Super Bowl 51 Predictions
By Loot, NFL Handicapper, Lootmeister.com
Most Likely Teams
New England Patriots: Brady will sit the first four games, but no one seems terribly worried about it, with Jimmy Garoppolo poised to take the reigns after an extended apprenticeship. This is a very system-heavy team, where plugging guys in presents far fewer problems than it would for most teams. You figure the Pats are due to fall off at some point, but trying to time it is a dangerous game to play and one should expect them to be in the mix again this season. The offense is actually pretty loaded across the board, while the defense looks ready to make a nice step forward this season. There is a lot of balance on this squad and they weren't that far off from getting to the Super Bowl last season to defend their title. That 4-game Brady suspension looms, as a problematic stretch could keep the Patriots from getting home-field throughout the playoffs. Still, they stand out as an obvious contender.
Carolina Panthers: Other than playmaking corner Josh Norman, every piece is back for a Panthers team that will be looking to atone for laying an egg in the Super Bowl. Other than that, it was a nearly perfect season. The Cam Newton-led offense, which was tops in scoring in the NFL last season, returns all its pieces, in addition to returning talented receiver Kelvin Benjamin from injury, giving Newton a giant red-zone threat to go along with all his other weapons. RB Jonathan Stewart had a career year again and with Newton, gives the Panthers a lot of bite in their ground-game. The Carolina defense had enough balance to absorb the loss of Norman, though the pass-defense could take a small step back. They still have the best LB tandem in the game with Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, with a line that has turned into one of the NFC's best. Don't rule out the Panthers!
Green Bay Packers: There is cause for at least tempered optimism in Green Bay. They should be better with a more-focused Eddie Lacy racking up yards on the ground and helping the aerial attack take off. A fully-healthy Jordy Nelson would open the playbook up and make this offense take flight. The reports on his health after missing all of last season are a bit troubling, though, and we'll have to see if he will be 100%. Still, they are loaded on offense with rising ball-catching talent like Jeff Janis, Ty Montgomery, and Davante Adams, who needs to start fulfilling his potential this season. An offensive line racked by injuries is due to stay healthy, which would also give the offense a big boost. The defense was far less of a liability and if they round into even better form this season, it could help the Packers take flight. The secondary is tip-top, with guys like safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix becoming one of the best in the game. First-rounder Kenny Clark will need to deliver on the inside of the line. The "Pack" should be tough this season with any luck.
Seattle Seahawks: On one hand, we see their results slipping each season since they won the Super Bowl. We see Marshawn Lynch has retired. His promising fill-in Thomas Rawls broke his ankle. The offensive line was garbage. Normally, that would all contribute to a storyline of the Seahawks fading slowly from relevance. Not so fast. Russell Wilson become more of a pocket presence and finished the season on a 24 TD/1 INT streak in his final 7 games. That line is really going to need Garry Gilliam, Justin Britt, and Patrick Lewis to form a strong foundation for incoming rookie talent Germain Ifedi and Rees Odhiambo. Aerially, Doug Baldwin became a real player in this offense, as did promising rookie Tyler Lockett. Having TE Jimmy Graham back in tow is due to pay off. On defense, the Legion of Doom is still intact and will benefit from having Kam Chancellor all season. They lost Bruce Irvin, but Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright should keep the middle intact. They really haven't tailed off, leading the NFL in points allowed last season for the 4th year in a row.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Pittsburgh looks to have the most-stocked offense in the league and with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger all season, it's not to imagine the Steelers making a lot of good things happen. It's just that the offense has been taking dings left and right during the offseason. Martavis Bryant, one of their talented receivers, is suspended for the season, with Le'Veon Bell, their valuable back, also sitting for four games. There was optimism that TE Ladarius Green could fill in for retired Heath Miller, but word out of camp is that Green may retire due to concussions. Despite all that, they're still loaded. The defense is benefitting from a youth movement headed in the right direction, though that pass-defense was pretty rough last season—ranked 30th in the league after allowing 29 TD passes. And losing corner Senquez Golson isn't going to help. They're a powerful team, but one that has some voids to fill. And keeping Big Ben protected is a must.
Cincinnati Bengals: Psychologically, it's hard betting on a team to achieve postseason glory on the heels of seven one-and-done playoff appearances, including five in as many years and six in seven years. There is like a force-field keeping Cincy from playoff glory. But before Andy Dalton went down last season, they were looking like an interesting darkhorse and still lost by only two to the Steelers in the wild-card round. Dalton had taken his game to another level, with weapons AJ Green and Tyler Eifert serving as valuable weapons and talented Tyler Boyd an interesting rookie. Running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill gave this Bengals' running game some teeth. The defense has been what is keeping the Bengals in the mix for so many years now. The line is still fierce and their hard-hitting linebacker unit complements the excellent and versatile secondary. At nearly 20/1, you can do a lot worse than the Bengals. Sure, they've labored massively to get over the hump, but they've also been on the cusp for a long time and could make a move this season.
Houston Texans: First of all, they're 40/1 as of press time, so bear with us. In 2015, they overcame a 2-5 start to win their division. They finished the season with 7 wins in their last 9 games. And no one seems sure why that happened, which for some reason is scarier than a team where it's easy to see why they're winning. Brock Osweiler may or not prove to be a top-flight QB, but he is at least an upgrade at the position. The offense features wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who caught 111 balls for over 1500 yards last season. The Texans added a lot of speed in the draft and in free agency, with RB Lamar Miller and draft picks Will Fuller, Braxton Miller, and Tyler Ervin now onboard. A healthier O-line should also help some things come to life on this offense. JJ Watt is still a monster on that D-line, making everyone around him better. Whitney Mercilus, Jadeveon Clowney, and Brian Cushing round out a pretty robust front seven. The secondary is also in good hands. There's a certain ability to cultivate a win that the team showed last season. The coaches are resourceful and they should find some good mojo again this season, representing a decent long-shot team.