NFL 2014-15 Outrights – Conference Championships and Super Bowl

Welcome all to the Pigskin Punk season preview, full of tips for this year’s season. In this article I’m going to lay out who I think will win both Conference Championship games and the big game in Glendale, Super Bowl XLIX. That’s 49, by the way. So, yeah, let’s jump in.

AFC Championship

AFC

Last year’s historic offensive showing from the Denver Broncos highlighted a couple of things in my eyes. Firstly, it is further proof of the NFL’s transition to a pass-first, up-tempo offense league is in full swing and looks to continue well into the second half of this decade. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it shone the spotlight on the AFC and its collection of atrocious defenses.

This year looks to be more of the same, though there have been some notable additions amongst some of a few of the teams (Talib to Denver, Revis to the Pats, Clowney to Houston etc) and others look to improve as young players develop (the Jets, Colts and Ravens). It may well be that the team whose defense can hang with the big guns wins it all in the AFC. With that here are my top 3 tips for this season’s AFC Championship:

Top tip: New England Patriots – 7/2

NE TB&DR

I’m tipping the Pats to take the AFC crown this year for a couple of reasons:

 Revis Island, MA: The addition of Darrelle Revis to an already stout Patriots D this year will tip them over the top, particularly in the playoffs where they’ll be able to use him to essential remove a team’s top passing target (AJ Green, TY Hilton, Demaryius Thomas etc). Of course, the fact that he’ll be playing opposite former Pro Bowler Brandon Browner also helps. Add in the likely improvements of young guns like Jamie Collins, Chandler Jones, Logan Ryan and Alfonzo Dennard and this group will likely bounce back from its mediocre showing last season (20th DVOA).

Mo’ Gronk, Mo’ Touchdowns: All reports point to Rob Gronkowski being back to full health for the Patriots this season and his impact on this offense cannot be overstated; he’s easily the best skill-position player not named Tom Brady and makes life much easier for those around him. His presence, particularly on seam routes and pre-snap shifts, will free up space for Edelman and Amendola across the middle (until they inevitably get knocked out) as well as drawing the attention of opposing safeties, thus leaving 2nd-year receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins in a better position to make plays on the outside.

A Close Second: Denver Broncos – 5/2

sb1 den

The Broncos are favourites to repeat as AFC Champions this year and for good reason; they’re coming off the back of a monumental season which saw them surpass league records in total points, total yards and a bunch of other categories on their way to the Super Bowl in New Jersey, where the Seattle Seahawks knocked them about like a drunkard in a Boston Beatdown (Google it). The Broncos will likely make it to the championship finals for a third consecutive year, though they’re set to struggle against the Pats (if they make it that far).

The logic behind my Denver-doubting is three-fold:

Eric Decker>Emmanuel Sanders, Knowshon Moreno>Montee Ball: Many pundits are going in the opposite direction on these two replacements, stating that they both represent upgrades over their 2013-14 predecessors. Let’s do a quick bit of myth-busting to show why these two players will leave the Broncos worse off on offense than they were last season.On Moreno>Ball: This comes down to two key factors: ball security and pass protection. Moreno kept his job despite being a somewhat uninspiring runner last season due to his ability to protect both the ball and his QB. Moreno dropped the ball on just one of his 247 rushing attempts last year, whilst Ball dropped the, erm, ball three times on under half that amount (120). Granted, Ball is a more dynamic runner and can punish defences by racking up more yards on draw plays and the like, but how much of a benefit is that if he gives away possession once every other game?

On Decker>Sanders, Eric Decker contributed in a couple of notable ways to the Broncos offense last season. Firstly, he outproduced Demaryius Thomas in terms of receptions over 20 yards last season and was on par with Josh Gordon (Gordon had a handful more yards and one more TD on 15 20+ yard catches); Sanders will struggle to replicate this as his route running isn’t as crisp and, while he has great pace, he lacks the size needed to beat corners on jump balls on the outside or to hang onto the ball over the middle like Decker did. What’s more, having Decker in the lineup gave Peyton Manning a trio of jump-ball threats in the endzone alongside the Thomas’s; indeed, 7 of his 11 TDs came from within the 20-yard line and 5 from within 5 yards which ranked him 6th in the NFL last season. Sanders will struggle to replicate that production near the goal-line at 5’10”, leaving defenses free to double up on both Thomas’.

Tougher schedule: This one doesn’t take a ton of explanation. Last year Denver faced the AFC South and NFC East, whose teams finished a combined 52-76 last season and featured 4 of the 10 worst scoring defenses in the NFL last year. This year Denver face the NFC West and AFC East, which went a combined 76-52, features 5 of last year’s top 10 scoring Ds and also only have 2 teams with losing records last year (St Louis and Miami). That’s one hell of a tough task through the regular season and will likely lead to a number of key players (particularly on offense) getting the stuffing knocked out of them week after week.

