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The NFL Contenders

In the final installment of our team-by-team preview, we look at who has the best shot at winning the Super Bowl

We made it! You and I, we slogged through the league’s worst teams on Monday. We made a bunch of fan bases angry on Tuesday by suggesting their team would decline. We somehow endured a backlash for suggesting Brandon Weeden was no good when we went over the league’s improving teams on Wednesday. And now? Now? Now is the time to talk about the eight teams in football that have the best shot at competing for the Lombardi Trophy this season.

If you haven’t seen your team show up in these previews before today, well, good news: They’re on this list. Some of the teams on this list have a better shot than others, obviously, and there’s a very decent chance a team that isn’t on this list will end up winning. My guess is that if you played the season one million times, one of these eight teams would win about 65-70 percent of the Super Bowls played.

I’ll finish up the massive Grantland NFL preview series tomorrow with an old favorite. Until then, though, here are the best teams in football.1

Denver Broncos

2012 Record: 13-3
Pythagorean Wins: 12.3 (overperformed by 0.7 wins, seventh-luckiest in league)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 1-2 (0.333, seventh-worst in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.499
Turnover Margin: Minus-1

2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC South, NFC East, vs. Ravens, at Patriots

In the 2013 NFL predictions that went up on and in the predictions podcast that Robert Mays and I dropped on Wednesday, I picked the Broncos to come in second behind the Chiefs in the AFC West. I also picked them to make it to the Super Bowl as the AFC’s representative, where I picked them to lose to the NFC representative (more on them later). Why would that make sense?

Injuries, suspensions, and timing. I think most people would agree that a healthy Broncos team, given the division they play in and the schedule they’re up against, would be the favorites to come out of the AFC by a comfortable margin. Instead, they have issues to deal with over the first six weeks of the season. Von Miller is suspended, and with Elvis Dumervil departed to Baltimore, the Denver pass rush is going to suffer dramatically. That alone would be enough to raise some concerns, but Champ Bailey is also struggling with a foot injury that has already ruled him out for the season opener against the Ravens on Thursday. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him miss another couple of games, and when he comes back, there is no guarantee he’ll be anything close to 100 percent. Defensive lineman Derek Wolfe fortunately appears to be OK after a scary blow to his spine in the preseason, but Denver already lost one of its four best defenders from last season, and the other three are either injured, suspended, or just narrowly escaping injury. That’s going to hurt them at the beginning of the season, and it’s going to be a noticeable difference for what was one of the league’s healthiest, most productive defenses a year ago.

However, by the end of the year things should be clicking for Denver. Miller should be back and again in the flow of things, which dramatically raises the flexibility and the effectiveness of Denver’s front seven. The offense has minor issues to worry about — finding a center who will stay healthy in front of Manning and sorting out its running back rotation — but this is a team that should again look better during the end of the season than it should during the beginning. Those early-season concerns might be enough for Kansas City to beat Denver to the AFC West crown, but the Broncos are the team nobody will want to play in the postseason.

Worst-Case Scenario: Bailey is never healthy, Miller never gets back into the flow of things on defense, and the Broncos run through a bunch of shootouts before Montee Ball misses a block that ends Peyton Manning’s season. I mean, you said worst-case scenario, right?

Green Bay Packers

2012 Record: 11-5
Pythagorean Wins: 10.3 (overperformed by 0.7 wins, eighth-luckiest in league)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 3-3 (0.500)
Strength of Schedule: 0.527 (sixth-hardest in league)
Turnover Margin: Plus-7 (10th in league)

2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC North, NFC East, vs. Falcons, at 49ers

The best argument in favor of the Green Bay Packers that doesn’t show up in that chart above: health. Last year’s Packers team was, per Football Outsiders, the most-injured team in football by a significant margin. That Adjusted Games Lost metric2 adjusts the impact of injuries to consider the quality of the player afflicted, and that really puts Green Bay’s injury bug into perspective. Just seven Packers started all 16 games last year: Morgan Burnett, A.J. Hawk, Marshall Newhouse, Ryan Pickett, Aaron Rodgers, Josh Sitton, and Tramon Williams. Everybody from Clay Matthews to Greg Jennings to Charles Woodson missed notable time last season. That the Packers managed to win 11 games despite all those injuries is, honestly, pretty remarkable.

