Early Super Bowl XLVIII Contenders

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Baltimore, San Fran top our list of teams most likely to play in New York City in 2014

<p> Early Super Bowl XLVIII Contenders</p>

Even though the celebration in Baltimore will go on throughout the week and beyond, it’s never too early to look ahead to the 2013 season, right? With that in mind, here’s Athlon Sports’ early look at which teams could be playing in Super Bowl XLVIII in MetLife Stadium in New York City on Feb. 2, 2014.

By the way, the temperature in the Big Apple as of game time on Sunday night was a brisk 31 degrees. Whichever two teams do make it to next season’s Super Bowl will want to be sure and pack their cold-weather gear.

The Reigning Champions

Baltimore Ravens
2102 Record:
(10-6 — AFC North, AFC, Super Bowl XLVII champions)

Nothing, and I mean nothing, is going to dampen the euphoria in Baltimore this week and probably for a little while longer. To the victor go the spoils, which is why the Ravens lead off our list of next season's contenders. That said, Baltimore's title defense in the 2013 season will be handled by a roster that will look quite different. Besides Ray Lewis retiring, the Ravens have some serious cap issues that must be addressed. Their work begins with Super Bowl XLVII MVP Joe Flacco, who is a free agent and reportedly looking for a new contract that will pay him as much as $20 million per year. Needless to say he pretty much earned it with his performance in New Orleans, but that doesn't change the fact that his new deal will only make the Ravens' cap situation worse. And unfortunately, Flacco isn’t the only key free agent the Ravens have to worry about, as Ed Reed, Cary Williams, Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger are also in the same category, along with several others. As it stands right now, the Ravens will have to cut some players and/or restructure several contracts before they can even be in a position to talk with any of their free agents not named Flacco. So soak it in Ravens fans, celebrate and enjoy this special, unforgettable season because it’s almost a certainty that Lewis wasn’t the only who has played his last game in a Ravens uniform.

The Runners-up

San Francisco 49ers
2012 Record: (11-4-1 — NFC West, NFC champions, lost to Baltimore in Super Bowl XLVII)

They say experience is the best teacher and as tough as the coming weeks are going to be for this San Francisco team, the future still looks incredibly bright. With Colin Kaepernick now entrenched as the starting quarterback, the team’s most important pending free agent is All-Pro free safety Dashon Goldson. A decision will have to be made about Alex Smith’s future, and should defensive end Justin Smith decide to retire some work will need to be done along the defensive line. Otherwise the 49ers’ core remains intact and is still relatively young. This team is not only in great shape to make it back to the Super Bowl next season, but remain a championship contender for years to come.

The Contenders

Atlanta Falcons
2012 Record:
(13-3 – NFC South champions, lost to San Francisco in NFC Championship)

No doubt blowing a second-half lead at home to San Francisco in the NFC Championship game is going to sting for a while, but there’s no reason to think that Atlanta won’t at least make it back to the playoffs next season. Matt Ryan appears to be entering his prime and the Falcons have plenty of weapons on offense to help, especially if tight end Tony Gonzalez decides to come back for one more season. The team does have key free agents on both the offensive line (Sam Baker) and in the secondary (Brent Grimes, William Moore), but there should be enough cap space to keep the roster mostly intact.

Denver Broncos
2012 Record:
(13-3 — AFC West champions, lost to Baltimore in AFC Divisional round)

The pieces (MVP-worthy season from Peyton Manning, one of the league’s best defenses, home-field advantage throughout the playoffs) were seemingly in place for Denver, but the Broncos couldn’t make the plays they needed to the most in their double overtime loss to the Ravens in the AFC Divisional round. Manning may not be getting any younger (he’ll turn 37 in March), but he has young weapons around him and the defense should continue to get better. Right now, the Broncos’ most pressing need is to re-sign free agent All-Pro offensive tackle Ryan Clady and then use their remaining cap space and the draft to shore up other areas of weakness. The secondary could go through some changes as well, especially based on how poorly it performed in the playoff loss.

Green Bay Packers
2012 Record:
(11-5 — NFC North champions, lost to San Francisco in NFC Divisional round)

San Francisco took it to Green Bay in the NFC Divisional round, but as long as Aaron Rodgers is under center, this team can’t be counted out. Whether the Packers re-sign wide receiver Greg Jennings or not remains to be seen, but Rodgers still has Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb in the fold. Also it’s a fairly deep free agent class at receiver, so the Packers should be able to find a replacement for Jennings there or through the draft if need be. Running back has to be another area of concern on offense, but the defense will get an immediate boost with the healthy return of starting linebacker Desmond Bishop. Bishop, who led the team in tackles in 2011, missed all of this past season after tearing his hamstring in a preseason game.

