it going again.