NFL Season Predictions, Part 4: The Contenders

Finally, after thousands of words, dozens of articles, and 24 team capsules, we arrive at the eight teams that have the best chance of winning the Super Bowl. There aren’t many surprises in this group, which features several perennial contenders and just one team that had a losing record last year.

Seattle, rightly, is among the favorites to retain the title after a dominant win in last year’s Super Bowl. It’s probably the Super Bowl team with the best chance of repeating as champion since the 2011 Packers, who went 15-1 before falling in the playoffs against a lightly regarded Giants team. Seattle’s schedule might make that sort of otherworldly regular season too difficult to pull off, and it did lose a good amount of depth on defense this offseason, but it was also football’s third-youngest team last year. It’s scary to think the Seahawks might actually be better in 2014.

While it might have been blown out in the Super Bowl, Denver is actually a slight favorite to claim this year’s trophy. I probably don’t need to tell you that Denver’s offense is going to be pretty good, but those shortened odds also reflect the excellent offseason Denver had in terms of picking up three Pro Bowl–caliber defenders (DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, and T.J. Ward), as well as the friendly path the Broncos should have to Arizona by virtue of their presence in the friendlier confines of the AFC. Indeed, of the nine teams with the lowest Super Bowl odds on Bovada, six are teams from the NFC.

You can read more on the statistical methods used to estimate team performance in Tuesday’s column. If you’re not a regular reader in this space, that’s probably a good place to start. Unless you’re a Panthers fan, in which case you might want to start on Wednesday and live in bliss.

Atlanta Falcons

2013 Record: 4-12
Pythagorean Wins: 5.9 (underperformed by 1.9 wins, second-unluckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 3-7 (0.300, fifth-unluckiest)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.532 (fifth-toughest)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: 11th-toughest
Turnover Margin: minus-7 (ninth-worst)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: NFC North, AFC North, vs. Cardinals, at Giants

One of the teams you won’t see among the top nine Super Bowl odds is the Atlanta Falcons, whose turnaround chances I profiled way back on July 30. Of course, part of that return was predicated upon a healthier team with more depth on either side of the line, and that’s already disappearing. Left tackle Sam Baker tore his patellar tendon in August and will miss the entire season, while former first-round pick Peria Jerry retired from football just one day after my preview, leaving Atlanta thinner at defensive tackle.

It was enough to make me swap out the Falcons for New Orleans atop the NFC South, but I still think Atlanta has enough to power back into the playoffs. It should be luckier than it was in 2013 in terms of winning the close ones, especially given that it had been better than expected in close games for virtually all of Matt Ryan’s career up to last season. The schedule might not be easy, but Football Outsiders Almanac 2014 notes that the 2013 Atlanta offense played the seventh-toughest slate of opposing defenses of the past 25 years, which seems unlikely to occur again.

I guess, at the end of the day, I just think it’s shortsighted to write off a team that was so good for so long after one bad year. I can’t really prove that, because there just aren’t many historical comparables for the Falcons. I tried looking back at teams since the merger that averaged1 11 or more wins per season over a four-year stretch before finishing with six wins or fewer during the next season. That fits the Falcons, who won 45 games (11.3 per year) from 2009 to 2012 before going 4-12 in 2013.

There are only nine other teams in that bucket since the merger. They averaged 8.9 wins in the season after their sudden collapse, and five of the nine won 10 games or more. It’s too small of a sample to prove anything, but it is fair to say teams have been on this roller coaster ride before and come out of it smiling. My suspicion is that the Falcons are one of those teams.

Best-Case Scenario: The Falcons look a lot like the good version of the 2013 Chargers, with a dominant passing attack propping up a middling defense with no pass-rushers. The difference? Growth from second-year corners Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford leave Atlanta with that competent defense for the entire season, and not only does it win 11 games, but it convinces Tony Gonzalez to come out of retirement midseason to join up for one final playoff run.

Worst-Case Scenario: Ryan & Co. look like the bad version of the 2013 Chargers, with a good passing offense getting lost in the shuffle amid one of the worst defenses in football. Gonzalez changes his phone number and “forgets” to tell the Falcons, and when they see him unexpectedly at a party in November, it sure seems like he’s wearing a Chiefs T-shirt underneath his coat.

