The NFL season is here.
The action starts Thursday as Seattle and Green Bay tangle in the season-opener as the Seahawks quests for a Super Bowl repeat begin.
Seattle is again one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl in a loaded NFC and must contend with San Francisco, New Orleans, Philadelphia and the aforementioned Packers. The AFC, meanwhile, is not as strong overall with Denver, New England and Indianapolis the top three teams.
But who will lift the Lombardi Trophy in February? Here are my picks for the 2014 season:
Denver will repeat as division champs and win home-field advantage. The Broncos return a loaded offense led by Peyton Manning, Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and Montee Ball. Denver also upgraded its defense with the addition of DeMarcus Ware and Aquib Talib.
But a healthy team — the Broncos were without six starts in their Super Bowl debacle against Seattle — will be the difference holding off Kansas City and San Diego.
The Colts are the premier team in the division behind budding superstar quarterback Andrew Luck. Paired with T.Y Hilton and a healthy Reggie Wayne at receiver, Luck’s offense will be much more dynamic than it was last season after Wayne tore his ACL.
Houston, Jacksonville and Tennessee will not be much of a threat to Indianapolis as those three clubs are in rebuilding efforts. Houston’s offense is in disarray, the Jaguars are awful and Tennessee must rely on the health of Jake Locker at quarterback, which has been spotty the past two years.
Cincinnati is the team to beat behind a great defense and potent offense. Quarterback Andy Dalton must become more consistent if the Bengals are to be legitimate contenders for the AFC crown. The defense is there, but Dalton remains the key.
Pittsburgh is laying in the weeds after two subpar seasons. Do the Steelers have enough youth on both sides to contend? They will be in contention, but more likely for a wild-card berth. Baltimore, meanwhile, could also challenge, but since the exodus on defense after they won the Super Bowl two years ago, it doesn’t seem likely.
Once again, the Patriots should cruise to another divisional title. Miami is the biggest threat with an improved offense, but the offensive line remains a question. Buffalo, if E.J. Manuel improves and stays healthy, could find its way into the wild-card race, but the defense is suspect.
AFC playoff berths
Denver, New England, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Miami and Kansas City.
Seattle is the team to best in the best division in football. San Francisco will challenge, but the 49ers must win at Seattle to challenge for the division title.
Although the Seahawks lost a number of players to free agency, they still possess the best defense in the NFL along with a dynamic offense behind Russell Wilson.
Arizona and St. Louis will be tough, but preseason injuries have crushed any chance for a division title.
New Orleans is the favorite and deservedly so with its high-flying offense. But can they stop anybody? Eventually, the Saints must be able to count on its defense or else it will be another first-round exit from the playoffs.
Carolina lost its wide receiving corps to free agency, but still have a chance at a wild-card berth. Atlanta, meanwhile, is the team who can roll in and steal the division from the Saints after a terrible 2013 campaign. Tampa Bay will also be tough, is journeyman Josh McCown the answer under center?
Green Bay is the betting favorites and a Super Bowl contender. The Packers upgraded on defense and still has Aaron Rodgers slinging darts all over the field.
Chicago’s defense is a shell of its glory days, while Minnesota has Matt Cassel calling the shots under center. Detroit, if they can stay poised and play better in the secondary, has the weapons to challenge the Packers for the division.
Philadelphia is all the rage thanks to coach Chip Kelly’s blinding offense. The Eagles don’t have a great defense, but in this division one isn’t needed.
New York, Dallas and Washington all have their issues, especially on defense. The Giants, specifically Eli Manning, are struggling to adapt to a new offense, while the Cowboy and Washington have paper-thin defenses. Perhaps Robert Griffin III will one day pay more attention to his game than his Twitter account.
NFC playoff berths
Seattle, Green Bay, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Green Bay and San Francisco
Denver over Indianapolis
In a rematch of Sunday’s season opener, the Broncos show they are still the class of the AFC with its upgraded defense. Peyton Manning will upstage Luck in Denver as the Broncos once again reach the Super Bowl.
San Francisco over Green Bay
Colin Kaepernick returns the Super Bowl as the 49ers recover from the early season obstacles such as the injury to Navarro Bowman. In addition, Kaepernick realizes he has Vernon Davis and re-establishes the Pro Bowl tight end as his primary target.
Denver over San Francisco
The Broncos avenge last year’s embarrassment in a hard-fought win over the 49ers. Peyton Manning will overcome his playoff yips, relax and find a way to give Denver its third Super Bowl trophy.
Steve Puterski is the sports editor for the Lahontan Valley News and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org