SSB’s 2014 Super Bowl Recap and 2015 Super Bowl Preview

Not really much to say about one of the most disappointing Super Bowl of all-time.  One team was awful, the other was excellent.  Here’s a very short reflection *thinks back to game,  dry heaves, continues*

The popular expectation was that Peyton Manning would have success against Seattle’s Legion of Boom, and that it would be a close game with each team scoring in the 20s, low 30s.  I had predicted Denver to win 27-23 on the dual conditions that Marshawn Lynch averages around 3.0 yards a carry and that Denver wins the turnover battle.

Welp.

Trusting the elder Manning led most people cheering for Denver to ignore the facts that St. Louis’s Greatest Show on Turf was the only top-ranked offense to ever win the Super Bowl and that Denver had not played a top-ten defense all season.  There was no single factor to the Seahawks’ victory (you know, besides the fact that Peyton looked like he was Curtis Painter going against the Madden 25 team).

This was Rich Gannon vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2.0.

Super Bowl XLVIII revealed, if nothing else, the gulf in quality between the two conferences.  New England made it to the AFC Championship without its two most important defensive players and its four top receivers from the previous season.  As complete as the Chiefs and Bengals seemed to be during the regular season, Kansas City fell apart in Indianapolis and the existence of Andy Dalton was too much for Cincinnati to overcome against the Chargers.

The NFC, on the other hand, arguably had four or five teams that would have provided Manning with a greater test than he had endured all season.  Unless the Texans strike gold with a rookie quarterback, Joe Flacco gets a top receiver, the Steelers’ offensive line finally stays healthy, etc., don’t expect the conference inequality to regress next year.

Moving on…

Looking ahead to Super Bowl XLIX, I believe that the New England Patriots will play the Atlanta Falcons in Glendale, Arizona.

Wait a minute…

What about Denver? Seattle? Carolina? Cincinnati? San Francisco? Arizona?

My rationale for this prediction has a lot to do with timing. Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, and Colin Kaepernick all have large pay raises on the horizon due to the overhauled rookie wage scale, which will compromise roster decisions that were possible when the star signal callers were making several hundred thousand to a few million dollars, rather than $12-16 million.

In the case of Seattle, highly paid players like Brandon Mebane, Chris Clemons, or Cliff Avril (Sidney Rice too, if that somehow matters to anybody) may be cap casualties in the upcoming offseason.  Michael Bennett will also be a free agent, meaning that Seattle’s currently vaunted pass rush will have a much different look next year.  Unless the team makes another killing on one-year and two-year deals, further big contracts will be very unlikely, since Wilson and the league’s best corner back, Richard Sherman (who might use the Revis deal as a value reference), will both be making at least $12 million in their next deals, meaning less flexibility moving forward.

The fact that Seattle crushed Denver reduces their chances of winning next year, since it puts the target on their collective back, but I would say that they will accept the consequences that complement winning the Super Bowl. Gut feeling.

Following two seasons of more than 330 touches (career highs), Marshawn Lynch will be expected to show signs of wear-and-tear next year. He will only be 28, but he is coming off the only two seasons in which he played all 16 games.  He also eats Skittles excessively.

Wilson’s role in the offense will increase regardless after two seasons of very similar production.  The heightened passing emphasis will be a challenge for both him and his offensive line, which has struggled mightily at times this season (which, of course, isn’t to say he won’t produce).  Unlike this current year, I don’t like Seattle as a title contender for next season, simply due to too much change on both sides: in personnel on defense and in philosophy on offense.  They will make the playoffs, but not as a No. 1 seed.

For Carolina, who I take – along with Seattle and Arizona – as Atlanta’s primary obstacles in the NFC, Newton will almost definitely receive a contract extension this summer (you have to figure at least $15 million a year, around a $10 million raise), which will be quite interesting due to star defensive end Greg Hardy’s pending free agency (he’ll likely demand at least four years at $12 million per season, even with a hometown discount, which he said he would give). If Carolina re-signs Hardy, finding cap space for most of the other free agents like starting corner back Captain Munnerlyn, four (!) of the team’s starting offensive linemen, and the team’s two starting safeties (Mikel and Mitchell) will be impossible.  Like Seattle, the team will have significant volatility along the offensive line, as well as in the secondary.  If Carolina allows Hardy to walk, the team will have a massive void to fill.