Cincinnati Bengals

2013 Record: 11-5
Pythagorean Wins: 11.1 (underperformed by 0.1 wins, 16th-unluckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 5-3 (0.625, seventh-unluckiest)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.469 (seventh-easiest)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: 12th-easiest
Turnover Margin: plus- 1 (13th-best)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: NFC South, AFC South, vs. Broncos, at Patriots

Strangely, I feel more confident about the 4-12 Falcons winning 10 games than I do about the Bengals, who have averaged 10 wins across Andy Dalton’s first three seasons in the league. Cincinnati has gotten progressively better over that run, adding one win each season as its point differential and DVOA have risen accordingly; Cincinnati was 17th in DVOA during the 2011 campaign and 12th in 2012 before bouncing up to ninth last season. Although the Bengals unquestionably enjoyed an easy schedule in 2013, they don’t lack for signature wins, having beaten the Packers, Patriots, and Colts during an undefeated regular season at home. Of course, you saw how meaningful their home-field advantage actually was during the playoffs, when the Bengals lost in Cincinnati to a streaking Chargers team, 27-10.

I’m not going to use every capsule in this space to re-link an old column, but in terms of Dalton and his struggles in the playoffs, it’s probably a good idea to read this piece I wrote August 4, which was posted hours before Dalton signed his long-term contract extension. It’s easy to say Dalton somehow lacks the mettle to succeed in big games because he has played poorly in the playoffs, but he has done well in assorted regular-season games that came in critical moments against division rivals or Super Bowl contenders. The problem in the playoffs is that Dalton has been matched up against teams with very good pass rushes (the 2011 and 2012 Texans) or teams that turned the game on its ear by blitzing the crap out of Dalton (2013 Chargers), who is one of the worst quarterbacks in the league when under pressure. Teams don’t get a bead on Dalton very frequently, thanks to one of the league’s best offensive lines, but when they do, it’s trouble.

The hope is that Dalton will benefit from new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, which remains to be seen. From what I saw of Dalton in the preseason, it certainly seemed like he was still panicking and desperately throwing passes anywhere when defensive players were running free. Jackson might not be able to fix that — Jay Gruden wasn’t able to during his time in town — but he could make things easier for Dalton by easing his workload. I think even Dalton would tell you that Cincinnati is better off running the ball more than 44 percent of the time, which is where it was a year ago. Jackson has suggested publicly that he intends to install a power-running offense, and unlike the Colts, Jackson might actually have the personnel to get the job done. The Bengals have one of the league’s better offensive lines, even after letting the 23 starts of utility lineman Anthony Collins and center Kyle Cook leave in free agency. Jackson will likely utilize a two–tight end set with Jermaine Gresham and second-year man Tyler Eifert as a frequent offensive base, allowing Jackson to mask his desire to run or pass before the ball is actually snapped. Starting halfback Gio Bernard isn’t exactly Jerome Bettis, but Jackson got more out of the combination of Darren McFadden and Michael Bush in Oakland than anybody else has out of those guys before or after, and if Bernard plays the McFadden role, Bush’s spot can go to bruising rookie Jeremy Hill.

The defense, perhaps strangely, has more question marks. Cincinnati has done an incredible job of getting above-average performance from no-names and afterthoughts, but it remains to be seen if that was the work of head coach Marvin Lewis or defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who left to become Minnesota’s head coach. The biggest weakness is up front, where freakish athlete Michael Johnson vacates a starting defensive end spot by moving to Tampa Bay without the Bengals really acquiring a replacement. They’ll hope to get more out of backups like Wallace Gilberry and Margus Hunt in 2014, which isn’t the worst idea. If star defensive tackle Geno Atkins can come back from an ACL tear at 100 percent, this should be among the best defenses in football for yet another season.

Best-Case Scenario: Dalton takes to his pile of money and rewards the Bengals for believing in him by taking a step forward and winning 12 games, earning his team the AFC’s top seed in the playoffs.

Worst-Case Scenario: The declining offensive line can’t keep the defenders off Dalton, who plays poorly and loses his job with, oh, six years left on his deal.

Denver Broncos

2013 Record: 13-3
Pythagorean Wins: 11.7 (overperformed by 1.3 wins, fifth-luckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 2-3 (0.400, 10th-unluckiest)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.494 (15th-toughest)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: 13th-toughest
Turnover Margin: even (14th-best)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: NFC West, AFC East, vs. Colts, at Bengals

I asked this of my podcast partner, Robert Mays, when we were talking about the Broncos during the AFC West preview: Would the Broncos make the playoffs if Peyton Manning suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1?

