With the NFL playoffs about to kick into high gear, we asked our NFL.com and NFL Network analysts to look into their crystal balls and pick the team that's going to hoist the Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 3 in New Orleans.
Over the past two months, it's been nearly impossible to find a flaw in the Broncos. And it's almost as difficult to find a better story than Peyton Manning's unreal comeback. Manning will punctuate his return with his second Super Bowl victory by beating the tough and physical 49ers, who will outlast the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game -- barely.
New England beats the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game because Denver won't get enough "middle push" to disrupt Tom Brady and get him rattled in the pocket. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez will be the difference makers in that game. Seattle is, hands down, the most physically dominant team in the NFC. The Seahawks run the ball and stop the run; they can disrupt any offensive rhythm you try to get into, with their aggressive style of defense.
I've decided to stick with my preseason pick to win it all, the Green Bay Packers. Aaron Rodgers is the most gifted quarterback in the NFL, and I expect him to carry his team to another title. Prior to the season, I chose the Houston Texans to represent the AFC, but I'm bailing on them following their sluggish regular-season finish. Tom Brady will lead a well-balanced and experienced New England Patriots squad to another Super Bowl appearance.
With an unblemished home record behind him, Matt Ryan pushes past the Seattle Seahawks and gets revenge on Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers for beating Atlanta at home in the 2010 playoffs. However, the Falcons lose to the Broncos in the Super Bowl. Peyton Manning will lift the Broncos over the Ravens and out-duel the "Brady Bunch," but the Broncos' defense is what cinches it for Denver, mostly thanks to the way Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller put pressure on Ryan. Cut to John Elway saying, "This one's for Peyton!"
As things sit at this moment -- and I've been known to change my mind once I write my picks column -- I like Denver over Green Bay. The Broncos are running the football effectively, which, in addition to making the offense more diversified (so it's not all on Peyton Manning's shoulders), allows them to close. Clock ball is still not out of style, even in today's NFL. Meanwhile, my sense is that Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers will get hot in the postseason. The Packers' secondary has been a problem, but with Charles Woodson back, that unit's strength will become its flexibility ... even if tackling is still a bit of an issue.
While I admit that the Packers have shown far too much vulnerability to make me feel entirely comfortable with this pick, I'd also be far too annoyed if I diverted from my midseason prediction, only to see Green Bay make a run. Hey, the Packers still have an ultra-elite quarterback. And they have the experience. If that pesky offensive line can get going, Green Bay will have a real shot to get beaten by the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Green Bay's failure to clinch a bye in the Week 17 game against the Minnesota Vikings was disconcerting, but I'm sticking with my preseason pick of Team Rodgers over Team Brady for two reasons: 1) Hubris; and 2) The NFL is a quarterback league ... so it should stand to reason that the league's best QB will beat the league's second-best QB in the big game.
I'm sticking with my preseason pick. Green Bay is getting healthy at the right time, and Aaron Rodgers is clearly the best quarterback in the NFC, though the Seattle Seahawks are a sleeper to tip the apple cart. In the AFC, it's down to New England or the Denver Broncos. In the title game, Charles Woodson being back for the Packers will make the difference.
Sticking with my preseason pick, calling for the Packers -- battle-tested by the NFC bracket and looking a lot like the kingpins they were in 2010 after surviving a bevy of injuries -- to win a shootout at the Superdome.
The Seahawks and Broncos are not only the hottest teams in the NFL right now (though the Washington Redskins should be in that conversation, too), but also the most complete. Both teams have strong running attacks and a strong defense to go along with great quarterback play. The Seahawks' run reminds me a lot of the way the New York Giants got hot last season.