The Super Bowl showcase: The final thing which will surely go against the Broncos this year is their display in their drubbing by Seattle in February. The Seahawks put on a clinic in stopping the Denver offense and exploiting their defense, which many in the league will have paid very close attention too; after all the Pats have just signed former Seahawks and press coverage expert Brandon Browner alongside Darelle Revis and are renowned for their ability to gameplan for specific opponents. There’s also the small matter of the San Diego Chargers, who stole a road game at Mile High in Week 15 with a solid run-the-rock, ball control offense and some fantastic bend-but-don’t-break defense.

It’s worth noting that the Broncos did make some upgrades with Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward joining the secondary to replace arguably the team’s two worst defenders from last year (Duke Ihenacho and Champ Bailey). They’ll also be getting Ryan Clady back at LT, which should strengthen a couple of spots on the O-Line as well, so it’s far from doom and gloom. However, given the big step forward the Pats have taken this season, the Broncos attempts to keep pace have left them a half-step behind.

Dark Horse: Baltimore Ravens – 14/1

suggs

Probably not the AFC North team many would expect at this spot, given the popularity of the Cincinnati Bengals this offseason, but if I were to take a flyer on one of the outsiders from this conference it would be Baltimore. They have experience and leadership in the form of Joe Flacco and Terrell Suggs, young talent like Marlon Brown and Matt Elam and have upgraded a couple of key spots on both sides of the ball this offseason (Brandon Albert at LT, Steve Smith at WR, C.J. Moseley at ILB and Terrence Brooks at FS). Yes, they had a shitty year last year, particularly running the rock, but between bringing in Gary Kubiak as Offensive Co-Ordinator, making additions to the offense and the potential for Ray Rice to bounce back with a big chip on his shoulder this year, there are plenty of reasons to believe that Baltimore will be back to their old selves again in 2014.

NFC Championship

NFC

Unlike the AFC, the NFC is far from a two-horse race this year, though there are certainly a few teams who stand out. The incumbent Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks (I love typing that) are set for another strong season as they’ve made some canny additions (and subtractions) but are by no means the runaway favourites in a tough conference.

In contrast to their AFC counterparts, the teams leading the line for the NFC are all stout on defense and have proven it year on year. There are a couple of stacked divisions (the West and South) and some legit contenders from the other two divisions as well; I’m looking at you Eagles, Packers and Bears. So, without further ado, here are my tips for the NFC Championship:

Top Tip: Seattle Seahawks – 7/2

sb2 sea

I desperately wanted to put another team here as my top tip for this season, purely to prove my objectivity and integrity as a pundit (whatever that is). But try as I might, I can’t pick another team to beat the Hawks from the field of extremely tough competitors behind them. Here’s a quick breakdown of my thinking:

DangeRuss earns his nickname: Russell Wilson took a big statistical step forward last season, but it was his mental development that impressed me. The sophomore QB showed great character, leadership and composure throughout the regular season and playoffs (minus an ugly game against the Colts), made his progressions well, knew when to pull down the ball and run and also showed some great chemistry with some of his receivers, including Doug Baldwin, who’ll be starting opposite Percy Harvin this year. Speaking of Harvin, he’ll be playing this year after largely sitting out the regular season and the majority of the playoffs last year. Adding one of the league’s best playmakers can only help Wilson and the Seahawks offense in their Super Bowl defence this year. 

Look for an (even more) eye-popping performance from DangeRuss in 2014 as his best WR gets healthy, the O-line starts healthy for the first time since he was drafted and he gets a new(ish) toy to play with in Christine Michael. Oh yeah, and Marshawn Lynch’ll still be there, running the rock about 250 times in the regular season to keep defenses honest on every down.

SEA!  FENCE!: Whilst the ‘Hawks run-first, ball control offense impressed with its dominance last year, it was the D who were the real stars of the show. Up front a stable of pass-rushers lead by free agent acquisitions Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett ground QBs into the dirt all year, whilst the “Legion of Boom” locked down receivers on the backend. Many will point to Richard Sherman as the star of the show on D, but personally my vote goes to Earl Thomas, who locks down the middle of the field and allows the team to play so aggressively. Those stars, as well as Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith and the guy who should’ve won Super Bowl MVP Kam Chancellor, return to a stacked, young roster with depth for days at almost every position. The departures of stalwarts Red Bryant, Chris Clemons, Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond have created some change on defense, but the emergence of young guys like Byron Maxwell and Bruce Irvin certainly softened the blow a little. Basically, this team was the best defensive unit last year and looks set to repeat that this year.