It’s not unfathomable. I have little faith in Brock Osweiler as a professional quarterback — college quarterbacks who can barely complete 60 percent of their passes in the Pac-12 profile as insurance salesmen these days — but there’s so much talent here that the Broncos wouldn’t be totally out of luck. Adding Ware, Ward, and Talib should be an enormous upgrade for a team that was playing journeymen and buy-low candidates for most of the past two seasons on defense; consider that Jeremy Mincey, who was cut by the Jaguars in December, took 18 snaps on the defensive line for the Broncos in the Super Bowl. It wouldn’t be shocking to see the Broncos field a top-five pass defense this year.

While they obviously wouldn’t be able to run the same offense with Manning sidelined, offensive coordinator Adam Gase would have enough weaponry to piece together a functional attack with the players he has outside of his quarterback. Denver should have one of the best offensive lines in football with left tackle Ryan Clady returning to the fold this year, and Montee Ball showed enough in limited time last year to suggest he could be one of the league’s better backs with 250 to 300 carries. Osweiler wouldn’t necessarily be a star, but with Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, and eventually Wes Welker to throw to, he wouldn’t lack for weapons.

There is a precedent for all of this, of course: the 2008 Patriots, who lost Tom Brady to a torn ACL early in Week 1 and had to go the entire year with Matt Cassel, who inherited one of the greatest offensive supporting casts in league history and the league’s 11th-ranked defense from the previous year. Cassel wasn’t especially impressive given the players around him, but the Patriots went from a 57-43 pass-run split during the undefeated 2007 season to a 51-49 ratio, made the safer throws to Welker a larger share of the offense, and put together an impressive season, albeit against a very easy schedule. The Patriots went 11-5, becoming just the second team in league history to miss the playoffs after an 11-win season.

It wouldn’t be too difficult to imagine the Broncos winning the AFC West with Osweiler at the helm. Oh, and the good news? Peyton Manning is probably not going to miss the entire season. Yeah, this Broncos team is going to be pretty good.

Best-Case Scenario: 19-0.

Worst-Case Scenario: Manning and Osweiler both get hurt and the Broncos have to re-sign Ti … let’s not go there.

Green Bay Packers

2013 Record: 8-7-1
Pythagorean Wins: 7.8 (overperformed by 0.7 wins, eighth-luckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 4-4-1 (.500)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.463 (third-easiest)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: 12th-toughest
Turnover Margin: minus-3 (14th-worst)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: NFC South, AFC East, vs. Eagles, at Seahawks

Of course, those numbers are mostly useless because they include games in which Matt Flynn, Seneca Wallace, and Scott Tolzien toiled at quarterback. (Those quarterbacks could probably win the AFC West with the Broncos, too.) Prorate the eight games Aaron Rodgers started and finished to a full season2 and you see a Packers team that went 12-4 with 10.5 Pythagorean wins and a 2-2 record in games decided by one touchdown or less. That figure would have dropped them just ahead of the Patriots for the eighth-best point differential in football. Instead, the trio of backup quarterbacks did just enough to keep the ship afloat until Rodgers could come back and beat the Bears in what amounted to a playoff game in Week 17.

That’s the problem with the Packers; they’d be a freakish force of nature if they could just stay healthy, but they can’t seem to have a year when everybody actually stays on the field. Green Bay’s been among the three most-injured teams in football per Adjusted Games Lost in three of the last four seasons. During the one season in which they had even league-average health — 2011, when they ranked 16th in AGL — the Packers went 15-1. That is not a coincidence. Just look at what happened in last night’s loss to the Seahawks: Right tackle Bryan Bulaga returned after missing the last season and a half with injuries, only to suffer a knee injury during the first half. Replacement Derek Sherrod, a former first-round pick who missed most of his first two seasons in the league after a double leg fracture, couldn’t keep up against the Seattle pass rush. He allowed sacks on consecutive plays, each of which ended Green Bay possessions (the first on downs, the second with a safety), before later giving up a pressure on Green Bay’s two-point attempt.