As with many other factors that can damage a team over the course of one year, injuries tend to be random from year to year. Certain players are more likely to get injured than others, of course, but on a team-by-team, year-by-year level, there’s very little consistency in AGL. The Packers should be much healthier this year, and a healthier Packers team could be devastating competition for the rest of the NFC. That starts with the secondary, which goes six deep with useful players. Picking between Williams, Burnett, M.D. Jennings, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward, and Jerron McMillian on any given play is going to be a delightful chore for Dom Capers. That depth allows them to get past the departure of Woodson, who (and it pains me to say this) might have been past his sell-by date last year. The Packers also get Nick Perry back across from Matthews, and if those two guys could ever stay healthy for 16 games each, they might be able to combine for 25 sacks.

If the Packers have been missing anything over their multiyear run of greatness, it’s been a reliable running game since Ryan Grant tore his ACL against the Eagles in 2010. I’m usually somebody who argues for the fungibility and relative replaceability of running backs, but it had become clear that the Packers were cycling through options without anyone gaining any traction or having any notable success. It’s not clear that the combination of rookies Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin will be an upgrade on the likes of Cedric Benson, James Starks, and DuJuan Harris, but Lacy should at the very least be a superior option in short yardage and near the goal line to those backs and John Kuhn.

At the same time, it’s entirely possible that the struggles of the running backs are in part due to a weak run-blocking offensive line. Guess what the big concern is for that offensive line in 2013? It’s injuries. Good guess. The Packers have invested two first-round picks in tackles over the past few seasons, and they might not combine to play a single snap in 2013. Nominal left tackle Bryan Bulaga is out for the year after tearing his ACL in August, while fellow tackle Derek Sherrod missed the entire 2012 season after suffering a broken leg in December 2011. He’s on the physically unable to perform list for now, but there have been no signs he’s ready to return to football. The Packers should be healthier in 2013, but even before the season has started, we know they’re already missing at least one of their key players for the entire season. If Bulaga is the only one, though, this should be a scary-good football team.

Worst-Case Scenario: Rodgers is attacked by his stalker in the Cheesehead from the insurance commercials and misses two-thirds of the season, forcing the Packers to start Seneca Wallace. And then, when B.J. Raji accidentally drops his boom box on Wallace, the Packers have no quarterbacks on the roster and are forced to turn to Br … Brian Brohm, their former second-round pick who was last seen in the CFL. What, who did you think I was talking about?

Houston Texans

2012 Record: 12-4
Pythagorean Wins: 10.1 (overperformed by 1.9 wins, third-luckiest in league)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 5-0 (best in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.475 (11th-easiest in league)
Turnover Margin: Plus-12 (seventh in league)

2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC West, NFC West, vs. Patriots, at Ravens

There are a few teams on this list that are going to both decline from their 2012 performances and still compete for a Super Bowl. The Texans are one of those teams. In many ways, a lot of what Houston did last year was unsustainable. Don’t get me wrong: The Texans still do enough right to be a very good football team, and they’re still in the weakest division in football, one they’re likely to win very comfortably. But 12-4? That overstates their level of play.

You can probably see where I’m going from the chart above: Houston had the point differential of a 10.1-win team and went 5-0 in games decided by one possession last season. They had no precedent of being a team that was particularly effective in those games in the past under Gary Kubiak and Matt Schaub, and even during their breakout season in 2011, they were 4-4 in one-possession games. A couple of those games — like the 31-25 win over the Broncos and the 23-17 victory over the Jets — weren’t quite as close as the final score suggests, but they were probably lucky to win both of their back-to-back overtime tilts against the Jaguars (43-37) and Lions (34-31, the famous Jim Schwartz timeout game). In any case, they won’t be undefeated in one-possession games in 2013. Teams that were 4-0 or better in one-possession games since 1989 went a combined 40-48 in those same games the following year.

Houston was lucky in a number of other ways, too. It played an easy schedule, thanks to its home in the AFC South. Although the Texans lost star linebacker Brian Cushing for most of the season, their offense was the healthiest in football per Football Outsiders, as their 11 starters missed a combined three games all year. They also recovered 64.1 percent of the fumbles in their games, the third-best rate in football. I also hesitate to refer to anything J.J. Watt does as luck, but it’s safe to say that even a great season from Watt (which is exactly what I expect) would be unlikely to produce 20.5 sacks again.

