NFL predictions: Super Bowl winner

The tiny 16-game sample and parity of the NFL make for some fun randomness during the season, but each season there is only a handful of true contenders. Based on the level of talent on these four teams, I believe one of them will be holding the Vince Lombardi Trophy by the season’s end.

Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos were a very good team last season. Despite some of the feeling that they beat up on an easy AFC and cruised to the Super Bowl, they probably fielded the best offense in the history of the league. Even in a high-scoring league, they still managed to lead the field by a comfortable margin. The only players of note they lost from that offense were receiver Eric Decker and running back Knowshon Moreno. Decker was a product of quarterback Peyton Manning’s unbelievable season, rather than a cause. Receiver Emmanuel Sanders has been productive for years in the Steelers offense and should replace Decker just fine. Considering the rest of his career, Moreno was also only productive due to Manning, and running back Montee Ball should fill the gap there after an adequately solid season last year.

The defense, on the other hand, was atrocious last year. The front seven missed linebacker Von Miller during his suspension at the beginning of the year and injury at the end of it. This team had some solid players, but no one truly good. Linebacker Danny Trevathan is out for the season, but the Broncos more than made up for him in the off-season. Defensive end DeMarcus Ware is a hall-of-fame-level pass rusher and, should be productive for the Broncos even at the end of his career. Cornerback Aqib Talib was very good for the Patriots last year, and will probably continue to be so. The Broncos already spun the scoreboard, and with a true NFL-level defense this year, other teams should watch out.

San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers are tough to make a Super Bowl case for. They lost their two best pass rushers in linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith with no replacements for at least half the season.

Some people think safety Donte Whitner is good (for some reason), and he left. The offense was not very good last year, and running back Frank Gore is not getting any younger. However, while the weakened pass rush will hurt, the 49ers got a huge boost in the secondary, replacing big hitter Whitner with a much better football player, safety T.J. Ward. The 49ers always had depth at linebacker, and while they are currently thin, Patrick Willis is enough to make the unit productive by himself. This defense was mediocre last season too, finishing 13th in defensive DVOA, according to Football Outsiders. They might be a little better than that this year, because they were docked mostly for strength of schedule rather than lack of production.

The offense, however, will be fairly dominant. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick will continue to improve as both a passer and a runner, as his arm strength and athleticism make him a force to be reckoned with.

A whole season of wide receiver Michael Crabtree will be a huge help, and Stevie Johnson was a very smart signing as a third wide
receiver. Frank Gore might be getting old, but he was productive last year, and rookie running back Carlos Hyde is talented and should ease some of the workload on Gore. The 49ers will continue to have the best left side of the offensive line in left tackle Joe Staley and left guard Mike Iupati, and this team should spin the scoreboard to go with its solid defense.

New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints bring back an incredible offense from last season. Rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks might actually make this unit better. Drew Brees already had tight end Jimmy Graham and wide receivers Kenny Stills and Marques Colston to throw to, and now defenses will have more of a headache.

Running back Darren Sproles is gone, but he was inconsistent last year, and running back Pierre Thomas has been better at the same role for years.

Their defense has been okay for a long time, and last season their pass defense was great. Free agent addition, safety Jairus Byrd certainly helps with that, and this could be the second- or third-best pass defense in the league, despite some questions about their second corner spot.

The one true weakness of this team is the run defense, but the lack of focus on halfbacks this offseason shows that the running game will continue to decrease in importance this season, so this weakness will matter less.

Seattle Seahawks
Finally, the Seattle Seahawks are the best Super Bowl repeating candidates in a long time. They brought back the same team that laid waste to the NFL with several key changes.

They lost some depth in the front seven after nearly the whole second unit got big money elsewhere. This showed when they had some trouble stopping Eddie Lacy in the beginning of the game Thursday night. However, their front unit is still incredible and their secondary, the Legion of Boom, might be the best in league history. The offense has improved along the offensive line — their only weakness last year — and running back Percy Harvin is back. Harvin might be one of the 10 best players in the league, and his ability to run, receiver and return kickoffs was on display as the Seahawks crushed the Pack.

The main weakness of this team is not even a weakness. For some reason, the ‘hawks have Earl Thomas returning punts. There is no reason to risk Thomas for three yards every now and then.

That’s not even a real weakness, but it’s the best reason to think they can’t repeat. There’s no use even listing all of the excellent contributors to this team, because there’s no point in just relaying the whole roster. Only the single- elimination format of football is a true threat to this team.