Of course, the Packers were already struggling with injuries before the season even started. Defensive tackle B.J. Raji’s play had slipped mightily since the halcyon days when he was good enough to appear as an accessory in Rodgers’s commercials, but after signing a one-year deal this offseason to remain with the Packers, there had been promising reports about his play emanating from camp. One torn biceps later and all of that doesn’t matter. Raji will likely have to settle for a one-year deal from somebody else in 2015 in an attempt to rebuild his market value.

Raji’s injury hints at the weakest part of this Packers team: their defensive line. Having let the likes of Jerel Worthy, Ryan Pickett, and Johnny Jolly go this offseason, the Packers are down to bare bones up front. 2012 fourth-rounder Mike Daniels has shown promise in limited time to earn a starting job, but former Vikings tackle Letroy Guion will have to transition from the 4-3 to the nose tackle role in the 3-4 as the primary starter after Raji’s injury, while 2013 first-rounder Datone Jones will have to show more than he did during a very disappointing rookie campaign. The primary backup beyond those guys is Josh Boyd, a fifth-rounder from last year’s draft. It’s not great back there. It’s actually a surprise the Packers haven’t re-signed somebody like Jolly or Pickett, both of whom are still free agents, to get another warm body in the rotation.

Ted Thompson probably deserves the benefit of the doubt after all of these years, which is what makes his rare foray into free agency this offseason so interesting. The Packers committed three years and $26 million to 34-year-old Julius Peppers, who will transition from defensive end in a 4-3 to outside linebacker in Dom Capers’s 3-4. Had Peppers made the switch four years ago, when he was leaving the Panthers in free agency, there would be fewer concerns, as he was always a freak athlete. In 2014? It’s hard to imagine Peppers dropping into zone coverage or running with a tight end up the field. There just aren’t many 3-4 outside linebackers running around in the NFL who are 34 or older, and the guys who have done it in the past are guys who were already familiar in the role, like Mike Vrabel, Jason Taylor, and Willie McGinest. I have no idea if this will work, but because it’s Thompson and the Packers, I’m more inclined to believe that it will than if, say, the Titans signed Peppers to do the same thing. (Sorry, Titans.)

If Peppers plays well and Clay Matthews stays healthy healthier, Green Bay could be a really scary football team. It would have a dominant pass rush combined with the deepest, most talented secondary east of Seattle, especially after using its first-round pick on Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. The rushing defense might not be quite as effective, but the Packers should be able to run the ball at a high level, especially if the injuries suffered by Bulaga and halfback Eddie Lacy last night aren’t serious. And my suspicion is that the passing game should be OK. If the Packers stay healthy, this could be the best team in football. If.

Best-Case Scenario: That last paragraph.

Worst-Case Scenario: Peppers is actually acting out a real-life version of The Manchurian Candidate with Phil Emery pulling the strings; when Emery activates Peppers with the smell of giardiniera, Peppers runs onto the field and brutally sacks an unsuspecting Rodgers from behind, ending his season.

New England Patriots

2013 Record: 12-4
Pythagorean Wins: 10.5 (overperformed by 1.5 wins, third-luckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 7-4 (.636, sixth-luckiest)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.480 (ninth-easiest)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: ninth-easiest
Turnover Margin: plus-9 (eighth-best)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: NFC North, AFC West, vs. Bengals, at Colts

For his vaunted and deserved reputation as a defensive guru, the Patriots haven’t had a great defense under Bill Belichick in quite a long time. Here’s their rank in defensive DVOA during each of Belichick’s 14 seasons with the team:

You’ll note:

A. How great that defense happened to be during the consecutive Super Bowl runs of 2003 and 2004.

B. How incredible the offense was to make it to the Super Bowl in 2011 with an awful defense.

C. How it’s been seven seasons since the Patriots had one of the 10 best defenses in football, and that they’ve been above-average in terms of DVOA only twice over that time frame.

This year, that should change. The Patriots have the most talent they’ve had on defense since at least 2007 and more likely those 2003-04 teams. They’re not the deepest defense the Patriots have ever had, but they’re highlighted by Darrelle Revis, who could very well be the best defensive player Belichick has gotten to coach since Lawrence Taylor.

The struggles of the defense over the past six or seven years are not down to Belichick losing some edge as a defensive coach; more likely, they’re subject to the faults of Belichick, the personnel director.3 The Patriots went through a stretch of dodgy draft classes on the defensive side of the football from about 2007 onward, especially at defensive back, where valuable picks were wasted on the likes of Terrence Wheatley, Darius Butler, Patrick Chung, and Ras-I Dowling. That’s how you end up with Kyle Arrington and Sterling Moore playing meaningful roles in Patriots history. Not great. Belichick has had Vince Wilfork around, which has been a huge help in terms of run defense, but little else in the way of Pro Bowl–caliber talent to use in his schemes.