No escaping the Clink: Seattle  have enjoyed one of the best home-field advantages in sports over the past few years (15-1 since 2012), and the fact that CenturyLink Field has already sold all its season tickets tells you that the volume at home games will, again, be cranked up to 11. The reason I mention the home field advantage here is that Seattle look likely to grab the #1 spot in the conference at the end of the regular season, guaranteeing them home games throughout the playoffs. This becomes particularly relevant in these playoffs as it looks like the ‘Hawks will be facing the 49ers, their biggest division rivals, and the Saints in January 2015 and those two teams stoke up the 12th man like no other.

A Close Second: San Francisco 49ers – 6/1

SF willis

‘9ers fans aren’t going to like this, but I can see their team faltering in the same stadium that they did last year, only a round earlier. If they don’t, the NFC Championship is theirs to lose. As was the case last year, the NFC West holds the two best teams in the NFL this season and looks like a lock to produce its third consecutive Super Bowl finalist. The reason I’m going with the bookies and listing San Francisco as my 2nd-favourites to win the NFC Championship (apart from because of how good the Seahawks are) come down to a couple of factors:

Can Kap earn his contract?: This might seem like a dim question given that Kaepernick led his team to a Super Bowl game in his first season as a starter and got to the NFC Championship game in his second. However, I’m starting to wonder about his ability to close big games. In both of the aforementioned games, the two biggest of his career, he threw away late interceptions on potentially game-winning drives. Being forced to rely on Anquan Boldin for so much of last season will either prove to be a blessing or a curse as Kap’ll either now have 2 receivers (3 including Vernon Davis) that he trusts or become even more one-read focussed than he was last year.  In a way he’s kind of an anti-Russell Wilson; pure athleticism, a rocket arm and prototypical size but struggles to make his progressions and needs serious refinement in his technique. 

Please don’t take this as Kap-bashing; if he consistently played at the best of his ability Kapaernick would be the best QB in the NFL. He doesn’t, so he isn’t, but once he masters the big moments he’ll be a lock for Pro Bowls and Super Bowl wins for a decade.

Can Frank Gore keep going and if not, who gets his carries?: It seems like people have been saying that Frank Gore’s getting old for years now but he shows no sign of slowing down; Gore hit the magical age of running back regression (30) last year and still put in a solid performance, averaging 4.2 Yards Per Carry and scoring 9 rushing TDs. On the off chance that this is finally the year that his YPC drops too low or he gets injured, who will replace him? Jim Harbaugh has had a host of talented young backs at his disposal, but none have carried the ball consistently at the highest level; LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter are both out for the year, Marcus Lattimore is an unknown given that he’s had such a long layoff due to injuries and rookie Carlos Hyde showed some upside in preseason, but do you really want him running the rock 20 times a game right now? Again, all this is hypothetical as we don’t know if Gore will regress in any way, but if he does, the 49ers run game starts to look pretty dicey.

Where did all the starters go?: The injury to Navorro Bowman last year was gut-wrenching for 49ers fans and for those of us who just appreciate excellent linebacker play. With the Pro Bowler out for a large stretch of the season, the smart money is on the experienced (if not particularly exciting) Michael Wilhoite to jump in beside Patrick Willis for the first half of the season. The 49ers do also have two rookie ILBs who just happen to be two of my favourite members of this years draft class: Chris Borland from Wisconsin and Shayne Skov from Stanford. All three lack the same range and speed as Bowman, not to mention technique, strength, diagnostic ability etcetcetc, so whoever gets the nod will prove a liability in pass coverage. This becomes particularly problematic due to the ‘9ers lack of depth at safety and nickel back, as they’ll struggle to bring in a competent replacement in nickel packages and on passing downs. With Bowman currently on the PUP list and unlikely to come off it any time soon, he looks set to miss the first six games of the season and even once he’s back, he’s unlikely to be up to top speed; a torn ACL and MCL is tough to come back from, even for a professional athlete at the peak of physical fitness.

Throw in the suspension of Aldon Smith for 9 games and the likely suspension of Ray MacDonald and this defense is suddenly down three starters, not ideal for a team that’s going to face New Orleans, Denver, KC and Philly in the first half of the season.

As above with Denver, none of this means that SF won’t be a really, really good team next year; they have a great D full of Pro Bowl quality players, the development of Eric Reid at FS has been superb, the competition for extra snaps behind Frank Gore in the run game will be terrific and their O-line is, for my money, the best in the NFL (though, according to Football Outsiders, they ranked 29th overall in run blocking and 22nd in pass pro last season, which blew my mind). The 49ers have a shot to take it all the way this year if they come back with strong answers to the issues above.

