Seeing as NFL training camps across the league start in a little less than a week, I figured it was only natural for me to jump ahead all the way to the Super Bowl and predict which two teams will be lucky enough to compete in the big game and win Super Bowl XLV.
First, I?m going to start with the loaded AFC. There are five or six teams in the AFC that could go on to win the Super Bowl and I would not be surprised in the least. The Colts, Patriots, Ravens, Chargers, Jets and even the Steelers who are only one season removed from winning it all have an equal shot at being crowned AFC champs. But there is one team in this group who stands out to me. They have a great mix of youth, athleticism and playoff experience. In addition, this team has added some great pieces this offseason through both the draft and free agency. Calm down all you Jets fans out there, I am not talking about you. I?m talking about the Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens are a team on the verge of being great. They have a star emerging at running back in Ray Rice and a more than capable backup in Willis McGahee. They will be running behind one of the, if not the best, offensive line in the game. You would be hard pressed to find a weakness in that unit. At wide receiver they have hands down the two toughest receivers in the league with Anquan Boldin and the ageless Derrick Mason. Neither one of these guys shies away from contact and both have a track record of playing through the pain. The man responsible for getting them the ball, Joe Flacco, is the most important piece of the puzzle. If you look at the past several Super Bowl champs, the one aspect that all the winners have in common is very good quarterback play. Shocking, I know. Joe Flacco is now entering his third season as starting quarterback for the Ravens. Last season, he took a big step forward from being a game manager into a play maker and I fully expect him to take another step forward in the mental aspect of quarterbacking in the NFL. The most important thing for a young quarterback to learn is how to take care of the football and I believe this season Joe Flacco will maintain his strong numbers from last season while cutting down on his turnovers. Flacco?s play is what will separate the Ravens from a very similar team like the Jets who have an even younger QB with a tendency to turn the ball over.
On defense, this may not be the same stout unit that once used to give opposing offenses nightmares, however they are still very good. As you may have guessed, the Ravens defense is led by all-world linebacker Ray Lewis who at the age of 35, still manages to get the job done. In front of him, the Ravens have a stacked defensive line featuring stud right end/DT, Haloti Ngata. This group of linemen are big, strong and athletic. I almost forget to mention, they added Alabama standout Terrence Cody who stands at 6-4, 354lbs. On the edge, the Ravens have one of the best outside rush linebackers in Terrell Suggs and got an absolute steal in the second round of the NFL Draft with converted outside linebacker Sergio Kindle from Texas. In the secondary, aside from Ed Reed, the entire unit leaves much to be desired. Both corners Foxworth and Washington are very pedestrian. But luckily for the Ravens, their aggressive front seven coupled with all-world free safety Ed Reed will cover up for what is a very mediocre secondary. The Ravens only other major weakness is at place kicker where Bill Cundiff is inconsistent at best.
In the NFC, there are a lot less teams who have a realistic shot at winning it all. The Saints, Vikings, Cowboys and Packers are the only teams I feel that can compete with the AFC champion, and even a couple of these teams have some questions that they have to have answered during the regular season. But of these teams, there is one that is ready to break out and finally play to their full potential.
The Dallas Cowboys have been on the edge of greatness for the last several years, but something always seemed to pop up. Whether it was a Tony Romo choke job, or a Terrell Owens dropped ball or a missed field goal. But now, one thing is certain, this team is ready to make it to the Super Bowl. They are led on offense by one of the most scrutinized players in recent memory, quarterback Tony Romo. Last season he got the monkey off his back by finally winning a playoff game, and now he looking to achieve his ultimate goal of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. The question about Tony Romo has nothing to do with his ability to play the quarterback position, but it is his ability to perform in high pressure situations that everyone points to. This is the year where he will prove all of his doubters wrong.
Tony Romo will have an array of weapons to choose from. First, at tight end, Jason Witten has proven to be the best all around tight end in the league. Whenever Romo finds himself in trouble, Jason Witten is always there to bail him out. Next, Romo is throwing to a talented and deep receiving core. This group features Miles Austin, Roy E. Williams, the stud rookie Dez Bryant out of Oklahoma State and the man who never seems to go away, Patrick Crayton. I know Roy E. Williams has not lived up to the big contract he signed but with Miles Austin and Dez Bryant relieving some of the pressure, I expect Roy to have a very solid season. In addition, Romo also has a stable of running backs he can turn to in Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. All three of these guys are talented and proven players on the NFL level. The biggest question mark of the offense is the offensive line. Doug Free will be replacing veteran tackle, Flozell ?the hotel? Adams. If Free proves the Cowboys brass correct and fills in the Left tackle spot effectively, the cowboys will have one of the best lines in the league.
On defense, the Cowboys are returning 10 of 11 starters on what was a very strong unit last season. This defense is led by all-pros DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff. These two players cause havoc on opposing offenses. When they are on the field, they make every player around them better. As a result, good players like outside linebacker Anthony Spencer and defensive ends Marcus Spears and Igor Olshansky are able to dominate their one on one matchups with the offensive line. At middle linebacker, the cowboys are probably as solid as it gets with savvy veterans Keith Brooking and Bradie James. In the secondary, cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman were both pro-bowlers on the NFC squad. The only major question on this defense comes at the safety position where first year starter Alan Ball and second year starter Gerald Sensabaugh will be tested frequently. If they can answer the challenge, there is no doubt in my mind this will be one of the best defensive units in the league. Like the Ravens, the only other weakness the Cowboys have is place kicker David Buehler, who has never kicked a field goal or extra point in an NFL game.
Superbowl XLV Prediction: Ravens 17 Cowboys 24
The Cowboys win thanks to the Super Bowl venue, Cowboys Stadium. Home of the Dallas Cowboys.