That changes this year. Even if Wilfork’s not the same guy after tearing his Achilles last year, the Patriots can boast four very viable Pro Bowl candidates in Revis, safety Devin McCourty, linebacker Jerod Mayo, and defensive end Chandler Jones. Revis obviously profiles as the best player on the defense, and that’s mostly out of faith that Belichick will use him appropriately. The perception exists that Revis wasn’t very good in Tampa Bay last season, and while I don’t think he was quite the player he was before tearing his ACL in New York, that wasn’t because of a lack of athleticism or because he’d lost a step, especially after getting the rust out during the first few weeks of the year. It was really more so because Buccaneers defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan seemed to insist upon adapting Revis to his scheme and not the other way around. Belichick won’t make the same mistake. He’ll manipulate his defense to play to the strengths of his stars, just as he did when he was building around Wilfork during that 2011 season, and just as Rex Ryan did during Revis’s glory days in the Meadowlands. It won’t be a surprise if the Patriots defense looks and plays totally dissimilar in Week 1 of this season from the way it did at the same time a year ago. It also wouldn’t be a surprise to see that defense play much better in the process. And if Belichick and Revis can combine to push New England’s defense up into the league’s elite for the first time since 2006, well, the results should be clear.

Best-Case Scenario: 15-1.

Worst-Case Scenario: The offensive line collapses without legendary coach Dante Scarnecchia (retired) and guard Logan Mankins (traded because … let me get back to you on that), and Rob Gronkowski gets hurt (taken out by a Gatorade cooler), so even as the defense takes a step forward, the offense takes a simultaneous step backward. In which case, the Patriots still win the AFC East and play the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game. Would you take Broncos-Patriots or the field to be the matchup in that game? You have to think about it, right?

New Orleans Saints

2013 Record: 11-5
Pythagorean Wins: 10.8 (overperformed by 0.2 wins, 15th-luckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 4-3 (.571, 13th-luckiest)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.532 (fourth-toughest)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: fifth-toughest
Turnover Margin: even (14th-best)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: NFC North, AFC North, vs. 49ers, at Cowboys

The book on the Saints is that you beat them by getting them out of warm weather. You can’t stop Drew Brees, who was 8-0 at home last year, in the confines of a dome or the friendly climates of the NFC South. You have to get to him on a cold, blustery day, just as the Seahawks did when they knocked Brees and his Saints out of the playoffs in Seattle last season. It is with that in mind that I present to you Brees’s statistics as a member of the New Orleans Saints, as split by the temperature at kickoff (per ESPN Stats & Information):

Yes, Brees is better indoors than he is outdoors. But that’s not because he struggles with the cold weather; he’s actually, in the small sample, been better in close to freezing temperatures than he has been in the warmest climates. He’s better indoors because he plays his home games in a dome and is better at home than he is on the road, which is true for just about every quarterback in football.

The important takeaway? Brees is third in the league in QBR at home since 2006. On the road, when compared to other quarterbacks and their road performances, Brees falls all the way to … fourth. In their three playoff losses before last year’s 23-15 defeat, the Saints defense allowed 39, 41, and 36 points. The way to beat the Saints is not to freeze Brees. It is to score a lot of points, because that’s probably what the Saints are going to do regardless of where they line up.

That shouldn’t be much different in 2014; in fact, the Saints might even be better on offense with the arrival of Brandin Cooks, whose role in the offense should look like a cross between Darren Sproles, Percy Harvin, and a cheat code. Jimmy Graham, who was averaging 118.6 receiving yards per game last season before tearing his plantar fascia, should be healthy again. Even Mark Ingram is looking spry! If the addition of star safety Jairus Byrd can solidify the back end of the defense, the Saints could very well have the most talented roster in the NFC. In the end, it might not matter whether Brees can win in cold weather, because he might spend all of January — and February 1 — playing games in domes.

Best-Case Scenario: The best edition of the Saints during the Brees–Sean Payton era wins the Super Bowl.

