There's no clear-cut favorite in the NFL.
The National Football League has never been more compelling, amazing and balanced going into a season. You could intelligently make a case for several different teams to earn a playoff berth and then make a run to Levi's Stadium for the big game.
Before I get to my predicted matchup, though, allow me to address some of the other teams that were considered.
On the NFC side, of course, deliberation must begin with the team that has taken the conference crown in each of the past two seasons: the Seattle Seahawks. Pete Carroll's squad is strong, per usual. But there are legit concerns entering the 2015 campaign -- concerns that begin with the "Legion of the Boom." Kam Chancellor still hasn't reported, holding out for more money. Earl Thomas is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, while Richard Sherman has been dealing with health issues of his own. Lastly, Byron Maxwell, last year's starting corner opposite Sherman, is now playing for the Philadelphia Eagles. Looking at the other side of the ball ... I loved the acquisition of Jimmy Graham, but giving up Max Unger in that deal dealt a big blow to an offensive line that now looks pretty underwhelming. And what really bugs me about Seattle? The Super Bowl loss hangover. The Seahawkscan't stop talking about the ill-fated pass play that doomed Seattle last February. If the team can't put it in the past, why should I? I won't discount the Seahawks from contention -- nobody in their right mind would -- but I won't pick them.
Two other NFC teams I thought about: the Cardinals and Eagles. I'm high on both in 2015, but both have questions. Andre Ellington needs to stay healthy and productive in Arizona. Same with Sam Bradford in Philly. I have both teams winning double-digit games, but don't see either making it to the final Sunday of the season.
Looking at the AFC, I like the Patriots, Ravens, Broncos, Steelers and Dolphins to make noise this year. But all of them have issues, as well. While I envision Tom Brady going on the single greatest revenge tour in the history of sports, I have legit concerns about the cornerback position in New England. Baltimore is tough and pretty well-rounded, but I'm worried about the Ravens' defensive backfield, too. Peyton Manning isn't getting any younger in Denver. Pittsburgh has an explosive offense, but I have questions about the talent on defense. And in Miami, the roster is nice, but I'm not sure about the head coach.
OK, so every team in the NFL can be picked apart. This goes back to the "no clear-cut favorite" point I made above. With that in mind, my tie-breaker hinges on the most important position in team sports: the quarterback.
Yes, in a quarterback-driven league, it's just that simple. But for the sake of full understanding, allow me to expand on my thoughts a bit, starting with the Pack.
Full disclosure: The Jordy Nelson injury gave me pause with Green Bay. Back in June, I penned a column explaining why I thought this was going to be the best Packers offense Mike McCarthy has ever had -- with Nelson playing a leading role. I've routinely argued that Nelson is a top-five receiver in the game and voted him first-team All-Pro this past season. He's a stud. Losing him is a huge blow.
However, I still don't see reason to significantly downgrade Green Bay.
Here's a simple truth: Rodgers makes everyone better. He's special. And he will maximize the player whose role just increased with the Nelson injury: Davante Adams. This summer on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," McCarthy told me that Adams, a second-year pro who oozes potential, was the team's offseason MVP. I think Adams will catch 80 balls this year. Meanwhile, Green Bay held its collective breath when Randall Cobb got hurt this past weekend, but it appears his shoulder injury is just a small bump in the road. Looks like he'll be ready to play -- and be Randall Cobb -- in Week 1. The offensive line has had some injuries in the preseason, but I still agree with McCarthy's statement to me that this is the best O-line he's had since he took over the Packers. And the 25-year-old bruiser in the backfield, Eddie Lacy, provides Rodgers with needed, excellent balance.
The Packers' defense is suspect, and frankly looked awful in the third preseason game against the Eagles. (So did Green Bay's special teams, for what it's worth.) Concerning, but here are a few things I will choose to believe. Clay Matthews is a difference maker. I think Dom Capers, despite what many Packer Backers seem to feel, knows what he's doing and is a very good defensive coach. I believe guys like Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Julius Peppers, Morgan Burnett and Casey Hayward, among others, are good and reliable players.
And here's the big key to the defense: I really believe in Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay's defense doesn't have to be great; it just can't bury the football team. Rodgers is that incredible and dominant -- he can diminish the impact of mistakes and deficiencies in other areas.
Luck is a megastar who raises the game of everyone around him. Every year he's been a pro, he's advanced one step further in postseason play. Last season, his Coltsgot bludgeoned by the Patriots in the AFC title game. This year, Indy gets revenge. Mainly because Luck finally has some experienced friends to rely on.
I loved the Colts' offseason. It wasn't haphazard, wasn't marked by flyers taken on guys hoping to find the fountain of youth. It was savvy and calculated. General manager Ryan Grigson brought in veterans who, while they might not be the same exact players they were in their prime, represent upgrades on the Colts' roster while also providing incredible leadership. Frank Gore is one of the most respected guys in football, and he's clearly better than anything Indianapolis had at running back last year. Andre Johnson will be rejuvenated, playing with a star quarterback for the first time in his 13-year career. Todd Herremans beefs up the offensive line. Trent Cole is a major addition on defense, giving the Colts a highly accomplished guy to get after the quarterback.
On draft night, to be honest, I didn't love the Phillip Dorsett selection in Round 1. And I still believe Grigson could've used the No. 29 pick to reinforce the defense. That said, the thought of Luck throwing to T.Y. Hilton, Johnson, Dorsett, Donte Moncrief and the talented tight end duo (Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener) is pretty darn intoxicating.
The league is celebrating its 50th Super Bowl. Nothing would be more poetic and perfect then watching two unbelievable quarterbacks shoot it out.
Is it February yet?