In his first year as a full-time starter, Colin Kaepernick will thrive under the pressure and continue to grow. After the 49ers added Anquan Boldin as another veteran target for Kaepernick, the team will look even better since last season's NFC Championship squad. Having Crabtree out until late in the season will hurt, but Kaepernick's versatility and the addition of Boldin will make up for that. Expect Crabtree to provide that extra boost down the stretch, just in time for the playoffs. With a solid defense led by linebacker Patrick Willis, the 49ers return to the Super Bowl, but this time walk away victorious.
Coming out of the AFC will be the Denver Broncos, led by Peyton Manning in his second season with the squad. Expect Manning to do typical Manning-like things, and with the addition of Wes Welker, who is smart to go somewhere with a QB who can make him look as good as Tom Brady did, the Broncos will have one hell of a dynamic offense. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, the Broncos still have Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, so yeah, they have some guys who can catch the ball. The Broncos also added Montee Ball in the draft at running back, for the occasion when they decide not to pass. So yes, the Broncos will score a ton of points this season if they remain healthy, but will meet their match in the Super Bowl with the 49ers defense.
MATT RYAN: DENVER def. Green Bay (surprisingly no Falcons in the big game)
Last year, in his first year with Denver, Manning proved he’s still got it completing over 68% of his passes for over 4,600 yards and 37 touchdowns. In his second year with the team, he will only be better, being more comfortable with the coaches, their system, and the players around him. I can't forget to mention the addition of Welker as another consistent target for Manning. Although 2nd year Ronnie Hillman is listed as the starting RB, I’d keep my eye on rookie Monte Ball as he could have a breakout season and be another threat to opposing defenses. Last year, Denver’s defense was 2nd best in yards allowed and allowed only 18.1 points per game. I’d expect similar numbers this year even with elite pass-rusher Von Miller suspended for the first six games.
The parts of the Packers’ game that held them back last year (defensive secondary, pass protection, and their running game) have all been improved this offseason. Their defense gave up too many big plays in 2012, but their secondary, especially their young safeties, will have improved with experience. Green Bay added RB Eddie Lacy to hopefully spark a running game which has been lacking for a few seasons. While their haven't been any additions to the offensive line, Coach McCarthy seems confident in the slight internal changes they have made to protect their QB. Any holes that still exist in this team will be made up for by Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers is not only the best quarterback in the league, but also arguably the best player. Last season, he threw for 4,295 yards and 39 touchdowns with only 8 interceptions. He should come out fired up after a disappointing end to last season. Although the departure of receiver Greg Jennings will hurt, Randall Cobb seems ready to step up in his 3rd year after a solid season last year.
Both of these teams have dynamic offenses led by the NFLs top two quarterbacks. Both Manning and Rodgers know how to pick the best NFL defenses apart and they both have a Super Bowl ring and MVPs to prove it. I see Denver winning the Super Bowl in a tight, high scoring game.
BEN: ATLANTA def. Cincinnati
What's the fun in taking the odds on favorites? There's a lot of hype about the Seahawks, 49ers, Packers, Broncos and Patriots this season, and with just cause. Let me try to sway you though. People are quick to point out that Matt Ryan is not a nearly as good of a playoff QB as he is a regular season QB. He put these rumors to bed though last year, sending Seattle home and then nearly beating San Fran. During those 2 games he had 6 touchdowns and 646 yards passing, while leading the winning drive in the last seconds against Seattle. Both these teams have amazing defenses too, making his feat all the more impressive. The only more impressive thing would have been if he had actually beat SF. Still, Matt Ryan has earned his new contract and will continue to mature to the point where he is going to be mentioned alongside Rodgers, Brees and Brady.
This year the Falcons team has only gotten better. Roddy White and Julio Jones are the best 1-2 punch of receivers in the NFL, period. Safeties can't double-team one because then the other will run wild. Couple this with a competent QB throwing to them and it's a recipe for disaster for opposing D's. Steven Jackson, a downhill truck with no brakes, joins the team from St. Louis. He will provide veteran leadership and be sure to play harder than ever in his career now that he is on a team with a chance at greatness. Though the defense isn't elite, it is still more than capable of keeping opposing offenses in check while the ATL offense locks up games. Osi Umenyiora will provide a boost as well.
As for Seattle and San Francisco, the NFC West is a rough division. The teams will no doubt cannibalize each other and let's not forget that no team in this division seems to have an answer for the St. Louis Rams (4-1-1 in the division last year). This will help Atlanta lock up home-field throughout the playoffs.
Onto the AFC. I was very close to being the third on of the BSB writers to take Denver, but eh, let's do something different. The Von Miller suspension will hurt their whole defense as he is easily the heart of it and their running game is still a mess. This one's a bit more of a stretch, but I'm taking the Cincinnati Bengals to make it to New Jersey where they will lose to the Falcons.
Andy Dalton has what it takes to get this team to the Super Bowl. His numbers have steadily rose each season and the talent around him on the depth chart has never been better. After losing twice in the last 2 seasons to the Texans in the playoffs I think this will be the year they get over the hump. Cincy won't be playing in the opening round of the playoffs this season because they will lock up that division and get the 1 or 2 seed. Every team in the AFC North got worse this year, save for maybe the Browns, but even a better Browns team won't pose much of a threat. Baltimore, simply put, lost everyone. This team will not be the same as last year with Lewis, Reed and Boldin gone. In Pittsburgh, the offense is still anemic with no RB's, Miller hurt and Roethlisberger still the QB equivalent of a statue. I could Cincinnati going 5-1, if not 6-0 in the division.
They run a flashy offense. A.J. Green is the only receiver in the league that can be mentioned in the same breath as Calvin Johnson (maybe Dez) and will have an insane season. While Green makes lights up the WR position the RB is going to fare well too. Green-Ellis is a proven veteran, while rookie Giovani Bernard will have the best 2013 for a rookie RB (eat your heart out Lacy).
Cincy's defense is a monster too. Geno Atkins will only add to his 12.5 sacks last season. Now that Ray Lewis is retired, James Harrison pretty much becomes the most scary man in the NFL.
Ultimately, I say the Bengals defeat the Broncos in a shoot out in the AFC title game. The Super Bowl will be one for the ages if it's the Begnals vs. the Falcons. Ultimately I see the Falcons pulling away though. They've been waiting for this and 2013 is finally their year.