The Seattle Seahawks are champions of the NFL and while the celebration in the Pacific Northwest is just getting started, the focus elsewhere across the league has already shifted to next season. As far as the 2014 campaign goes, one thing is for certain: the weather will not be an issue whatsoever when the Super Bowl returns to Glendale, Ariz., next February.
So with that settled, the question then becomes which two teams will meet on the field at University of Phoenix Stadium on Feb. 1, 2015 in Super Bowl XLIX? With the start of free agency still a month away and the draft a little farther down the road; here is an early look at the contenders.
The Reigning Champions
2013 Record: 13-3 (NFC West, NFC, Super Bowl XLVIII champions)
To the victor go the spoils, which is why the Seahawks understandably top this list. The youngest team to ever win a Super Bowl, according to ProFootballReference.com, Pete Carroll’s bunch appears well positioned for a shot at making history next season. Several of the team’s core players are signed, but there is definitely work to be done this offseason with numerous key free agents and others on the verge of significant pay raises.
Similar to Baltimore after its Super Bowl victory in 2013, don’t be surprised if Seattle’s roster undergoes some rather significant changes. The Seahawks also don’t have a third-round pick in the upcoming draft thanks to the Percy Harvin trade with Minnesota, but this front office has done an excellent job in finding impact players in the later rounds. There’s no reason to expect this team to take a major step backwards next season, but the road back to the Super Bowl will be anything but easy.
The Hated Division Rival
San Francisco 49ers
2013 Record: 12-4 (NFC Wild Card berth, lost to Seattle in NFC Championship Game)
A couple of plays and lucky bounces away from a repeat trip to the Super Bowl, the 49ers are not that far behind the defending champions. Just like Seattle, this team is young and has even more of its core signed to long-term deals. There are decisions to be made with wide receiver Anquan Boldin and several members of the secondary free agents, but the team has some cap space to work with.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick also appears headed for a lucrative new contract, but Jim Harbaugh and the front office have a treasure trove of 12 draft picks at their disposal, including a total of five in the first three rounds. The only negative for San Francisco was the serious knee injury that All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman suffered in the NFC Championship Game loss. He recently underwent surgery and there’s a chance he won’t be ready to go by Week 1 this fall.
2013 Record: 13-3 (AFC West, AFC champions, lost to Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII)
The sting of the 43-8 drubbing by Seattle in the Super Bowl will no doubt linger, but as long as Peyton Manning’s surgically repaired neck checks out, Denver could find itself in the very same position next February. Keep in mind that this was a team that played without its All-Pro left tackle the entire season and was missing its All-Pro linebacker, as well as a starting defensive tackle and cornerback in the Super Bowl.
John Elway has some work to do with this roster, with running back Knowshon Moreno, wide receiver Eric Decker, linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Shaun Phillips and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie topping a deep group of pending free agents, but there should be enough resources available, as well as motivation, to find a way to keep the band together for another championship run. Also worth pointing out, the AFC West and NFC West play each other in crossover action next season with the Broncos set to pay a visit to Seattle, possibly as early as Week 1. Can you say “must-see TV?”
The Other Contenders
(in alphabetical order)
2013 Record: 12-4 (NFC South champions, lost to San Francisco in NFC Divisional Round)
This young team took a giant leap forward in 2013, but this offseason will go a long ways to determining if the Panthers are going to stick around or be a one-hit wonder. Key pieces like defensive end Greg Hardy, tight end Greg Olsen, offensive lineman Jordan Gross, and defensive backs Captain Munnerlyn and Mike Mitchell headline the free agents and this offense desperately needs help at wide receiver. With the right moves, Carolina could take the next step this fall, but there’s also a chance the Panthers could fall back to the rest of the pack in the NFC South.
2013 Record: 11-5 (AFC South champions, lost to San Diego in AFC Wild Card Game)
A promising regular season for the Bengals ended with a disappointing thud in the home Wild Card game loss to San Diego. Couple that with the departure of both coordinators and Marvin Lewis’ team enters an offseason of transition. That said, this was the No. 3 defense in the NFL and that was without All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins for about half of the season. Cincinnati has plenty of cap space to build for both the present and the future, as it looks to reinforce weak areas. Andy Dalton’s maturation as a quarterback could be the difference between another playoff appearance and a potential deep postseason run.
Green Bay Packers
2013 Record: 8-7-1 (NFC North champions, lost to San Francisco in NFC Wild Card Game)
As long as Aaron Rodgers is upright, this team will be a contender. But we saw what happened to the Packers when he got hurt in Week 9 – they went 2-4-1 without him under center. The emergence of Offensive Rookie of the Year Eddie Lacy is important, but the NFL’s 25th-ranked defense must be addressed. There also are some concerns regarding the offensive line and several free agents along the defensive line and in the secondary. Green Bay has room to improve, and will need to do so or run the risk of Chicago and/or Detroit possibly overtaking them in the NFC North.
New England Patriots
2013 Record: 12-4 (AFC East champions, lost to Denver in AFC Championship Game)
As long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are together, the Patriots will be right there in the thick of things in the AFC. Especially considering the rest of their division is full of teams in different stages of rebuilding. That said, Brady will be 37 years old when next season opens and it’s no stretch to say New England’s window of opportunity may be closing. There are plenty of free agents on this roster, All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski will be coming back from yet another serious injury that required surgery, cap space is an issue and the Patriots don’t have their usual stash of draft picks to work with. New England should still be the team to beat in the AFC East, but its margin for error is shrinking.
New Orleans Saints
2013 Record: 11-5 (NFC Wild Card berth, lost to Seattle in NFC Divisional Round)
Similar to New England, New Orleans will be a team to be reckoned with as along as Sean Payton and Drew Brees are there tormenting opposing defenses. The Saints finished just behind Carolina in the NFC South and after beating Philadelphia in the Wild Card game on the road, hung tough in Seattle before falling to the eventual Super Bowl champs. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan orchestrated a remarkable turnaround on that side of the ball and the challenge now is to keep enough of the pieces together. New Orleans is projected to be well over the cap, and re-signing tight end Jimmy Graham is the No. 1 offseason priority. It will take some work, but with shrewd moves in free agency and the draft, the Saints should be right in the thick of things again in 2014.
The Wild, Wild NFC West
2013 Record: 10-6 (3rd in NFC West)
The only 10-win team to not make the playoffs; the Cardinals can’t be taken too lightly even though they are in the same division as the past two NFC champions. All-Pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald restructured his contract in hopes of re-signing key free agents like linebacker Karlos Dansby, as Arizona finished sixth in the NFL in defense in the regular season. The success of this team next season will more than likely come down to the offense, as more is needed out of the running game and the tight end position. Quarterback Carson Palmer is 34 years old, so Bruce Arians and the front office also need to start thinking about the future of this position, especially with so many promising options in this year’s draft.
St. Louis Rams
2013 Record: 7-9 (4th in NFC West)
In another division, the Rams could be considered the frontrunner, but instead they find themselves battling in the league’s toughest four-team grouping. The defense has the potential to be just as good as its divisional brethren, which is saying something, but the offense has a long ways to go. First Jeff Fisher and the front office have to decide whether they are committed to quarterback Sam Bradford, who is returning from a torn ACL, long term or if they need to use an early pick on another quarterback. The good news is the team has a bevy of selections in May’s draft, including the No. 2 overall pick thanks to the 2012 trade with Washington and the Redskins’ subsequent collapse (3-13) this season. The offensive line has some holes, but if running back Zac Stacy and wide receiver Tavon Austin and some others continue to develop, this offense, and likewise the Rams, could surprise.
Other Teams to Watch
(in alphabetical order)
2013 Record: 4-12 (4th in NFC South)
From hosting the NFC Championship Game just a season ago to a 4-12 train wreck, it’s been quite the roller-coaster ride for Mike Smith and the Falcons. Injuries absolutely decimated this team on both sides of the ball and there will be changes this offseason. However, with quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Steven Jackson and wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White, Atlanta has plenty of offensive firepower to work with. Future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez will be tough to replace at tight end, but the focus needs to be on beefing up the offensive line and reinforcing the defense. The Falcons figure to be active in free agency and it’s not out of the question that they pull off a Carolina-esque turnaround in 2014.
2013 Record: 2-14 (4th in AFC South)
Everything that could possibly go wrong for the Texans this season did and as a result they have a new head coach in Bill O’Brien and the first pick in May’s draft. Quarterback is obviously a priority and O’Brien and the front office will identify their guy and target him in the draft. Running back Ben Tate is a free agent and will probably cash in elsewhere, but as long as Arian Foster returns healthy, the backfield shouldn’t be an issue. Houston doesn’t have much cap space to work with, but it’s not like O’Brien is starting completely over from scratch either. Depending on what happens at quarterback, the Texans could be next season’s version of Kansas City – go from being the worst team in the NFL to a playoff participant.
2013 Record: 11-5 (AFC South champions, lost to New England in AFC Divisional Round)
The defending AFC South champions have one of the best young quarterbacks in the game and some talented pass-catchers. However, the backfield is a mess and the offensive line needs some attention. The good news is the Colts are projected to have a lot (as in $33 million) of cap space to work with, but the team also has a lot of pending free agents on the roster. Indianapolis can’t count on much help coming from this draft either, as the Trent Richardson trade with Cleveland cost the Colts their first-round pick. In fact, as of right now, Indianapolis has just four picks.
2013 Record: 10-6 (NFC East champions, lost to New Orleans in NFC Wild Card Game)
Even though the Eagles lost to the Saints at home in the NFC Wild Card game, Chip Kelly’s first season in the NFL couldn’t have gone much better. Now the question becomes what does he and his team have in mind for an encore? Philadelphia appears to be well positioned considering the current state of affairs that exists with its divisional foes. Washington has a new coaching staff, Dallas has salary cap issues galore and the New York Giants are a team in transition. Offensively, the Eagles are pretty much set with Pro Bowl-caliber skill players and an outstanding offensive line in place. Wide receivers Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin, who missed all of last season, are both free agents, but otherwise the biggest area of concern appears to be in the secondary. Don’t be surprised if defense is the focus in free agency and the draft.