The Race for Lombardi

 
 

With the new season in full swing, Fergus Carroll picks the teams and players to look out for as he makes his Super Bowl XLVIII predictions

 

With six weeks of NFL action in the books, we are starting to get an idea of the teams that will be contesting for silverware, and those who can start looking to next year. Hard luck Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Jacksonville.

The standout team thus far has been Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos. Manning has been exceptional at Mile High Stadium, with the 37-year-old playing statistically better than he was a decade ago; and that’s after neck surgery.

It helps that he’s had plenty of offensive weapons at his disposal, including Tom Brady’s former target Wes Welker. Questions remain as to the quality of Denver’s defence, but as seen in their recent 51-48 shootout with Dallas, Peyton needs to be stopped if opposing teams are to have any chance of winning.

With an equally impressive start, the Seattle Seahawks are also looking like contenders. Led by the calm and self-assured Russell Wilson, they have an explosive offense that can score fast. Furthermore, none can underestimate the impact of their imperious defensive backs, the self-professed Legion of Boom.

Led by the polarizing Richard Sherman, he is the bad cop to Wilson’s good. While they suffered a tough away loss to Indianapolis, the ‘Hawks have looked mightily impressive, particularly in their stunning 23-20 comeback win against Houston. After already besting last year’s Super Bowl runners-up, San Francisco, in a blowout, they look the team to beat in the NFC.

From the best teams in the league, we turn to the worst. The hapless Jacksonville Jaguars, yet to even look like winning a game, entered the game against the Broncos in week six as one of the biggest underdogs in NFL history.

Denver managed to score more points in that shootout against Dallas than Gabbert and co managed to compile through the first five games of the season. If there is some consolation for the Jags fans, it’s that they’ll face little opposition for the number one draft pick.

The ability to drastically change one’s fortunes can be seen with the New Orleans Saints and the Kansas City Chiefs, who both went unbeaten through the first five weeks, despite neither side finishing with a winning record last year.

The Chiefs, under new Head Coach Andy Reid, have already surpassed their 2012 win total of two. With a strong defence and a more than competent Alex Smith, who was unceremoniously dumped mid-season last year by the San Francisco 49ers, the Chiefs are viable contenders.

The Saints, meanwhile, welcomed Sean Payton back from a year-long suspension, and enjoyed instant success with revitalised Drew Brees and a surprisingly strong defensive corps. If this continues, they will be looking to add to the Lombardi Trophy they won in 2010.

Undoubtedly, the surprise team so far have been the Cleveland Browns. The perennial AFC North whipping boys, Cleveland sports teams have been the butt of US jokes recently. So much so, the phrase “God hates Cleveland” has become a common taunt.

After starting 0-2, it looked like business as usual for the Browns, until Cleveland native Brian Hoyer got a shot at quarterback and led the Browns to two straight wins. This coincided with the Indians making the MLB play-offs.

Just as their fortunes seemed to be changing for the better, Cleveland fans endured the agony of the Indians getting booted out of the play-offs and losing Brian Hoyer to a season-ending torn ACL over two successive nights.

We have recently seen the emergence of the NFL becoming a passer-friendly league, after a number of rule changes to improve player safety. Despite these changes, the league’s most noted signal callers have enjoyed wildly contrasting starts.

The past two Super Bowl winning MVPs, Joe Flacco and Eli Manning, have been especially disappointing. The winless Giants have been plagued by turnovers and Eli has his share of blame to shoulder with bad decision-making.

The Ravens have somehow managed to stay in contention, despite Flacco’s poor form, who threw an astonishing five interceptions in their week 4 loss to Buffalo. They currently sit one game behind the Bengals, who top the AFC North.

Tom Brady, meanwhile, has been managing to win games even with a weak receiving corps, as the Patriots appear to be in control of a largely weak AFC East. They eagerly await the returns of Rob Gronkoski and Danny Amendola.

On the west coast, Philip Rivers has seen a welcome return to form for the Chargers while Tony Romo will be hoping to build on his fantastic, albeit losing, effort against Denver, where he threw for 506 yards.

Finally, to Houston’s Matt Schaub who has thrown a pick-six in each of his last four games, leading some fans to burn his jersey in public and to journalists having a field day with headlines such as ‘Schaub Story in Houston’. His days in Houston may be numbered, as he went down injured last Sunday in a thumping against the lowly Rams.

So which team will be lifting the Lombardi trophy this February in New Jersey? To be honest, it is difficult to see the Super Bowl being contested by any teams other than Denver and Seattle.

After a gruelling contest in the cold conditions of New Jersey, Seattle could bring the Lombardi trophy back to the west coast. Russell Wilson and his teammates have the firepower and defensive steel to defeat the Denver juggernaut, the fact they have proven they can rally and win big games will prove invaluable.

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