PETER KING'S PREDICTIONS
PATRIOTS (1) 12--4
BENGALS (3) 10--6
RAVENS (5) 10--6
COLTS (4) 10--6
TEXANS (6) 10--6
BRONCOS (2) 11--5
GIANTS (4) 9--7
PACKERS (3) 10--6
FALCONS (2) 10--6
SAINTS (6) 10--6
49ERS (1) 11--5
SEAHAWKS (5) 11--5
BENGALS 20, TEXANS 16
RAVENS 24, COLTS 20
PATRIOTS 23, RAVENS 20
BRONCOS 30, BENGALS 13
PATRIOTS 30, BRONCOS 27
SAINTS 33, PACKERS 27
SEAHAWKS 27, GIANTS 17
49ERS 34, SAINTS 23
SEAHAWKS 31, FALCONS 27
SEAHAWKS 27, 49ERS 22
NUMBER IN PARENTHESES: PLAYOFF SEED
SUPER BOWL XLVIII
FEB. 2, 2014
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.
Peter King's Super Bowl Prediction
DURING MY visit to Eagles camp earlier this month I saw the team work for two hours and 20 minutes, and the offense didn't huddle once. At the end of each play, guys trotted back to the line. No walking. Later, in their first two preseason games, rookie coach Chip Kelly used the no-huddle on a remarkable 93% of his plays.
Speed is of the essence throughout the league. On my trip this summer for TheMMQB.com, I visited 23 teams, and I saw many outfits—the 49ers, Bills, Cowboys, Giants, Jaguars and Seahawks stuck out—working in fast-paced offenses, often incorporating the no-huddle. A trend? Yes, more teams will be playing faster, but that's been happening for a while. Check out the average number of offensive plays per game by a team in each of the past five years, starting in 2008: 61.9, 62.9, 63.1, 63.6 and, last year, 64.2. In five seasons that's an increase of almost five offensive plays per game if you include both teams.
It won't be just those teams with athletic QBs picking up the pace. And it won't be just no-huddle masters Tom Brady and Peyton Manning calling plays at the line. Almost every team's toying with it. Joe Flacco, hardly the fleetest guy, used the no-huddle extensively during the Ravens' Super Bowl run, and he's been working on it in camp. Eli Manning too. Teams see the advantage of playing fast in order to keep defenses from subbing to match up.
"We've gone in a few years from the offense being pretty static, to incorporating motion—and now the hurry-up's in vogue," says Chris Palmer, an NFL assistant and head coach of 22 years. "Offenses [are] trying to exploit mismatches and dictate the game to defenses. Not everyone can do it. Playing fast requires a smart quarterback. Look at New England—they ran the equivalent of two-and-a-half extra games last year. [The Patriots ran 1,191 plays, second most in NFL history.] Tom Brady made that happen."
Brady's mastery of the up-tempo game and his team's ability to seamlessly incorporate new skill players explain why SI is picking the Pats to win the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2004 season.
New England's Super Bowl XLVIII opponent, the Seahawks, will be even faster and more explosive in the stretch drive, when new wideout Percy Harvin returns from hip surgery. Without a playmaker of his caliber last year, Seattle came within a last-second Falcons field goal of reaching the NFC title game. But Russell Wilson is a year wiser, and the Seahawks believe they're strong enough to overcome the 49ers in what has become the best division in football, the NFC West. On that, I agree.
OF THE eight coaching hires this off-season, seven were offensive guys. I find three of those particularly intriguing: Kelly, from wide-open Oregon; the Bears' Marc Trestman, from the CFL's Montreal Alouettes (that was a shocker; the NFL doesn't do Canada); and the underrated Doug Marrone, late of Syracuse, by the Bills.
Last summer, their third together with the Orange, Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett overhauled their staid playbook and went up-tempo, studying Oregon, Missouri and Toledo before installing a new-wave scheme in August. By the time the players got the hang of it last October, Syracuse went on a roll, finishing 6--1 and averaging 36.1 points. "It was exciting," says Hackett, "and a lot of guys wanted to touch the ball. How do you do that? You increase the number of plays." Marrone later became a candidate with Cleveland, San Diego, Chicago and Philadelphia before Buffalo offered him the job.
Syracuse averaged 79.1 snaps last year. Buffalo averaged 61.4. Something's got to give.