Dark Horse: New Orleans Saints – 8/1

nola graham

NOLA have been a consistently great team offensively; Drew Brees is the first QB in NFL history to throw for 5000 yards for 3 consecutive seasons, Jimmy Graham is the best playmaking tight end in the NFL and there are emerging stars on the roster like Kenny Stills and Khiry Robinson. The big turnaround on defense last year was an eye-opener and they will likely improve this year with the addition Jairus Byrd, the development of youngsters like Kenny Vaccaro, Junior Galette and Cam Jordan and an extra year to work in Rob Ryan’s hybrid, zone-blitz, batshit-complex scheme. The Saints will take a big step forward this season, and given that they came close to beating Seattle at the Clink in the Divisional Round, that puts them right back in the mix for the NFC Championship. The only reason I’ve put them behind their NFC West rivals is that D; it’s good but not at the level of either SF or SEA and certainly not good enough to beat them on their own turf. If the Saints steal home-field advantage, however, and the Championship game is played at the Superdome then all bets are off.

Super Bowl XLIX

owl

And finally, the big one.

Top Tip: Seattle Seahawks – 6/1

money

It might seem like the obvious answer, but I’m going for a SEA-peat this year and expect the ‘Hawks to win it all again for the second year on the bounce. Repeating Super Bowl winners are extremely rare, but this team will avoid the pitfalls of success and take home the Lombardi trophy this year. This is partly down to scheme, partly down to personnel and partly opposition. I’ll break it down real quick:

Scheme: We are yet to see an offense that can really hang with the Seahawks D, and that doesn’t look to change much this year. By controlling the line of scrimmage with the hybrid 4-3 Under and looking down receivers with great press-man corners and fast, intelligent safeties (as well as formidable physicality) we are yet to see an NFL team really tear apart the Seahawks defense since DC Dan Quinn came in last year. And none of it is achieved by trickery or misdirection, either; teams KNOW what Seattle want to do defensively and they have been unable to get around them so far.

Offensively, this is the same run-first, ball control offense that beat people around all last year. The losses of Golden Tate and Breno Giacomini merely mean less taunting and holding calls.

Personnel: Many Super Bowl winners fall apart the following season as they lose big-name players to free agency or retirement or get complacent through a combination of big payouts and the trappings of success. Not these guys. There were losses through free agency, but those are “addition through subtraction” to a large extent. The exceptions are perhaps Red Bryant and Brandon Browner, by there are equally skilled guys ready to replace them (Michael Bennett and Byron Maxwell to be specific). Otherwise is the almost the exact same squad which rampaged across the NFL last season. In terms of motivation, Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman are both well known for being self0motivated and HC Pete Carroll was able to sustain a decade of success at USC before going to Seattle, so he has experience of maintaining high standards.

Opposition: The final part of the equation is the other team that will be playing in the Super Bowl. Whether it’s New England or Denver (it’ll be New England), Seattle are a more balanced, better developed team; both teams have OK-not-great defenses (though New England have taken steps forward) which will struggle to get Wilson, Lynch & co off the field, whilst the Seattle D has proved a good match for both offenses and figures to do so again.

A Close Second: New England Patriots 8/1

NE brady snow

As previously established, the Pats will make it to the Super Bowl this year on the back of their excellent offense and newly improved D. It’s the latter that has landed them this spot ahead of the 49ers, as I think Revis, Browner & co could competently hold off the SF offense but not Seattle’s. Against either of the NFC West heavyweights the offense will be in a strange situation; they thrive on passes to Gronk or one of the slot receivers across the middle on the basis that they’re more athletic than the linebackers and safeties that will be covering them. So what happens when they’re not?

Dark Horse: New Orleans Saints – 12/1

NOLA brees

Wooooooahh there, slow your roll. Before you kick off at the lack of Broncos or 9ers on this list, ‘ear me now. I’ve gone into length as to why the Pats will be in the Super Bowl instead of the Broncos, I’ll leave that alone. Let me explain my logic here. In order to make it to the SB, San Francisco are (more than likely) going to have to earn a wildcard spot, meaning their path to the final goes (most likely) through either Seattle or New Orleans. Those are not road games this 9ers team looks able to win.

On the other hand, the Saints look likely to grab one of the top two spots in the playoff bracket and have a fantastic home record. In the event that they get into the Super Bowl, NOLA are a great shout to win; Sean Payton is a football genius, Rob Ryan’s defense is capable of getting both stops and turnovers against any pass-first team and the offense would outclass either Denver’s or New England’s defense.

Please note: Odds taken from oddschecker.com on 4/9/14. (That’s the 4th of September for any Americans out there.)

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