Worst-Case Scenario: A thin, top-heavy defense struggles with injuries as Byrd becomes the latest big-ticket safety to disappoint on a new roster, while Graham is dragged toward mortality by nagging injuries as the Saints finish 9-7.

San Francisco 49ers

2013 Record: 12-4
Pythagorean Wins: 11.5 (overperformed by 0.5 wins, 13th-luckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 3-2 (.600, 10th-luckiest)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.524 (sixth-toughest)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: fourth-toughest
Turnover Margin: plus-12 (fourth-best)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: NFC East, AFC West, vs. Bears, at Saints

Can you hear the sound of people jumping off the 49ers’ bandwagon? It’s been a rough preseason for the 49ers, partly by their own doing; Ray McDonald became the first player to be arrested on domestic violence charges after the league announced it would pursue longer suspensions for such cases, while Aldon Smith was suspended nine games for violating … well, at least a few NFL policies. Alex Boone held out. Kendall Hunter suffered a season-ending injury. NaVorro Bowman isn’t close to coming back from his gruesome knee injury. Justin Smith looks old. Blaine Gabbert showed up, was given a uniform, and was allowed to play during the preseason. At quarterback! And not in a Sudden Death–style situation, either! (At least, I think not.)

This leaves me in a weird spot. Am I really the person who has to stand back and defend the San Francisco 49ers from preseason pessimism? Oh, well, here goes nothing …

Yes, the San Francisco defense will be worse than it has been over the past couple of seasons. It’s impossible to lose that much talent without getting at least a little bit worse. But it’s hardly likely that the 49ers will suddenly be a subpar defense. There is still a lot of talent, even if it’s arranged differently. Eric Reid, Antoine Bethea, and first-round pick Jimmie Ward should give the 49ers a variety of options in three-safety alignments similar to what the Saints have done over the past few seasons. Justin Smith, even if he has slipped, is still around, and is going to create pass-rush opportunities for the players around him. Patrick Willis made Takeo Spikes look like a Pro Bowler before Bowman, an actual Pro Bowler on merit, lined up next to him. Whether it’s Michael Wilhoite or third-rounder Chris Borland, whoever’s playing next to Willis is going to shine.

And more notably, the offense should take another step forward in 2014 by virtue of its passing attack. I’ve written about how Michael Crabtree is a totally different player with Colin Kaepernick in the lineup. The flow goes both ways. Kaepernick struggled at times last season as teams adapted to the read-option, but much of that had to do with the 49ers starting Kyle Williams, Mario Manningham, and even Jonathan Baldwin across from Anquan Boldin during Crabtree’s recuperation from a torn Achilles last season. Crabtree wasn’t close to 100 percent when he came back in December, but we saw flashes of the old Crabtree during his 125-yard game against the Packers in the wild-card round.

With eight more months to recover, there’s every reason to believe we’ll see the Kaepernick-Crabtree connection flourish in San Francisco. The Niners also quietly added Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd to the offense as third and fourth receivers during the offseason, who would have been upgrades on the guys who were starting for most of last year. Kaepernick should be a much better passer, and even if the defense struggles, the offense should be able to keep the 49ers among the league’s elite teams in 2014. At the very least, the 49ers play the Cowboys and their abysmal defense in Week 1, so all of that should look good for one week. There is still time to hop back on the bandwagon …

Best-Case Scenario: Kaepernick wins MVP, as he becomes the first quarterback in league history to throw for 30 touchdowns and run for 10 in a single season. The 49ers, who are two turnovers away from three consecutive trips to the Super Bowl, finally get over the hump and deliver Jim Harbaugh his ring.

Worst-Case Scenario: Everything I said is wrong, the defense is a mess, the schedule is too tough, and the 49ers go 8-8.

Seattle Seahawks

2013 Record: 13-3
Pythagorean Wins: 12.8 (overperformed by 0.2 wins, 16th-luckiest team in NFL)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 5-3 (.625, seventh-luckiest)
2013 Strength of Schedule: 0.515 (eighth-toughest)
Estimated 2014 Strength of Schedule: second-toughest
Turnover Margin: plus-20 (best)
2014 Out-of-Division Schedule: NFC East, AFC West, vs. Packers, at Panthers

… but make sure to watch for Kam Chancellor knocking the bandwagon into a ditch.

