It's preseason predictions time. The Around The NFL crew has been rolling through our division previews, and now it's time to break out some awards. We already picked MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year candidates. Next up: Final Four and Super Bowl picks.
Gregg Rosenthal's pick: Packers over Patriots
There is so much to like about this Green Bay squad beyond the best player in football primed to have an MVP season. Aaron Rodgers' weapons are deeper because of a dramatically transformed running game. The offensive line is better than it's been in a while. The defense is vastly improved if Clay Matthews stays healthy. Look for Green Bay to take out Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
New England over Pittsburgh is my pick in the AFC. Jamie Collins, Darrelle Revis and Chandler Jones help give Bill Belichick his best defense since 2007. Tom Brady's receiving corps is far more reliable than a season ago. Ben Roethlisberger will do the dirty work by knocking out Denver in the AFC playoffs before another playoff letdown against Belichick's crew.
Marc Sessler's pick: Saints over Steelers
On defense, a healthy Kenny Vaccaro and free-agent signee Jairus Byrd give Saints coordinator Rob Ryan the second-best safety duo behind Seattle's Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. On offense, the addition of rookie Brandin Cooks is the cherry on top of a refurbished receiving group. A highlight machine all summer, Cooks will help fill the void of Darren Sproles through the air, while the running game is set for a heavy dose of "Making the Leap" candidate Khiry Robinson and a reborn Mark Ingram. Look for the Saints to nip the Seahawks in a rough-and-tumble NFC title game.
The Steelers will take down the Broncos in the AFC. Pittsburgh doesn't have Denver's offensive talent, but Ben Roethlisberger will guide his no-huddle-loving crew through the postseason aided by a Steelers defense that grows stronger with every month. Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Ryan Shazier will pick off Peyton twice in conference final, taking the second back for a game-winning touchdown. Two days later, Manning will retire. Bank on it, peeps.
Dan Hanzus' pick: Packers over Patriots
It'd be an overstatement to say people are sleeping on Aaron Rodgers right now, but Peyton Manning's incredible 2013 obscured the fact that -- when upright -- Rodgers remains the best quarterback on the planet. I think he provides a powerful reminder this season, leading a stacked Packers roster through a top-heavy NFC.
Meanwhile, consider this Tom Brady's last true shot at the fourth Super Bowl ring that's repeatedly eluded him over the past decade. The Patriots will cruise through a watered-down AFC East, take out Peyton in the playoffs and reach the sixth Super Bowl of the Brady/Belichick era. A nice story, sure, but Tom and Bill will be turned away again ... this time by the game's best passer.
Chris Wesseling's pick: Saints over Patriots
NFL parity is dead. Bert Bell and Pete Rozelle are rolling over in their graves. The Patriots and Broncos reign from high atop the AFC mountain while the Seahawks, Saints, Packers and 49ers have built a Secretariat-esque lead over all but perhaps the Eagles in the NFC.
Tom Brady is the most lethal one minute-drill artist in NFL history, giving him a crucial edge versus Peyton Manning in an AFC Championship Game shootout. Brady will proceed to his sixth Super Bowl -- one more than John Elway (as a player).
While I agree with Rosenthal and Hanzus that the Packers will run away with the NFC North this year, I believe the conference championship game will come down to homefield advantage between New Orleans and Seattle. Riding the crest of a record-breaking offense, the Saints will boast the NFL's best record, granting them an all-important escape from the land of doom known as CenturyLink Field. Brady and Drew Brees will exchange blow-for-blow in the highest-scoring Super Bowl of all time. With more firepower at his disposal, Brees emerges victorious for the second time in his career.
Kevin Patra's pick: Seahawks over Steelers
The Seahawks' team-building is the stuff dynasties are made of. Not since the Patriots of the early aughts has a team been as primed to repeat. Unlike other recent Super Bowl winners, Seattle is full of young talent who are still improving. Russell Wilson is commanding a more open offense and will match wits with Aaron Rodgers in the NFC Championship Game (Fail Mary III: The Return to the Throne). That game will feature a far tougher opponent than any out of the AFC.
Did I set this up just so Seattle could get revenge for Super Bowl XL, wherein a blowout will render any and all penalty flags inconsequential? Maybe I did. Or maybe I envision a scenario in which Pittsburgh's porous defense has solidified by January and Ben Roethlisberger makes Big Ben plays down the stretch in Foxboro to beat the Patriots in a nail-biter.