You didn’t really think we could get our offseason coverage started without taking a way-too-early look at next year, right? Of course not. So, with Super Bowl 47 still fresh in our minds, let’s take a sneak peak at the top-10 contenders for Super Bowl 48.
1. San Francisco – Super Bowl losers don’t always do well the following year, but the 49ers are in good shape to be an exception to that. The bulk of their roster is young and so is their coach, who has quickly established himself as one of the best in the league. Most importantly, quarterback Colin Kaepernick has just ten career starts, and will only get better with more experience.
Kaepernick also has the experience of playing in a Super Bowl under his belt and will be less fazed the next time he gets there. The kicker for the 49ers is that they have the most draft picks in the league, so they should have no problem addressing the few needs that they do have. It all leads to the NFC playoffs going through San Francisco next year, as the 49ers appear to be the team with the best shot at reaching Super Bowl 48.
2. Denver – The Broncos were one poorly played hail-Mary pass away from hosting the AFC Championship Game, so they’re very close. After he nearly won the MVP award this season, the window to win with Peyton Manning should be open for at least another two or three years. Wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker are still young and will get better the more time they spend with Manning. Also, the Broncos still have an incredible pass rush and they were able to retain defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. John Elway has been great in the draft the last two years, so Denver should add a few more quality players to bolster its roster even more before the start of next season. At it all up, and the Broncos should have one of the best and most balanced teams in the NFL in 2013.
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3. Atlanta – The Falcons are where the Ravens were a year ago: coming off a close loss in the conference championship game, and still slowly building towards a Super Bowl. Next year could certainly be the year Atlanta finally gets over the hump. Their defense definitely needs some help, but they have a quality quarterback in Matt Ryan and two exceptional wide receivers in Roddy White and Julio Jones, so they’re far ahead of most of the league offensively. If they can balance out their roster a little bit by adding more talent to their defense, Ryan could be in the same position a year from now that Joe Flacco and the Ravens are in today.
4. New England – As long as Bill Belichick is coaching and Tom Brady is playing quarterback the Patriots are going to be a relevant part of the Super Bowl conversation. They aren’t perfect and they’re going to have a lot of competition in the AFC next year, but the Patriots are a near lock to be playing the second weekend of the playoffs, and once they get there, they have the coaching, the quarterback, and the experience that can take them to the Super Bowl.
5. Seattle – Few thought Pete Carroll’s return to the NFL would be as successful as it has been, but he’s had the defense he needs to win big, and now he has the quarterback he needs to reach the Super Bowl. Quarterback Russell Wilson was the NFL rookie of the year and could be even more impressive next season. Wilson has good running ability and the brains to know how best to use it, which could make him one of the toughest quarterbacks in the NFL to defend during his second pro season. The Seahawks were just a field goal shy of a conference championship game, so they don’t have much further to go to reach a Super Bowl.
6. Green Bay – The Packers have flopped in the playoffs the past couple years following their win in Super Bowl 45, but it’s not hard to imagine the Pack making another run back to the Super Bowl in the near future. The Green Bay defense has shown some modest improvement, and Aaron Rodgers is a quarterback that’s capable of carrying his team a long way. If the Packers can land home-field advantage, Lambeau Field is still an intimidating place to play and a difficult venue for visiting teams to win at come playoff time, so there’s plenty working in their favor for another Super Bowl appearance.
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7. New York Giants – This year didn’t go the way it was expected for the G-men, but something tells me Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning won’t be absent from the postseason for long, and once they get back there, few teams are as adapt at winning in the playoffs as the Giants have been the past several years. Coming off a down year, the Giants will play more of an underdog role next year, which is a role they’re far more comfortable playing. There are plenty of needs to address on defense, but they have a top-tier coach in Coughlin and a quarterback in Manning that should still be considered one of the best in the league, and who has the receivers he needs to play like it. The Giants didn’t miss the playoffs by much this year, and as long as they can reach the postseason next year, they should be considered a threat to get to the Super Bowl.
8. Baltimore – The defending champions slot in eighth on the list because reaching the Super Bowl in back-to-back years can be difficult, but not unheard of. The biggest questions for the Ravens heading into next year are on the defensive side of the ball. With Ray Lewis retiring, who is going to be the emotional leader of the defense and control the middle of the field? Is Ed Reed going to be back? Is the defense too old to perform at such a high level, and can they get younger without going through any growing pains? Those are some pretty big questions for a team that has relied heavily on its defense for its entire history as a franchise. We know what Joe Flacco is capable of; we know he has the receivers he needs; and we know that Ray Rice is still a quality running back. But in 2013, it’s going to be the Baltimore defense that determines how close the Ravens get to a return trip to the Super Bowl.
9. Chicago – The Bears are a bit of a sleeper pick, because despite a coaching change, they’re in relatively good shape. Although Chicago missed the playoffs, they were 10-6 in a tough NFC North division, so they’re not all that far away. New head coach Marc Trestman has a long history of working with quarterbacks, and he’ll have a chance to work with the talented but underachieving Jay Cutler. If Trestman can help Cutler improve his play and get to the next level, the Bears could become a real contender in the NFC, as there are already a lot of other pieces in place.
10. Houston – The Texans are certainly contenders in the AFC coming off a 12-win season, but after getting knocked out in the divisional round the last two seasons, they still have a long way to go to reach the Super Bowl, and there are a lot of quality teams standing in their way. A lot of the pieces are in place with a solid defense, an elite running back, and a capable quarterback, but Houston still has a pretty big hump to get over, and it may take two or three years to get over it, so getting to the Super Bowl next year may be asking too much.