Today, Sept. 3, marks the 40th anniversary of Vince Lombardi's death. Much has happened in the NFL since the legendary Packers coach passed, but his legacy lives on, growing stronger each day.
So on the day we honor Coach Lombardi it is fitting that I write a column on which teams I believe have the best shot at getting to Super Bowl XLV this season in Dallas and who will eventually hoist the Lombardi Trophy. That's not an easy task this year (or quite frankly, any year in this league). The preseason offers some clues, but it also can fool us into believing a team has Super Bowl qualifications, when it does not.
For example, last year the New York Giants looked nearly unbeatable, starting the regular season 5-0 and having the look of a Super Bowl team. Then injuries set in, and they could not overcome their deficiencies, which resulted in them not even making the playoffs. That raises a question: Will the same thing happen to the Packers this year?
When I worked for the Raiders, Al Davis used to call me for information. Whenever I would give him something that might seem too obvious, he would always say, (and not politely), "I could have gotten that in the paper." The benefit of those conversations has always forced me to try and think outside the box, not fall for the obvious, and look deep below the surface for hidden clues.
What we know is this: The 2010 NFL champion will be a team that has mental toughness, can win all the short-yardage situations, is very effective in the red zone, and can score points.
The team that wins the Super Bowl will be in the top 10 of first-half point differential, and in the top five of rushing and passing attempts combined. We also know the Super Bowl champ, on defense, will be able to rush the passer, run a complex scheme, and be physical. That's how you create turnovers.
We also know homefield advantage is important, but not a necessity. We know the first-week bye in the playoffs is nice, but not a necessity. And we know, above and beyond everything, the Super Bowl champ will have a quarterback who plays at an extremely high level.
So who fits this profile?
The Vikings meet all the requirements to be in the big game, but there are some doubts that Brett Favre can duplicate his season from a year ago. Favre is even unsure about whether he can return to his '09 form, when he enjoyed a career year at age 40. Asking for another career year at his age (he will wake up the morning after the Vikings open up against the Saints next week 41 years old) is probably unreasonable.
The Packers have that Super Bowl look. They are explosive on offense, and their defense can rush well enough to balance their deficiencies in the back end, where there are concerns with an ability to cover. But, like the Saints from a year ago, Green Bay can manufacture defense with the versatility of defensive coordinator Dom Capers' scheme.
I know offensive coordinator Jason Garrett played it close to the vest this summer, not doing creative things to show his hand. Plus, the Cowboys are too talented to not move the ball this year, so this preseason blip should not be worrisome. What should, though, is their lack of talent and depth on the offensive line.
The Cowboys also need wide receiver Dez Bryant to be a playmaker, just not a rookie who tries to blend into the offense. Bryant will be counted on to make a explosive Cowboys offense even more explosive. He isn't expected to be a role player for them this year, but rather a significant one who can take some of the burden off Miles Austin, something that Roy Williams has been unable to accomplish.
The 49ers have a talented defense that is mentally tough, but on offense they are far from fitting the profile. They are going to play in many tight games, in part because their defense will keep them in every game, but also because they won't be able to score early enough to put games away. If they had made the trade for Donovan McNabb, they would be my pick in the NFC, but they decided against it. Now they must live and die with Alex Smith at quarterback. My sense is they will eventually die.
There are so many teams in the AFC that fit the profile that it makes it difficult to pick just one. The Colts will always be standing in the final playoff line near the end of the season because of Peyton Manning. With Manning running the offense and running back Joseph Addai looking more powerful, the Colts will be as good on offense as they were a year ago. With a defense that is very fast and most effective in the red zone, the Colts will be a tough team to beat.
Same can be said about the Chargers, who I feel will be better this season offensively because of the new addition of rookie running back Ryan Mathews. The Chargers have been close before, but they have the kind of team that can play any style and win. Coach Norv Turner, who is still one of the top play-callers in the league, has done a great job with the offense.
The Dolphins are a solid team that can execute with physical toughness. Even though they have a difficult schedule, they are one of the toughest-minded team's in the league, which fits the profile of an NFL champ. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall has to be explosive, consistent and healthy all year to make an impact.
The Bengals, Steelers and Ravens are all really good teams that meet the criteria and could be Super Bowl contenders, but can they endure the struggles of playing in the AFC North? These teams might beat up on one another all season, resulting in losing critical players. As much as I like all three, I know the NFL is a war of attrition.
So, where does all this lead us? Back to where we began, with Lombardi, or more precisely, his Packers. Yes, sometimes even the obvious is the answer.
I believe Super Bowl XLV will have Green Bay and San Diego playing for the title. I love the Packers to win it all this year because they fit the profile and their experience from last season -- falling just short in an epic playoff game against the Cardinals -- has left them hungry for more. The Packers are talented, well-coached, and have youthful players that will improve as the season goes along. They also have one of the best quarterbacks in the league in Aaron Rodgers.