So, maybe the Texans were a 10-6 team masquerading as a 12-4 team. There’s nothing wrong with that. They might have a few more injuries on offense and a bunch less luck with fumbles and close games in 2013, but they should still have a very good running game and an excellent all-around defense, helmed by the incomparable Watt and a healthier Johnathan Joseph. That should be good enough for 10 wins again. And while it’s easy to say the Texans have proven they’re a team that can’t make it out of the AFC thicket in the playoffs, you could have said the very same thing about the Ravens before last season, right? Getting to the playoffs is most of the battle, and it seems very likely the Texans will do just that in 2013.

Worst-Case Scenario: Somebody steals Watt’s elbow brace and he loses all his powers.

New England Patriots

2012 Record: 12-4
Pythagorean Wins: 12.4 (underperformed by 0.4 wins, 13th-unluckiest in league)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 4-4 (0.500)
Strength of Schedule: 0.495
Turnover Margin: Plus-25 (best in league)

2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC North, NFC South, vs. Broncos, at Texans

Well, somebody has had a busy offseason. I probably don’t need to rehash everything here, and if I did, it would sound something like Billy Joel breathlessly listing events, so nobody should want to hear that. I’ll spare you the list of moves and notable events. What’s left is a team that probably has to rely more on its core of Hall of Famers — Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and Vince Wilfork — than perhaps ever before.

For Brady, he has to make a new receiving corps look good overnight. All the weird veterans the Patriots picked up this offseason (your Michael Jenkins types) have washed away. What’s left is a mix of known quantities with injury concerns (Rob Gronkowski and an already-gimpy Danny Amendola), a couple of long-time special-teamers (Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater), a blocker (Michael Hoomanawanui), and a lot of rookies. Aaron Dobson was supposed to assume a big role from day one, but he’s been overshadowed by rookie free agent Kenbrell Thompkins, who has been the talk of camp. Thompkins is likely to have a bigger role during the beginning of the season than Dobson. The Patriots have also gotten impressive stuff from another rookie free agent at tight end, Nevada product Zach Sudfeld, who is likely to play in Aaron Hernandez’a place for the Patriots this year. Sudfeld had six surgeries in six years at Nevada, so he’ll fit right in with Gronk.

It’s incumbent upon Belichick to mix in as much smoke and mirrors as possible to get the most out of that offense. Brady obviously plays a role in implementing that, but Belichick needs to aggressively copy and adapt the best of what other teams are doing around football, which is one of his greatest strengths. Remember: For all the chatter about what Chip Kelly’s going to do with tempo in Philadelphia this year, the Patriots were already copying Kelly’s emphasis on pace with Brady last season. It’s essential that Belichick puts his players in the best position to succeed, which he almost surely will.

Wilfork, the star on what’s occasionally been a pretty middling defense over the past few years, can now be the centerpiece of a possible top-six unit. If that’s going to happen, it’s going to come from a deep, versatile front seven, because the secondary is still a major question mark. Belichick has spent six first- or second-rounders on defensive backs over the past eight years, and it’s produced exactly one player who will start on this team, Devin McCourty, and he needed to move from cornerback to safety. Tavon Wilson is already limited to special teams duty at best, and the other five guys — Brandon Meriweather, Terrence Wheatley, Darius Butler, Patrick Chung, and Ras-I Dowling — were let go. Imagine how good the New England defense would be if Belichick had hit on three starters among that group. Instead, the likes of Kyle Arrington, Alfonzo Dennard, and third-rounder Logan Ryan will see time at cornerback. The team surprisingly gave up on offseason signing Adrian Wilson, who was placed on injured reserve in what amounts to a reverse redshirting.

Like the Texans, the Patriots basically have a path to the playoffs mapped out; nobody in their division is within light-years of them, so even if they slip and lose a game to the Dolphins, they’re still going to win a minimum of nine games and claim the AFC East. Another 12-4 season and a deep playoff run? Possible, but doesn’t seem to be quite in the cards the way it usually does. You would suspect that Belichick is currently feeding his team the “Nobody believes in us” meal like he’s preparing Foie Gronk; this time, everybody might be right.

Worst-Case Scenario: Oh, you mean worse than the Aaron Hernandez situation? Yeah, I’m not going there.

New York Giants

2012 Record: 9-7
Pythagorean Wins: 10.0 (underperformed by 1.0 wins, sixth-unluckiest)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 3-4 (0.429, 13th-worst in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.524 (10th-hardest in league)
Turnover Margin: Plus-14 (tied for fourth in league)

2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC West, NFC North, vs. Seahawks, at Panthers

Oh, hey, good-looking! The Giants were sort of a mini Packers last year; they weren’t quite as afflicted by defensive injuries as Green Bay was, but they had a lot of players who spent the year at less than 100 percent. Much of that was on the defensive line, where Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul each had disappointing seasons. Their resurgence will be key to a Giants comeback in 2013.