Last night’s win over the Packers showed us how dominant the Seahawks can look when the game script goes their way. There were some hiccups early in the game for the Seahawks, including a muffed punt and a pair of dropped interceptions, but once Seattle took a lead and was able to pin its pass rush’s ears back, Green Bay had little hope. And when the Packers made mistakes — a blown block here, a dropped pass there — the Seahawks were able to take advantage and make game-changing plays.

Those punt returns, though. If you’ve been reading Robert Mays and me on Twitter over the past couple of months, you’ve seen each of us publicly express our disbelief that the Seahawks have decided to put Earl Thomas back to return punts. It’s the ultimate Pete Carroll thing to do, simultaneously a total expression of his obsession with competition and an obvious mistake. Thomas might very well be the best punt returner on the team in a vacuum, but he’s the most irreplaceable member of the Seattle secondary by virtue of what he can do as the center fielder in Seattle’s Cover 3. There’s no guarantee he’ll get hurt returning punts, but the risk sure is greater4 with him out there than it is with him on the sideline, especially if he isn’t going to call for a fair catch in obvious situations, as he failed to do twice last night. It would probably be a bad idea to use Thomas back there even if he were a Devin Hester–caliber returner, just because you would lose so much by having him go down with an injury for any length of time. If he’s only a marginal upgrade on the next best return guy Seattle has, though? Unless that guy is Russell Wilson, they’re far better off using him instead.

It’s easier to mention what Seattle isn’t good at because, well, it’s good at just about everything. You probably don’t need me to tell you that Marshawn Lynch is big and strong, or that Percy Harvin is lightning-quick, or that Richard Sherman is going to force teams to throw to the opposite side of the field. What I can say, though, is that you can already see the Seahawks shifting things around a bit from what they did last year, especially on offense. With Harvin as healthy as he has been during his brief time in a Seattle uniform, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell did excellent work against Green Bay incorporating plays that work to Harvin’s strengths, notably the jet sweep Seattle employed with some success during the Super Bowl.

More than just putting in a jet sweep, Bevell then used the threat of the jet sweep to create other opportunities for his offense. Bevell brought Harvin in motion and moved him around the formation to create different looks for the Packers, and then used the motion of the jet sweep to get Green Bay’s linebackers moving laterally while Lynch ran through their vacated holes. With Green Bay’s cornerbacks glued to the line of scrimmage, Bevell was also able to call for a pop pass that exploited their fears and got Ricardo Lockette downfield for an easy touchdown.5

Teams will try to test the Seahawks on defense. Last night’s broadcast team tried to explain the Packers were on to something by lining up their best wideout (Jordy Nelson) away from Sherman and sacrificing a lesser player (Jarrett Boykin) to football’s top cornerback, but that’s nothing new, as the Broncos did the same thing during the Super Bowl in sacrificing Eric Decker to Sherman while lining up Demaryius Thomas against Byron Maxwell. It’s also one of those obvious things a coach would have thought of against this relatively static Cover 3 years ago. Teams will continue to do that, and Sherman will almost always stay on his side of the field,6 but the Seahawks adapt to that stuff, too. They can play tight coverage on Maxwell’s side and dare teams to try to throw lobs over him (which didn’t work) or short passes in front of him, and when teams don’t execute that really well, you get the Nelson-tipped pass that led to an interception.

More likely, the thing the Packers did that other teams will try to emulate came during the first quarter, when Green Bay stayed in a hurry-up offense and repeatedly ran the ball. That plays both to Seattle’s relative weakness as a defense and its lack of depth up front, which is a concern after they lost Chris Clemons, Clinton McDonald, and Red Bryant in free agency. Of course, once you’re down by two touchdowns, you’re going to abandon the run, and that’s when the Packers fell apart. It’s not hard to come up with logical ways to attack the Seahawks. It’s just hard to actually pull the damn thing off.

Best-Case Scenario: Harvin’s a borderline MVP candidate in his healthiest season as a pro, as he becomes the first player since Marshall Faulk in 1999 to accrue 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. Seattle goes 14-2, retains home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and beats Denver in a Super Bowl rematch.

Worst-Case Scenario: Thomas gets hurt on a punt return, Harvin takes his place and somehow gets hurt on the next punt return, and injuries stifle Seattle en route to a 10-6 season and a wild-card loss on the road.

Filed Under: NFL, 2014 NFL Preview, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, Cincinnati Bengals, Atlanta Falcons

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell