The NFL playoff field is set. Perusing the bracket, which team is your early favorite to lift the Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans on Feb. 3?
- Ian Rapoport NFL Network
How can you pick against a Manning-led Broncos team in cruise control?
At this point, we know Peyton Manning is back. And we know the Denver Broncos' defense has got game. But what else do we know? Just that the Broncos have been so stunningly efficient over the past several months that we barely talk about them. Why would we? Eleven straight wins, none by less than seven points. Manning has worked his way back to his old self -- both as a quarterback and as a player leading a championship-caliber team. How can you pick against the NFL's best in cruise control?
- Dave Dameshek NFL.com
Brady will earn fourth ring by guiding Patriots past Broncos, Packers
It's gotta be the New England Patriots, right? Who else is worthy of being called the "early favorite?"
I might say the San Francisco 49ers, but the guy who made all the big plays for that team last January is wearing a headset. Not the Atlanta Falcons, whose quarterback has one fewer career playoff win than Tony Romo. The Green Bay Packers, who couldn't stop the Minnesota Vikings with a bye on the line? Nope. The Houston Texans have been crummy for a month-and-a-half now. They are, however, probably catching a break against the still-callow Cincinnati Bengals. (Déjà vu: Same result as last season between the same teams.) That leaves the Denver Broncos, and here's what I know: Tom Brady's gonna beat Peyton Manning. Again. I know recent history favors Peyton (and Eli even more so), but the Pats are running the ball, and their otherwise third-rate defense is doing a decent job of turning it over.
At the start of the season, I picked the Packers over the Patriots in the Super Bowl. I'll stick with those two teams, but I think I oughta flip the result.
- Charley Casserly NFL.com
Denver just has too much firepower on both sides of the ball
In the AFC Championship Game, I think Denver prevails over New England. The challenge for the Broncos will be slowing down New England's potent offense. Jack Del Rio had trouble stopping Tom Brady during his days as the Jacksonville Jaguars' head coach, and his Denver defense struggled in the Broncos' last loss back in Week 5 at New England. John Fox could not stop New England in two separate games last season (including a 45-10 divisional-round defeat). But this time, at home, Denver's pass rush will get to Brady just enough to disrupt him. New England will run out of gas in the second half, allowing the Broncos to pull away. Denver's balance in the running game will help Manning in this game, too.
In the Super Bowl, Denver will prevail against whichever NFC team makes it through.
- Adam Rank NFL.com
Russell Wilson will become first rookie quarterback to win Super Bowl
The Seattle Seahawks are going to win the Super Bowl. Only the Denver Broncos, the team I expect Seattle to beat, are a more complete football team at this point. The Seahawks are great defensively, as they rank fourth in total defense. Offensively, Russell Wilson has played beyond his years, and he's buoyed by a strong rushing attack with Marshawn Lynch.
Of course, critics will point out that no rookie quarterback has won a Super Bowl. But look at all of the surprising things that have happened in the NFL this season: Three rookie quarterbacks led their teams to the playoffs; a couple of second-year guys are mixed in, too; Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson both rebounded from devastating injuries. And you want to say a rookie quarterback winning the Super Bowl is far-fetched?
- Jason Smith NFL.com
Patriots sitting pretty with potent running game to support Brady
No team really seems like a sure thing at this juncture. The Falcons aren't world-beaters, even with home-field advantage. The Packers are too much of a stop-and-go team this season -- plus, they'll have to go on the road to win. Seattle is red hot, as is Denver, but have they both peaked already? Do you really think Colin Kaepernick is going to have confetti rain down on him in New Orleans? Too many questions about these teams.
So, sort of by default, I keep coming back to New England, because of the difference in this team from last year to this year. Now the Patriots can run the football when they want to. Even the pass-happiest of teams don't win in January without some semblance of a running game, and Stevan Ridley has given the Pats that in spades this season. But it's not just Ridley -- even if he wears down a bit, Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen complement him pretty well. New England ranks seventh in team rushing this season, compared to 20th in 2011.
The Pats are starting to remind me of the late 1990s Broncos -- when they finally got John Elway a running game (Terrell Davis), they won back-to-back Super Bowls. I see the Pats doing the same thing, giving a later-in-his-career Tom Brady the support he needs on the ground to take the team over the top.
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