Omaha! Omaha! SI is audibling. For the first time in nearly two decades we've entrusted all the scouting reports in the NFL Preview, as well as the team rankings, to a single analyst. (Peter King is still making SI's Super Bowl pick.) Andy Benoit began writing about the NFL as an 11-year-old in Boise, Idaho, then deepened his knowledge with repeated visits to NFL Films in Mt. Laurel, N.J. A contributor from Day One on TheMMQB.com—where, in addition to his weekly Deep Dive column, you can read about his cats, Mr. Fizzles and Othercat—Benoit, 28, treated the 2013 season like CSI: NFL, poring over the All-22 coaches' footage from every game, again and again, then meeting with dozens of coaches to confirm his pigskin diagnoses. Once the season kicks off, you can keep up with his film-study observations on Twitter by following @Andy_Benoit.
ANDY BENOIT'S DIVISION STANDINGS
Patriots (1) 13--3
Dolphins (5) 10--6
Ravens (4) 11--5
Steelers (6) 10--6
Colts (2) 12--4
Broncos (3) 12--4
Eagles (4) 10--6
Packers (1) 13--3
Buccaneers (3) 11--5
Saints (5) 11--5
Seahawks (2) 12--4
49ers (6) 11--5
Turn the page for Peter King's Super Bowl pick
PETER KING'S SUPER BOWL XLIX PREDICTION
It's a particularly hard year to pick the Super Bowl.
Oh, shut up. You say that every year.
I'm determined not to pick a repeat, because, you know, champions don't repeat much. In fact, they don't do well in January of the following year. Four of the last eight Lombardi Trophy winners haven't made the playoffs the next year, and the other four lost their postseason openers.
In the wake of the Seahawks' destruction of the Broncos in last season's Super Bowl—and after watching Russell Wilson throw terrific deep ball after terrific deep ball in training camp—it's hard to come up with a good reason Seattle won't win. Other than history, of course. "We've got the itch," Wilson says. "We're not through."
Wilson & Co. enter the season as the best team, but I'm picking the champion to come from 1,647 miles east of Seattle: Green Bay. And the matchup in Glendale, Ariz., in February will become the next version of the annual Tom Brady--Peyton Manning Bowl: Aaron Rodgers's Packers 30, Andrew Luck's Colts 23.
Green Bay has an amazingly deep offense with the most diverse and efficient triggerman in football. Look it up: Rodgers is 7.7 career passer-rating points better than Manning, 2.4% more accurate than Brady, and has a higher touchdown percentage and lower interception percentage than Drew Brees. Now GM Ted Thompson has finally provided Rodgers with both a premier back, Eddie Lacy, and the downfield receiving threats that every great quarterback needs.
But this isn't going to be about the offense. It's going to be about the Packers' defense, which has been run out of the playoffs by 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick (two games, 279 rushing yards) the last two postseasons.
That's dicey, counting on the D—especially after losing B.J. Raji, the only good nose man in coordinator Dom Capers's 3--4 scheme, to a torn biceps. Without Raji, and with poor depth behind him, the Pack might play more 4--3, and strong running teams (like Seattle, on opening night) could exploit Green Bay on the ground. That puts more pressure on two other risky players from the front seven. Clay Matthews is a stud at outside linebacker, but he has missed nine games in the last two years to various injuries. He assured me in camp that he'd be a 16-game player again—but who in camp doesn't think that? And free-agent signee Julius Peppers, 34, has to bring the heat like he's 30. He's shifting from down end to standup outside 'backer, and Capers plans to move him around liberally, not just say, Sic the quarterback.
It's Peppers, really, who could make or break this unit. I expect the Packers to spot him more; he averaged 912 snaps over the past four years in Chicago, and Capers will likely take a less-is-more approach. "I think we finally found that piece," Matthews said in camp. "Funny, when the Bears let him go, he was too old, too slow. But I see him get off the ball at practice; it's still there. Julius will take stress off everyone [else]. We can both run, both cover, and I think we'll be asked to do it all."
Add a (finally) healthy Casey Hayward at cornerback, and the refurbished defense will be good enough to keep Rodgers from having to put up 33 every week.
Not that it will be easy. The NFC is stacked. My playoff picks vary a bit from Andy Benoit's: I predict the Eagles win home field (weak division, rising O), and the Saints and the Seahawks add to the conference's power foursome. Any of those could go on a December run and obliterate the field, but I'm choosing the most balanced offense in Green Bay's. Seattle's won some big road games in the Pete Carroll era, but with the 12th man watching on TV, the Seahawks won't have the same juice they had in 2013, when they held home field advantage.
The AFC isn't quite the jayvee—not with Brady and Manning still dueling for supremacy—but it doesn't have the depth of the NFC. The Colts have a favorable schedule (it's a good year to be playing the NFC East) and a quarterback, Luck, who's ready to take the next step in Year 3. Throwing for 3,822 yards in 2013 with a plus-14 TD-to-INT ratio is impressive—but Luck can be better, and he knows it. I think he will be, especially with the return of a rising-star tight end, Dwayne Allen, from a hip injury.
Packers over Colts is the pick, much to the chagrin of Seattle fans—or maybe to their delight, given my dismal record with Super Bowl predictions. But don't blame me. Blame history.
Turn the page for Andy Benoit's scouting reports.
Open the Google app and say, "Ok Google, what current NFL teams have never played in the Super Bowl?"
Photograph by Chris Trotman Getty Images
QB RYAN TANNEHILL, DOLPHINS
ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
QB AARON RODGERS