IN THE last 15 NFL seasons 10 teams have sprung out of mediocrity—a .500 finish or worse the previous year—to reach the Super Bowl. That's the lure of the NFL. Hope sells. Hope also makes it tough to be a seer. All the attaboys I earned from picking Green Bay and Pittsburgh two years ago were neatly erased with my Super Bowl forecast last season: Chargers-Falcons.
This year's pick is Green Bay over Denver, but I think 23 teams—that's right, 23—have at least a middling chance to reach New Orleans in February. The Seahawks and the Redskins have a shot, even with rookie quarterbacks, thanks to their suffocating defenses. Kansas City has a ridiculous collection of skill players; if the Chiefs keep quarterback Matt Cassel clean, they could make it. And so on. That's why isolating two is so iffy.
Early in the season I think there will be teams more dominant than the Packers and the Broncos. New England, for instance, has a soft-looking schedule and its usual high-powered offense. The 49ers were the best of the 23 teams I saw on my training camp trip; has there ever been a top-rated defense in a conference that had all 11 starters return? The Texans could have a top three defense even after bidding farewell to Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans, the men they drafted in 2006 to be the core of a great unit. But I don't trust New England's secondary, even though the defense should be improved with a good front-seven core of young players. I'm shaky on Matt Schaub's ability to stay healthy and shakier still on who's behind him at quarterback. And the 49ers had an amazing run of good health in 2011. Their 11 defensive starters plus pass-rush specialist Aldon Smith missed only eight of 192 combined games; seven of those players went 16 for 16. They'd be freaky fortunate for that to continue.
The other explosive teams all have weaknesses. Detroit could score 30 a game and allow 28; the secondary is a minefield. Chicago is vastly improved with the addition of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery at receiver, but the offensive line has major protection issues. The Saints' bad defense ruined their 2011, and new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo didn't bring a magic wand with him from St. Louis. Last year's champs, the Giants, have the quarterback and the weapons—rookie running back David Wilson could be this year's Victor Cruz, a player who just bursts onto the Big Apple sports scene—plus the coach and the pass rush. They certainly could win again, but they'd have to survive a leaky offensive line and a perpetually injured secondary.
To pick Green Bay, I had to take a leap of faith that coordinator Dom Capers's surgery on the league's lowest-rated defense will succeed. The return to health of ace cornerback Tramon Williams and the presence of rookie linebacker Nick Perry should take some pass-rush burden off Clay Matthews. The offense will be at least as good as last year—crazy to say for a team that averaged 35 points a game—and could even improve as the season goes on and second-year wideout Randall Cobb matures and continues learning the calculus of Mike McCarthy's offense. The Pack ran 268 snaps of no-huddle last year, and that's very likely to increase in 2012, meaning more ways for Aaron Rodgers to improve on his other-worldly plus-39 touchdown-to-interception differential of 2011. And this is the year when Jordy Nelson emerges as a full-blown star.
Now for Denver. O.K., I've been seduced by the Peyton Manning kavorka. This summer he kvetched to me about seeing some middle-of-the-pack college quarterback at the Manning Passing Academy in July throw a ball 70 yards downfield on the same route on which Manning threw it about 48. He obviously pines for his full arm strength to come back, but he has no idea when—or if—that'll happen. I'm here to say I don't care. I say if his arm's 80% of what it was five years ago, Manning will figure it out. Some of the best throws of his life have been short curls and quick outs into tiny windows. I think his arm will be good enough this year ... because his brain will win so many of the one-on-one battles he's won in the past. His weapons are good enough too, and I think John Elway's best non-Manning acquisitions will turn out to be tight ends Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme. They're not Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, but they'll suffice, offering the kind of security that Dallas Clark gave Manning for so many years in Indy. Denver danced on a high wire to the AFC West title last season; this year Manning will give the Broncos the consistency at quarterback that Tim Tebow never could. Manning will also take them two wins further in the playoffs than Tebow did.
But not three.
Fifteen years ago John Elway won a 31--24 shootout with Brett Favre in the Super Bowl. This time Elway will be watching from a Superdome box, not helicoptering over tacklers in San Diego. He'll wish he had more to do with the outcome. In the Revenge of the Cheeseheads, four miles from Manning's boyhood home, Rodgers will best Manning in another Super Bowl shootout. Green Bay 33, Denver 30.
If ever a Super Bowl loss could be a moral victory, this will be one for the 36-year-old Manning. A year ago his career hung in the balance. Don't tell Manning this because he won't buy it, but there would be no shame in a Super Bowl loss, not after what he's been through.
Peter King forecasts the 2012 winners
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated. You'll see when he leads the Broncos deep into January
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
He'll be the first quarterback to throw for 5,500 yards ... and someday he'll break the astound barrier of 6,000
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
All over America fans scurry to Wikipedia to find out who this guy is. You'll know when he flirts with 20 sacks
OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
The most precocious rookie QB since You-Know-Who in '98. His passing numbers will match Cam Newton's
DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Defensive end, Seahawks
Attention in Seattle is laser-focused on the third-round rookie, who'll sneak through O-lines for 14 sacks
COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR
If Denver wins the AFC West, there won't be another candidate. Even if not, he'll be hard to beat
COACH OF THE YEAR
Remember in Cleveland, when he wasn't up to the job? Funny what a difference five or six Pro Bowlers make
EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR
General manager, Texans
When you lose Mario Williams and don't even worry, it's a pretty good indicator that you're drafting well
BUSTED BRONCO The Packers rode herd on Tebow during a 49--23 victory last October at Lambeau. The rematch would be a much closer affair.