The Ravens are still celebrating their Super Bowl XLVII win. The champagne is still cold. The parade hasn't even begun. Looking ahead is premature. But it's not prohibited, and it's fun. Besides, what else are we going to do until next season? Here are the five teams that are the biggest threats at this point to win Super Bowl XLVIII: No Broncos, Falcons, Giants, Redskins, or Texans on this list, which undoubtedly will disturb some of you. So read on:
1. San Francisco 49ers
If you keep coming close, you can find a way to finally break through. Ask the Ravens. They made the playoffs the past five seasons before finally unlocking the key to winning it all. It takes perseverance to do that. It also takes young talent at key positions. The 49ers have both. Start with quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Is there anybody still wondering if Kaepernick has the goods to be a great NFL quarterback? Ten starts into his career, Kaepernick is already keeping defensive coordinators up at night. He will keep getting better. Even if defenses become more proficient at handling the pistol offense, Kaepernick is going to become more proficient as a pocket passer.
The 49ers also have a core of young players trending upward. Michael Crabtree. LaMichael James. Navorro Bowman. Aldon Smith. General manager Trent Baalke knows talent. Ditto for head coach Jim Harbaugh. The nucleus for sustained success is there. Harbaugh will not allow complacency to set in. The 49ers came back hungry after losing to the Giants in the NFC championship. They should come back even hungrier after being edged in Super Bowl XLVII. As the 49ers filed into their postgame press conferences late Sunday night, I saw dejection. But I also saw anger. They believed they were the better team, but failed to prove it on the field. The same resolve that took them to the Super Bowl can get them back, especially since the same hard-driven coach will be pushing the buttons.
2. Baltimore Ravens
Next season is going to be harder for them. It's human nature. Ask the Giants. Ask any of the recent teams that have attempted to defend a Super Bowl title and failed. However, there are many reasons to believe the Ravens will make a strong run at defending their crown. Flacco will be freer than ever to let his talent flow. General manager Ozzie Newsome is a master at finding young players in the draft to fill needs. The presence of Ray Lewis will be missed, but he wasn't the Ravens' only leader. In fact, the Ravens have a ton of leaders. Ray Rice. Terrell Suggs. Flacco. Haloti Ngata.
The Ravens won a Super Bowl with Lewis, Suggs, Ngata, and Ed Reed never playing a single game together until the playoffs. There's a lot of resiliency to this team. Newsome must figure out if he can bring back both Reed and Anquan Boldin, but there is no way Newsome is going to leave the Ravens in a position where they don't have enough talent to take a run at repeating. Some will label the Broncos or Patriots at the team to beat in the AFC. Maybe even the Texans. But in my opinion, it will still be the Ravens.
3. Seattle Seahawks
Russell Wilson said it himself. After losing to the Falcons in the playoffs, Wilson left the field thinking about how much he was looking forward to next season. Who can blame him? The Seahawks might have reached the Super Bowl this season if they had won the NFC West. They were undefeated at home. They dominated the 49ers late in the season. They came within a hair of reaching the NFC championship game. Like the 49ers, the Seahawks have a dynamic young quarterback in Wilson, and a physical team on both sides of the ball. I'd pay money to see both Seahawks-49ers games next season. That's saying a lot for a sportswriter.
4. New England Patriots
Can't have a top five list of potential Super Bowl teams without listing the Patriots. Well, I guess you could, But it wouldn't make sense.
Some people are acting like the Patriots fell apart this season. They won another division title and reached the AFC championship game. How embarrassing. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick still have the same professional zip code. They are one of the league's greatest quarterback-coach combinations. Do you really believe the Bills, Dolphins or Jets are going to win the AFC East next year? Pencil in the Patriots for another division title. Which makes them a serious Super Bowl threat.
5. Green Bay Packers
With Aaron Rodgers, we know they are set at quarterback. With Mike McCarthy as head coach, we know he will keep pushing the envelope offensively, keep challenging Rodgers. We know general manager Ted Thompson will keep pouring in the talent. We can't be sure about their defense. Even with Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson, it just hasn't been good enough the past two seasons. But if Thompson, McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers can figure out a way to give Rodgers just a little more help, the Packers could get back to the big game.
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