This week, each of the 32 NFL teams will start their seasons with renewed hope and dozens of reasons -- real or imagined -- to believe that they will be the ones leaving their sweaty fingerprints on the Lombardi Trophy at season’s end. But let’s be honest here: Most of those teams won’t come remotely close to touching it.
That’s why I’m going to spare you the suspense and weed out more than half the field before they play their first games. One of the following teams will win it all in New Orleans, and you’ll notice a common thread among them: It’s the quarterbacks. History has shown it’s nearly impossible to win without a pretty good one.
And in case you are wondering, I did this list last year, and though the San Francisco 49ers gave me a scare by advancing to the NFC championship game, the other three teams in the NFL’s final four -- the Ravens, the New England Patriots and the Super Bowl-winning New York Giants -- were on my list of preseason title contenders. Admittedly, those were predictable picks, but you don’t get bonus points for going with sexy cellar-dwellers.
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In alphabetical order, here are the dirty dozen who can get it done:
1. Atlanta Falcons: Matt Ryan and the Falcons have made the playoffs in three of the four seasons, but they have not been able to break through with a playoff win. Ryan is poised for a breakout fifth-season, with Julio Jones and Roddy White arguably being the best duo of wide receivers in the NFL. If the defense is decent this year, they will be dangerous.
2. Baltimore Ravens: This team was a dropped TD pass away from the Super Bowl last year, and even though the Ravens might be without Terrell Suggs, the foundation of a championship-caliber team remains intact.
3. Dallas Cowboys: I’m not just saying this because of their impressive performance against the New York Giants on Wednesday night, but it certainly helps. Look, we know Tony Romo is a pretty good quarterback in the regular season but can’t get it to translate to the playoffs. That is going to have to change. But Dallas has weapons on offense and the defense will be stout after the additions of Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne.
4. Detroit Lions: Discipline will be key for a talented, young squad that can score touchdowns in bunches. If they stay focused -- and out of trouble on and off the field -- they will be back in the playoffs.
5. Green Bay Packers: After winning the Super Bowl in 2010, the Packers went 15-1 before losing to the Giants in the playoffs. If they get their defense straightened out, they are the favorites in 2012.
6. Houston Texans: I thought about keeping them off this list because there are issues with the passing game, but they have a great defense, a great running game and they play in one of the NFL’s weakest divisions. Anything can happen if they secure a first-round bye and a home playoff game.
7. New England Patriots: After losing to the Giants in the Super Bowl (again), the Patriots didn’t stand pat. They signed Brandon Lloyd and spent their first two picks on defensive players. They are a no-brainer title threat.
8. New Orleans Saints: They had one of the rockiest offseasons in recent memory, but being targeted by the NFL and losing head coach Sean Payton has fired them up. It could inspire them to win again or it could blow up in their faces. This will be an intriguing team to watch early.
9. New York Giants: They're the champs, but repeating ain’t easy.
10. Philadelphia Eagles: The shakiest selection on this list, the Eagles have a fighting chance if Michael Vick can stay healthy. And yes, that’s a significant if. But they have playmakers throughout their roster, including maybe the NFL’s deepest defensive line rotation outside of the Big Apple.
11. Pittsburgh Steelers: They are like a prize fighter in the twilight of their career. The defense is old and it is rarely pretty with Ben Roethlisberger -- insert your joke here, Ravens fans -- but the Steelers always pull themselves off the mat and come back swinging. They aren’t a lock to the make the playoffs, but if they do, they could land some haymakers.
12. San Francisco 49ers: The defense is one of the NFL’s very best and they have a deep backfield, but they may challenge the notion that you need a top quarterback to win the Super Bowl. Alex Smith has had a rocky career, but he played well in the 2011 regular season and surprised me by outdueling Drew Brees in the playoffs. With some new weapons (A.J. Jenkins, Randy Moss, Mario Manningham), we’ll see if he can go all the way.