In San Francisco, I think Gore will finally succumb to wear-and-tear as he hits the wrong side of 30, but if Marcus Lattimore can return to 100%, the running game will not suffer at all.  Kaepernick, who – like Newton – is also due to become a free agent in 2015, will likely get anywhere from $12-16 million per year in his next deal in one of the next two offseasons. While the 49ers currently have a tight cap, it shouldn’t be a big issue.

Bigger problems will be finding replacements for Justin Smith (enjoyed another great season, but at 34, how much longer will he keep it up?), Carlos Rogers (32), Tarell Brown (if he leaves in free agency), and Anquan Boldin. Boldin’s return seems unlikely due to his resolute contract demands, but he’s been an essential crutch for Kaepernick, especially when Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis were out with injuries.  A pass rush reliant on Aldon Smith and on Ahmad Brooks to repeat a career-best season seems like an equally dangerous proposition.

Simply, in the cases of Cincinnati, Denver, and Arizona, my issue is at the quarterback position.  While I typically hate to speak in finalities, as stacked as the Bengals are at almost every position, I don’t think Andy Dalton is capable of going on an extended run of great form against top-tier opponents.  In other words, his record in big games speaks volumes, and he needs to change the script next season.  Despite Marvin Lewis’s firm backing, he is the Bengals’ primary limiting factor and the team needs to take advantage of the extensive talent on its roster sooner rather than later.

In Denver, I don’t see how Manning will be able to hold up another full season. This year was the year to win for him.  As historic as his current campaign had been, he struggled to recover from minor injuries all season, which does not bode well when he’s a year older.  On the defensive side, the team’s ability to put pressure on the opposing quarterback – with 32-year old Shaun Phillips set for free agency – will be dependent on Von Miller’s ability to make a full recovery from a torn ACL.  It’s a tall task, particularly as Champ Bailey becomes less and less of a presence in the secondary.

Arizona needs Carson Palmer to stay healthy in order to compete for a championship.  2013 first-round pick Jonathan Cooper’s return should provide a boost to a unit that conceded a lot of shots at the former Trojan.  While I consider him good enough to take a team to the Super Bowl, the combination of his past injury issues and propensity to force passes goes against him in this scenario.  With that said, if the team can acquire an upgrade for Rashard Mendenhall (not difficult, perhaps LeGarrette Blount, Jamie Starks, or Jonathan Dwyer), find another pass rusher in the draft or free agency (Robert Ayers or Jason Worilds), and hope John Abraham (still) has gas in the tank, they will be a good bet to dethrone Seattle and San Francisco from atop NFC West hierarchy.

Houston has a few elite pieces and the coaching hire of Bill O’Brien will probably be a smart decision, but electing to take QB Teddy Bridgewater or Blake Bortles with the 1st overall pick is a huge risk, albeit mitigated by O’Brien’s pedigree of developing quarterbacks.  Jadeveon Clowney’s work ethic and character have undergone severe scrutiny and, combined with a subpar statistical junior season, will probably prevent him from being the 1st overall pick.  Even with a rookie quarterback (or Case Keenum, if O’Brien flips the bird at past history and improbably rolls the dice with him), I think the defense and surrounding playmakers are good enough to have Houston challenge Indianapolis for the AFC South.  Finding a long-term complement to J.J. Watt is a necessity, but will likely have to wait next season, as will contending for a title in the best case scenario.

So Why Atlanta?