Houston Texans
2012 Record:
(12-4 — AFC South champions, lost to New England in AFC Divisional round)

After starting the season 11-1, Houston stumbled down the stretch, losing four of its final six games, including getting dispatched by New England, 41-28, in the AFC Divisional round. The future, however, remains bright for the Texans who have Pro Bowl-caliber players on offense in quarterback Matt Schaub, running back Arian Foster and wide receiver Andre Johnson, along with one of the best offensive lines in the entire league. Finding a more reliable and productive second option at wide receiver would only make this offense even more dangerous. On defense, the secondary will probably undergo several changes, but it still has playmaker J.J. Watt up front. The defense also will get linebacker Brian Cushing back next season. Cushing tore his ACL in Week 5, and the Texans’ defense wasn’t quite the same after he was sidelined.

New England Patriots
2012 Record:
(12-4 — AFC East champions, lost to Baltimore in AFC Championship)

As good as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have been together, the reality is that New England’s window may be starting to close. For one, Tom Brady will be 36 before the start of next season and this roster is sure to look somewhat different this fall. No fewer than nine key players are pending free agents, the biggest being wide receiver Wes Welker. The secondary, which was victimized often last season (NFL-high 74 passing plays of 20 yards or more), will undergo changes as well, and there’s only so much cap space to go around. The Patriots are among the best in the league at working the cap and the draft, but there appear to be a lot of potential holes to fill here. With so many “new” players coming to a relatively veteran team, you can’t help but wonder if the end of an era is upon us.

Pittsburgh Steelers
2012 Record:
(8-8, 3rd in AFC North)

Similar to New England, Pittsburgh is facing some difficult decisions related to the future of its franchise as well. The Steelers were decimated by key injuries last year, especially along the offensive line and on defense. On top of that, the team has several core players either getting older or are free agents. One of those free agents is wide receiver Mike Wallace, who will more than likely have to be replaced, and he’s not the only Pittsburgh starter on that list. Complicating the Steelers’ makeover plans is identifying its lead running back (if they even have one on the roster) and the fact that they are going to have to do some work to get under the cap. The pieces are still in place for the Steelers to contend, but it’s critical that they bring in reinforcements and some new blood this offseason if they want to hang around beyond next season.

Seattle Seahawks
2012 Record:
(11-5 — Wild Card berth, lost to Atlanta in NFC Divisional round)

If not for San Francisco, Seattle could have potentially topped this list of contenders, as the Seahawks were just a last-second field goal away from playing the 49ers in the NFC Championship game. As it is, these two NFC West foes could be on the verge of establishing a divisional rivalry similar to that of the Steelers and Ravens from recent years. The Seahawks are strikingly similar to their NFC West counterparts in that they both are led by former Pac-12 coaches, like to run the ball, have one of the league’s best defenses, and found their franchise quarterbacks this season because of injuries. There really appear to be no glaring weaknesses on Seattle’s roster, so the mission now is to work on getting better, building depth and look for ways to keep its core intact. Sound familiar? That’s also San Francisco’s game plan this offseason.

Teams to Watch

Chicago Bears
2012 Record:
(10-6, 3rd in NFC North)

Of the eight new head coaches, Marc Trestman is the only one taking over a team that finished with a winning record this season. The Bears won 10 games, but still missed the playoffs, mainly due to a lack of offensive production. Trestman’s main job is to fix the offense, starting with the offensive line, along with helping quarterback Jay Cutler make that next step in his development. The defense was one of the league’s best, but it will undergo some changes as well, starting with a new coordinator in Mel Tucker. Still, if this team can adjust to the new coaching staff and system changes, and the front office can make some shrewd moves in free agency and the draft, there are enough pieces already in place for it to remain competitive in the NFC North.

Related: Grading the NFL’s Head Coach Hires for 2013

Cincinnati Bengals
2012 Record:
(10-6 — Wild Card berth, lost to Houston in Wild Card round)

For the second year in a row, Cincinnati watched its season come to an end with a Wild Card loss in Houston. Now it’s time to see if the Bengals can take that next step and challenge the Ravens and Steelers for supremacy in the AFC North. The offensive cornerstones are in place with quarterback Andy Dalton, wide receiver A.J. Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham. The defense made huge strides this season and only should get better. The Bengals do have several free agents to worry about, especially on defense, but with a reported $55.1 million in cap space, the most of any team, there should be more than enough to keep their core intact as well as address other areas of need (running back? wide receiver?).

New York Giants
2012 Record:
(9-7, 2nd in NFC East)

The Giants missed out on a chance to defend their Super Bowl title primarily due to a December road loss to Washington. Whether or not the Giants’ window has closed will be determined somewhat by the decisions made this offseason. The Giants have key players entering free agency, namely Victor Cruz, Osi Umenyiora, Martellus Bennett and Will Beatty, and are already up against the cap as it is. That said, unless the front office decides to blow it all up, the Giants should be able to put the pieces together for one more run next season. Their margin of error, however, will be razor-thin.

Potential Dark Horses

Indianapolis Colts
2012 Record:
(11-5 – AFC Wild Card berth, lost to Baltimore in AFC Wild Card round)

Yes, Indianapolis improved from 2-14 in 2011 to a remarkable 11-5 this season and made the playoffs, and did so with a rookie quarterback and an interim head coach for most of the season. However, this also is a team that walked a fine line between winning and losing. The Colts finished with a point differential of -30 and won eight games by seven or fewer points. This is a young team that should get better and one that has nearly $50 million in projected cap space to help with that. Development and improvement will be necessary to maintain this momentum, however, because it’s too much to ask for the Colts to get all of the breaks on the field again.