Counting on a resurgence by wishing upon a player who already has back troubles isn’t exactly foolproof, but the Giants should get more production out of JPP in 2013. While Pierre-Paul had only 6.5 sacks in a limited year, he still had 24 hurries (per Football Outsiders), which suggests that he was influencing plays and getting to the quarterback, even while often seeing double-teams. That wasn’t quite the case with Tuck, who finished the year with four sacks and 10.5 hurries, but he had shoulder issues that continued to plague him throughout the year. The Giants did lose Osi Umenyiora to the Falcons over the offseason, but they’re replacing him by moving Mathias Kiwanuka back to defensive end, where he’s always been a better positional fit. The additions of Cullen Jenkins and Shaun Rogers to Linval Joseph in the middle, with second-round pick Johnathan Hankins and third-rounder Damontre Moore supplementing things, should give the Giants a deep, effective defensive line.

They’ll need to be in front of a secondary that really struggled at times in 2012. The second Google link that comes up when you search for Corey Webster is a Daily News article with the headline “Corey Webster still full of swagger for NY Giants despite awful 2012 season,” which should tell you a lot about how well he played last year. Webster played with a broken hand for much of 2012, which is obviously healed now. The team did already lose safety Stevie Brown for the season with a torn ACL, which should create problems; it could consider using Terrell Thomas, coming off his third ACL tear, as a free safety to replace Brown.

The Giants should be a little healthier on defense, but their luck should improve in other ways. They faced the second-toughest slate of opposing offenses in the NFL a year ago, with eight of their 16 games coming against teams ranked in the top 12 in offensive DVOA. Playing against the AFC West and the NFC North, which could field a bunch of below-average offenses, should help. They underperformed their point differential by a full win, which bodes well for a correction in 2013. Am I talking myself into this Giants revival? Maybe a tiny bit. If Tuck and Pierre-Paul don’t come back, they’ll be a lot like last year’s team, which spent the entire year mostly playing in shootouts. That team would be competitive, but probably wouldn’t win the NFC East. A Giants team with a very good defensive line? That team would deserve to be favorites.

Worst-Case Scenario: Pierre-Paul’s back doesn’t heal, Tuck continues to be a shell of his former self, and the Giants finish 7-9 with no obvious healthy difference-makers on defense on the roster.

Pittsburgh Steelers

2012 Record: 8-8
Pythagorean Wins: 8.6 (underperformed by 0.6 wins, 11th-unluckiest in league)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 5-6 (0.455, 14th-worst in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.466 (seventh-easiest in league)
Turnover Margin: Minus-10 (tied for 24th in league)

2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC East, NFC North, vs. Titans, at Raiders

The last time the Steelers were this bad was in 2006, Bill Cowher’s final year with the team, when they went 8-8 and outscored their opposition by a total of 36 points. That was the year where Ben Roethlisberger got into a motorcycle accident and had his appendix removed before Labor Day. They replaced Cowher with Mike Tomlin, got Roethlisberger healthy, and promptly reeled off five consecutive winning seasons. Before that, the last time they were this bad was 2003, when they went 6-10 with Tommy Maddox at quarterback (and underperformed their Pythagorean expectation by 1.2 wins). That time, they replaced Maddox with a rookie Roethlisberger, brought back Dick LeBeau, and went 15-1. A year later, they won the Super Bowl.

This is how things go for the Steelers. They have had two consecutive .500-or-worse seasons exactly two times since Watergate. This 8-8 season was the first time they’ve failed to post a winning record since Roethlisberger arrived into town. They win and win and win and then, if there is a brief respite from the winning, they get back to it like nothing ever happened, like they just needed to replace a lightbulb or snake the toilet. It’s no accident that this happens to the Steelers, who have drafted and developed young players for 40 years like nobody else in pro football. In fact, that losing season usually serves as a wake-up call to move on from the successes of the past and bring along some of that young talent. That’s what Pittsburgh will do in 2013. It will work.