Atlanta, unlike the a few of the NFC teams listed above, got the big quarterback extension out of the way last summer, already made tough cuts (like long-time RT Tyson Clabo), and will only marginally be affected by free agency (center Joe Hawley is adequate; one or both DTs Peria Jerry and Corey Peters will probably return).  It endured the brunt of the rebuilding process on offensive line and defense this season, aided by its early descent from the playoff race, and found a couple of potential future starting linebackers in Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu.  The two rookie corner backs, Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford – also improved immensely as the season progressed.  As long as Osi Umenyiora can provide another solid season of 6-8 sacks, the team’s defense is one great pass-rusher away from becoming its best unit in the Matt Ryan era.

Drafting Anthony Barr with the sixth overall pick seems like a perfect match: the former tight end played in a hybrid defensive role with UCLA, has two seasons of excellent performance, and – as a team captain – fits the leadership mold that the Falcons brass covets.  With that said, I would not be shocked if GM Thomas Dimitroff pushes his chips to the center of the table and, like he did with Julio Jones, trade up for Clowney if he likes him enough.  Atlanta is probably the most likely team to trade up to the 2nd overall pick if St. Louis looks to trade out.

As in the case of Tom Brady, while his stats took a hit, Matt Ryan proved that he is an elite quarterback in this season more than in any other.  Behind one of the league’s worst offensive lines (LTs Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews or Auburn’s Greg Robinson are also options in draft), and without Julio Jones and a healthy Roddy White for much of the season, Ryan still ran one of the league’s best passing offenses while throwing to Tony Gonzalez (ok, well, he was still really good), Harry Douglas (chronic underachiever until now), and Drew Davis (yikes).  The addition of Steven Jackson turned out to be one of the league’s biggest disappointments.

Sam Baker – off an injury-plagued horror show of a season at left tackle – is a good blindside protector when healthy. The team will almost definitely address the need for offensive line cover in one of the middle rounds, but new signing Jon Asamoah is closer to the Harvey Dahl end of the spectrum than Garrett Reynolds. While very unlikely, the reunion of Gabe Carimi and Peter Konz – who composed part of a superb offensive line at Wisconsin – could inspire the two underachievers to avert total bust status and become, at the very least, quality back-ups.

With a year of experience under the belts of the rookie linebackers, defensive ends, and corner backs, the return to health of Sean Weatherspoon, the dual signings of Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai, and the selection of Khalil Mack, the team’s pass rush will improve a great deal in the next season.  I expect the sack total to increase by at least a half dozen. The offensive line will also improve from experience, stability, and the return of Sam Baker.  With Julio Jones back and Roddy White healthy, this team will finally be good enough to represent the NFC in the 2015 Super Bowl.

…And Why New England

If there is a team that will seize control of the weaker conference next year, it will be New England.  Andrew Luck does not yet have enough around him.  Kansas City and Cincinnati will be in the mix again, but I don’t have enough regard for either team’s signal caller to predict their emergence from the AFC.  As for New England, I really liked its improvements to its front seven, especially when combined with the return of Jerod Mayo next season.  Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones look like draft gems; the secondary – as has been the case for the past several years – needs to improve. Darrelle Revis provides a massive push in that direction.

The priority on offense is finding another target for Tom Brady in the all-too-likely case that Rob Gronkowski succumbs to injuries again.  Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman (who may go to greener, higher-paying pastures next season) are great from the line of scrimmage to 12-15 yards down the field, but Brady needs a deep threat besides Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson.  The need may not be imminent if they improve with time and experience.  The more pressing issue was that he had no capable replacement for seams routes once Gronkowski was ruled out for the season (there was Aaron Hernandez, but…).

For the first time in six seasons, New England ranked in the top-ten sacks total (per ESPN).  With a balanced running game, the team is only an upgrade in the secondary and at tight end/receiver away from Brady’s 6th trip to the Super Bowl.  Health is always a big issue and Brady will be 37, but the team has (finally) fully reloaded on defense, and the lack of an imminent threat makes their chances at representing the AFC rather favorable heading into next season.

Insane? Probably. But from now until draft night, this will be the prediction.