New Orleans Saints
2012 Record:
(7-9, 2nd in NFC South)

No team will be happier to see the beginning of the new league year come in March than New Orleans, as the Saints will finally be able to put BountyGate and the rest of the distractions behind them. Regardless of the moves the Saints make in free agency or the draft, they have already brought in their biggest “new” acquisition with the reinstatement and re-signing of head coach Sean Payton. The team has some work to do in regards to the cap and one key player to re-sign in offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod, but more than anything the Saints are just looking forward to a return to normalcy. Don’t forget, the last time Payton coached this team the Saints went 13-3 in the 2011 regular season and lost at San Francisco by just four points in the NFC Divisional round.

San Diego Chargers
2012 Record:
(7-9, 2nd in AFC West)

San Diego won just seven games, had the second-to-worst offense in the NFL and fired its head coach. So what’s to like, you ask? For starters, how about the fact that the Chargers scored as many points as they allowed, lost five games by seven or fewer points and finished as the league’s ninth-ranked defense? Injuries were certainly not this team’s friend either as they wrecked the offensive line as well as running back Ryan Mathews’ season. There’s no question this team has work to do this offseason, but new coach Mike McCoy has already got things started in the right direction by retaining defensive coordinator John Pagano and bringing in former Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt as offensive coordinator to help turn quarterback Philip Rivers around. The cupboard is far from bare in San Diego and with the right moves, some good health and a few breaks; the Chargers could be one of next season's turnaround teams.

The Wild Cards

Fittingly, the three “wild cards” all reside in the same division, the NFC East. Right now, there is no division in the NFL that is harder to put a finger on than the one the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins call home. Consider that for all of the questions facing the Giants and decisions that will have to be made (see above); they still appear to the most “stable” team in the East.

Dallas Cowboys
2012 Record:
(8-8, 3rd in NFC East)

Jason Garrett’s seat continues to get warm as the Cowboys missed the playoffs for the third straight season. Expectations in Big D always remain high, at least as long as Jerry Jones is calling the shots, and Garrett’s job may very well be decided by how well the Cowboys adjust to a new defensive system and philosophy that will be installed by new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. New scheme or not, the Cowboys’ roster will look different next year if not for the simple fact the team is already projected to be nearly $20 million over the cap. So new defense, new personnel and a need to win and quickly. Buckle up Cowboys fans, because it may be a bumpy ride.

Philadelphia Eagles
2012 Record:
(4-12, 4th in NFC East)

Pretty much everything is “new” in Philadelphia starting with head coach Chip Kelly. Besides replacing Andy Reid, who led the Eagles for 14 seasons, Kelly will be the latest college coach trying to prove he can be successful on the next level. The Eagles don’t have many key free agents to worry about re-signing (other than cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie), but in many ways this team is basically starting over from scratch. Remember, quarterback Nick Foles took over as the starter late last season, and now he has to learn a new system with a new head coach and offensive coordinator (Pat Shurmur). At this point, the defense doesn’t even now who will be calling the shots as Kelly has yet to name a coordinator. At least Kelly is coaching in a city known for patient fans, right?

Washington Redskins
2012 Record:
(10-6 – NFC East champions, lost to Seattle in NFC Wild Card round)

Wait a minute, Washington, the defending division champions, should have nowhere to go but up, right? Perhaps, but that seemed much more likely up until the point in the Wild Card game against Seattle when quarterback Robert Griffin III’s right knee buckled trying to field a bad shotgun snap. Griffin left the game, the Redskins lost to the Seahawks, and everyone’s attention shifted to the severity of the No. 2 overall pick’s injury.

A few days later those fears were realized when Griffin underwent surgery to repair the LCL and ACL in his right knee, the same knee in which he tore the ACL during his sophomore year at Baylor. Griffin was reportedly walking without a noticeable limp on Saturday when he accepted the 2012 Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year award, but he will more than likely open training camp on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list to give him more time to heal and get ready.

There is no mistaking Griffin’s value to this team, so now the Redskins go into what should have been an offseason brimming with optimism with plenty of questions surrounding the immediate and long-term future of the man who is supposed to be their franchise quarterback. Even with Griffin, this is still a team that has room for improvement, especially on defense, but since the Redskins gave up so much in the first place to draft Griffin, they can’t expect a lot of help to come in this April’s draft. Washington probably won’t be able to do much in free agency either, even though that’s been owner Daniel Snyder’s preferred method of improving the roster, since they are already projected to be over the cap.

Barring a serious setback, Griffin should return at some point next season. Backup and fellow 2012 draft pick Kirk Cousins showed that he’s capable of holding the fort down, but that one game he started this season also is the only game he has started. Washington should be fine once it gets Griffin back. When that is exactly and where will the Redskins be in the divisional chase and playoff hunt when he returns are anyone’s guess right now.

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