"We wanted more explosive plays last year," says Marrone. "We kept our playbook [the same]; we just added concepts, and we changed the tempo to go faster. We wanted teams to have to defend everyone."
Here's where technology allows concepts to spread and take hold more quickly. One morning in Pittsford, N.Y., Marrone looked at his watch and noted it was 10:52— 20 minutes after a practice had ended. "In 45 minutes," he said, "all of this morning's practice, plus individual cutups, will be on everyone's iPad." Players and coaches could shower, grab an early lunch then pick up tablets and see what they'd done wrong and right at practice. As Kelly says, "Ten years ago you were dying to get a Peyton Manning cutup. Someone would have to get a Colts tape, transfer it to VHS, then mail or FedEx it. Now it's over the Web; you can literally have it in 30 seconds. That's a huge edge in teaching."
So now you can learn fast from fast-paced teams, including the Patriots. The thing is, those won't be the same Pats in 2013. Last season Brady targeted wideout Brandon Lloyd 16 times in one game, running back Danny Woodhead 10 in another, tight end Aaron Hernandez 19 in another and receiver Wes Welker 18 in another. All four are gone, and the other top pass catcher from '12, tight end Rob Gronkowski, is out for the time being. But you know Brady. Life is a series of adjustments.
A fourth title for Brady is even possible because so many question marks surround the other contenders. The Broncos' pass rush is in shambles; the Ravens have no idea who Flacco's biggest targets will be; the Falcons still wonder whether Matt Ryan is a February quarterback; the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick has started just 10 NFL games; and the Texans don't know what they'll get out of vital but nicked-up running back Arian Foster. In essence, my pick of New England—over a team like, say, Baltimore, which shares the same essential problem, a lack of proven pass catchers—is a vote of confidence in Brady, a guy who can take spare parts and get them ready quickly. In the words of one daily observer of the Patriots, Brady is "ridiculously laser-focused. If it's [running back] Shane Vereen or [tight end] Zach Sudfeld he has to depend on, he'll figure it out."
The Pats ran 205 more plays in 2012 than in '10, and they're not going to slow down. They've used a fast-paced offense consistently in camp, and Brady's first three drives of the preseason traveled 80, 80 and 80 yards. Touchdown, touchdown, touchdown.
Can teams be both up-tempo and efficient? New England makes it look easy. But as one coach who has studied that offense says, "Going fast is one thing; going fast and playing good is another. None of it matters if you're not running the offense well, and Tom [Brady] is a master at it—slowing down, speeding up. You can't just say Philadelphia's going to be great running the no-huddle. Tom knows his linemen have the answer for any problem. The Eagles can't know that yet. They might be great at it, but running something so fast so soon is going to be tough. New England [has] a lot of subliminal communication. If your quarterback can't communicate like that with his line, you're going to lead the league in three-and-outs."
For the conference finals, I'm picking four teams that will be proficient in the up-tempo offense: the Patriots, Seahawks, 49ers and Broncos. Any of them could win it all. I wanted to fall in love with an underdog on my tour—a Carolina or a Miami—but I just couldn't. Seattle steamrolled teams late last year, putting up 36.2 points per game in a 6--0 season-ending run before faltering in the final minute in Atlanta. There won't be any Russell Wilson skeptics by the time of the frosty Super Bowl five months from now.
But there aren't many disbelievers in Brady right now. After eight seasons of knocking hard on the door, he'll finally break through with a cast of skill characters whose names we'll come to know throughout the fall.
Quick: Name a team that doesn't have issues in 2013. Can't? Then as champs I'm picking the team whose leader can provide the fastest fixes
2013 AWARDS Predictions
Most Valuable Player
TOM BRADY QB, Patriots
Offensive Player of the Year
CHRIS JOHNSON RB, Titans
Defensive Player of the Year
Geno atkins DT, Bengals
Offensive Rookie of the Year
EDDIE LACY RB, Packers
Defensive Rookie of the Year
TYRANN MATHIEU FS, Cardinals
Comeback Player of the Year
ROBERT GRIFFIN III QB, Redskins
Coach of the Year
SEAN PAYTON Saints
Which teams could throw a wrench in Brady's big plans? Watch Peter King's 32 team preview videos to find out. Free for subscribers at SI.com/activate
Photograph by AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
COME TOGETHER Got to be a joker if you think the Titans and the Bears will make the playoffs, but the battle for berths in January does figure to be crowded and tight.
SIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED