Talk of Fame Network
The Super Bowl field has been established. All the wild cards are gone, and only the division champions remain. So who will hoist the Lombardi Trophy in February?
That’s the subject of this week’s Talk of Fame Network poll – who’s going to win it all? The Patriots? The Cowboys? How about the Packers or the Steelers? It’s your call. Here are your eight candidates:
Atlanta Falcons. The NFC South champions with an 11-5 record. The Falcons became just the 20th team in NFL history to score 500 points in a season, and triggerman Matt Ryan was selected the All-Pro quarterback over Tom Brady, Derek Carr, Dak Prescott and Aaron Rodgers. Ryan won his first NFL passing title with an efficiency rating of 117.1. He completed almost 70 percent of his passes for 4,944 yards with 38 TDs and only seven interceptions. He also averaged a league-best 9.3 yards per attempt. Wide receiver Julio Jones and running back Devonta Freeman gave him a formidable supporting cast. Jones caught 83 passes for 1,409 yards, and Freeman rushed for 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns.
(Ryan and Jones photos courtesy of the Atlanta Falcons)
Dallas Cowboys. The NFC East champions and NFC top seed with a 13-3 record. Rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott sparked a remarkable worst-to-first turnaround by the Cowboys. Without them in 2015, the Cowboys finished 4-12. With them as walk-in starters in 2016, the Cowboys tied a franchise record for victories. Elliott, the fourth overall pick of the 2016 draft, became the first rookie to lead the NFL in rushing since Edgerrin James in 1999, and his 1,631 yards were the third best by a rookie rusher in NFL history. Prescott, a mere fourth-round selection, stepped in after an August injury to Tony Romo and threw only four interceptions. He passed for 23 touchdowns and rushed for six more.
(Prescott photo courtesy of the Dallas Cowboys)
Green Bay Packers. The NFC North champions with a 10-6 record. The coach (Mike McCarthy) and quarterback (Aaron Rodgers) have both won a Super Bowl. The Packers entered the post-season as the hottest team in the NFC with a six-game winning streak and have since extended it to seven with a wild-card victory over the Giants. Aaron Rodgers has been the best player in the NFL at any position over the last eight weeks, passing for 22 touchdowns with no interceptions for the best stretch of his career. He also led the NFL with 40 TD passes this season. Jordy Nelson led the NFL with 14 receiving touchdowns, and the Packers finished eighth in the NFL in run defense, allowing only three 100-yard rushers.
(Rodgers photo courtesy of the Green Bay Packers)
Houston Texans. The AFC South champions with a 9-7 record. The Texans led the NFL in defense this season and have the only pass defense that did not allow a 300-yard passer. All this without NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, who missed the final 13 games of the season with a back injury. Houston needed to play great defense because, in a passing league, the Texans struggled to throw the football. Brock Osweiler, who was signed by the Texans in the offseason to a $72-million contract, threw more interceptions (16) than touchdowns (15) and was benched late in the year. Houston does have a 1,000-yard rusher in Lamar Miller, however.
(Miller photo courtesy of the Houston Texans)
Kansas City Chiefs. The AFC West champions with a 12-4 record. Andy Reid has been to one Super Bowl as coach of the Eagles in 2005. The Chiefs finished 20th in offense and 24th in defense this season but proved that defensive opportunism and special teams go a long way. Kansas City led the NFL in both takeaways (33) and interceptions (18), placing two starters in its defensive backfield on the All-Pro team, cornerback Marcus Peters and safety Eric Berry. Rookie Tyreek Hill was named the All-Pro punt returner, having scored a pair of touchdowns on a 78-yard runback against Oakland and a 95-yarder against San Diego. The Chiefs also recovered a league-high four opponent fumbles in the kicking game.
(Peters courtesy of the Kansas City Chiefs)
New England Patriots. The AFC East champions and AFC top seed with a 14-2 record. The coach (Bill Belichick) and quarterback (Tom Brady) have been to six Super Bowls and won four of them. But the Patriots are more than just Brady. He sat the first four games of the season, and New England still won three of them with backup quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and rookie Jacoby Brissett. Defensively, the Patriots allowed the fewest points in the NFL this season (250). And then there’s Brady, who was breathing fire when he finally got back in uniform, throwing for 28 touchdowns with only two interceptions in his 12 starts.
(Patriots photos courtesy of the club)
Pittsburgh Steelers. The AFC North champion with an 11-5 record. The coach (Mike Tomlin) has won a Super Bowl, and the quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) has won two. The Steelers didn't gain the most yards, nor did they score the most points. But there is no more explosive offense in the game today than the Steelers with Roethlisberger and the game’s best receiver (Antonio Brown) and most complete running back (Le’Veon Bell). Brown led the AFC with 106 catches – his fourth consecutive 100-catch season – for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns. Bell missed the first three games of the season with an NFL suspension but still finished fifth in the NFL in rushing with 1,268 yards and also caught 75 passes.
(Bell photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Steelers)
Seattle Seahawks. The NFC West champions with a 10-5-1 record. The coach (Pete Carroll) and quarterback (Russell Wilson have been to two Super Bowls in the last three seasons and won one of them. The Seahawks brought the fifth-ranked defense into the playoffs but one of the best players is missing. Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas suffered a broken tibia in December that ended his season. Still, the Seahawks have the best edge pass rush in the playoffs with Pro Bowlers Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett and Frank Clark off the bench. Avril has 11 ½ sacks and Clark 10. But the Seahawks start two rookies on the offensive line and have allowed the most sacks (42) of the remaining contenders.
(Wilson photo courtesy of the Seattle Seahawks)