So, here comes the core of the next notable Steelers team. Some of the pieces are already notable: Antonio Brown, Maurkice Pouncey, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, and Ziggy Hood are already essential players. Now, it will be the young guys following them and ascending to starting roles who step up. Cameron Heyward and Steve McLendon up front. Jason Worilds and 2013 first-rounder Jarvis Jones at linebacker. Cortez Allen in the secondary. Mike Adams and David DeCastro on the offensive line. Eventually, once he’s healthy, Le’Veon Bell at running back. The Steelers aren’t perfect, so it’s not true that every single one of these guys will work out. But it seems safe to say that a few of them will become above-average starters as part of a contending Pittsburgh team. That’s just how it goes in Pittsburgh.

They’ll get better just by being healthy. The Steelers had the league’s second-most-injured offense last year, per Football Outsiders, with almost a comical number of problems on the offensive line and at running back. Of course, Bell is already hurting at running back, but it’s hard to imagine that they’ll be quite so injured up front. If they can keep everyone on the field, it’s a very promising line, paced by the interior combination of Pouncey at center and DeCastro at right guard, both former first-round picks. Both tackles are second-round picks, so that would be a bunch of awfully impressive pedigrees up front. No team has invested more in its offensive line over the past few years besides the 49ers, and you’ve probably seen the impact it’s had on the San Francisco offense.

And if all else fails, the Steelers get a little bit of help in 2013 from that schedule. Playing the AFC North is no fun, but Pittsburgh also gets the massively friendly combination of the AFC East to go along with the Titans and Raiders, two of the worst teams in football. That’s a gift. They did lose to the Titans last year, but that took a missed field goal with 52 seconds left to happen. If you want to count out Pittsburgh and suggest that its young talent won’t come through, that’s fine. But you’re fighting against a lot of history in the process.

Worst-Case Scenario: History is wrong.

San Francisco 49ers

2012 Record: 11-4-1
Pythagorean Wins: 11.3 (Underperformed by 0.3 wins)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 2-1-1 (0.667, fifth-best in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.535 (fourth-hardest in league)
Turnover Margin: Plus-9 (tied for eighth in league)

2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC South, NFC South, vs. Packers, at Redskins

Seattle Seahawks

2012 Record: 11-5
Pythagorean Wins: 12.4 (underperformed by 1.4 wins, third-unluckiest in league)
Record in Games Decided By Seven Points or Less: 5-5 (0.500)
Strength of Schedule: 0.524 (ninth-hardest in league)
Turnover Margin: Plus-13 (tied for fifth in league)

2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC South, NFC South, vs. Vikings, at Giants

I’ll finish up by talking about these two teams together, since their battle for the NFC West is generally expected to be a heavyweight fight between the league’s two best teams. In that battle, I’m guessing that the Seahawks go 12-4 and edge out an 11-5 49ers team for first place. Why?

An easier schedule: These teams obviously share 14 of their 16 games, but the Seahawks get the Vikings and Giants, while the 49ers play the Packers and Redskins. Seattle has the easier slate.

Depth: Because the Seahawks are such a young team and have so many players on rookie contracts, they were able to be more aggressive this offseason in acquiring talented players on short-term contracts. One of those deals didn’t work out, as Antoine Winfield was released and retired, but the likes of Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett give Seattle talented options off the bench that the 49ers don’t have. San Francisco, by virtue of the fact that it has more players on second contracts than the Seahawks, had to mostly shop at the bottom of the market; it added Anquan Boldin, but then had to opt for the likes of Nnamdi Asomugha and Glenn Dorsey as depth options.

Less affected by their WR injury: The loss of Michael Crabtree was a bitter blow to the 49ers, as Crabtree had put up numbers commensurate to the best wide receivers in football with Colin Kaepernick in the lineup. With Crabtree out, the pickings at wideout are slim: They’ll start Boldin, but their choices across from him include the likes of Jonathan Baldwin, Kyle Williams, and Marlon Moore, none of whom are above-average options.

Seattle will certainly be disappointed to lose the services of Percy Harvin for most of the season, but it was already much deeper at wideout than the Niners were. The Seahawks can still line up Sidney Rice, Golden Tate, and Doug Baldwin at wideout with Harvin absent, and while they don’t have Vernon Davis, Zach Miller was a capable receiver with the Raiders and a player who could assume a larger role as a receiver if need be.

That’s not to say the 49ers will be a disappointing team; they’ve got better coaching, a stronger running game, a better front seven, and arguably a better quarterback. But given those slight differences, I’m inclined to think the Seahawks will be a better team in 2013. In fact, I think the Seahawks will be the best team in football, which is why they’re my pick to win Super Bowl XLVIII.

Filed Under: NFL, Bill Barnwell, People, Sports, Teams, Bill Belichick

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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