The annual seven-month wait for the next NFL season can be brutal for NFL fans to endure. The ecstasy that comes with those five months of action is great, but deep down we all know Super Bowl XLVII was the last game that mattered until early September.
But that just means everyone, minus the ecstatic Baltimore fans, is already looking forward to the 2013 season.
There will be the big names and smaller-but-still-critical signings in free agency, the release of the schedule in April, and Andy Reid's Kansas City Chiefs kicking off the 2013 draft with the No. 1 pick. The summer will bring training camp holdouts, devastating injuries, shady arrests and other off-field drama.
But that stuff is really the "fantasy football" part of the season, where everything is played out on paper and in the pipedreams of fans.
No one really knew if Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III were going to be that good that quickly this season, and especially not impactful enough to make the postseason in Indianapolis and Washington. No one could say with certainty Peyton Manning or Adrian Peterson would be the same players, or even better in some ways, after such significant injuries.
No one knew a team like the Baltimore Ravens would go on the run they did, especially after losing four of their final five games of the regular season, firing the offensive coordinator, and overcoming numerous injuries and moments of adversity. For the seventh time in the last eight years, the team with the worse regular-season record won the Super Bowl.
That's the NFL soap opera we love, and it comes back fresh each season. In 2013, rookie quarterbacks will not be as big of a story because of the draft class not looking particularly strong, but we have six rookie head coaches (seven if you count Arizona's Bruce Arians dropping the interim tag for the first time ever). A quarter of the league changed head coaches this offseason and that will be a big story.
The most marquee player returning from a serious injury will be Griffin, but the probable retirements of all-time greats Ray Lewis and Tony Gonzalez will also be interesting to watch on two of the final four teams from 2012.
Super Bowl XLVII
Ultimately every team's goal is the Super Bowl, and that is the opportunity each new season brings. The ride will be wild and unpredictable as always, but here is the earliest possible look at the 10 teams (in no real scientific order) in the best position right now to reach Super Bowl XLVIII:
1. Baltimore Ravens (10-6; Won Super Bowl)
It's harder than you think to repeat. The last seven champions failed to win a playoff game the following season. The last team that did was also the last team to repeat, the 2003-04 New England Patriots.
Since joining the Ravens in 2008, John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco have led the team to playoff wins in five consecutive seasons. Only the 1991-'96 Dallas Cowboys were able to do so in six consecutive seasons. This was a huge year for Baltimore to capitalize on a closing window with a roster that needs a youth movement.
Ray Lewis' retirement announcement was a driving force behind this spirited playoff run, but his leadership presence, which has been there for all 17 of Baltimore's seasons, will be hard to replace as the face of the franchise. He led a defense that could lose Ed Reed and Paul Kruger to free agency, though at least cornerback Lardarius Webb will be back from an ACL injury.
Super Bowl MVP Flacco will be re-signed to a large contract, which could hurt the team in future rebuilding. If the team completes its shift to an offensive approach, then key players like Anquan Boldin (32) and Matt Birk (36) are no spring chickens either. Even Dennis Pitta is a restricted free agent GM Ozzie Newsome must work a new deal for.
Baltimore plays in the tough AFC North, and the 2013 schedule includes seven games against 2012 playoff teams. The road back to the Super Bowl will be even tougher than this year's incredible path.
2. San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1; Lost Super Bowl)
The fate of the Super Bowl loser has been better the following season than the winner in recent years, but no losing team has returned to the Super Bowl since the Buffalo Bills (1990-1993) lost four in a row. Since then, the only other team to even reach the conference championship was New England this season following its loss in Super Bowl XLVI.
This is a tough loss to move on from, but Jim Harbaugh has had incredible success with the 49ers in his first two seasons, and he has one of the most exciting, young quarterbacks in recent history with Colin Kaepernick, who will be going into his first year as the prepared starter.
Harbaugh already had his team come back strong after last year's debacle in the NFC championship, and the 49ers have a talented, deep roster with nine Pro Bowl selections this season alone. Safety Dashon Goldson will be a free agent, but the team can always add onto the offense, particularly the receiving position by replacing Randy Moss with a young weapon that can develop with Kaepernick.
The 49ers should be in business for a while in the NFC. There will be impending wars with Seattle, but with one of the most promising pairings at coach and quarterback, the 49ers are getting back to glory days after an eight-year dry spell.
3. Denver Broncos (13-3; Lost AFC divisional)
Things were setting up nicely for a Super Bowl run this season, but a stunning breakdown by safety Rahim Moore allowed Baltimore to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Expectations will be mile-high again after an 11-game winning streak in Peyton Manning's MVP-caliber season debut with the team, but John Fox and the Broncos will be measured by what happens in the playoffs.
Sure, the Broncos will head to Indianapolis during the regular season in a game that screams primetime, along with the third round of "The Manning Bowl" against the Giants.
Even with offensive coordinator Mike McCoy gone to San Diego, Manning's offense is going to be consistently productive as always, while the defense will look to fix some of the leaks that have shown up in big games for seemingly the last decade.
But this team will be looked at as the 1996 Broncos were after they lost a shocker at home in the playoffs to the Jacksonville Jaguars. That team reloaded and won the next two Super Bowls for John Elway's perfect ending. Now Elway must add the right pieces around Manning.
4. New England Patriots (12-4; Lost AFC championship)
It is always tough to lose the conference championship at home, but Bill Belichick's Patriots have a consistent model for winning. New England has had a winning record in 12 consecutive seasons, and as long as Tom Brady is healthy, that will continue as the rest of the AFC East has no answers for overtaking the Patriots.
But the string of disappointing playoff losses has to wear on them after so much record-breaking success in the regular season. The New England offense continues to score points at historic rates, but also continues to falter in the postseason. The defense has struggled to stop offenses led by the likes of Joe Flacco, Mark Sanchez and twice against Eli Manning in the Super Bowl.
Still a daunting out in the playoffs, the Patriots will be in the mix again, hoping superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski can stay healthy, but also having to address free agent Wes Welker's future. This may be the time to transition away from having a No. 1 slot receiver and to go after an outside player that can stretch the field.
5. Atlanta Falcons (13-3; Lost NFC championship)
The Falcons made a lot of positive steps in 2012, from winning a high-profile game against Denver, to beating the Saints, Matt Ryan set franchise records in his fifth year, and he and Mike Smith finally earned that elusive first playoff win.
But the haunting image of the Smith/Ryan era may be the 17-0 lead they blew in the NFC Championship against San Francisco, which is the largest ever by a home team in a championship game. After a season of close wins, Ryan could not deliver one final game-winning drive as the Falcons were possibly 10 yards away from the Super Bowl this year.
It is essential the Falcons convince Tony Gonzalez to return for another crack at it, because this offense has transitioned to a pass-heavy attack that focuses on Gonzalez, Roddy White and Julio Jones. Without Gonzalez, there is no tight end threat at all.
The defense played well in moments, and we know this team often plays well at home, but another impact player or two could push the Falcons over the hump. They just have to get over the devastating loss from this season and hope that Ryan continues to progress.
6. Seattle Seahawks (11-5; Lost NFC divisional)
A trendy pick for the Super Bowl late in the season, Seattle finished strong behind rookie quarterback Russell Wilson and fell one stop short of the NFC championship. With a core offense that is very young, and a breakout postseason from tight end Zach Miller, this will be one of the top offenses to watch in 2013.
Pete Carroll's top-ranked scoring defense has been earning recognition for the way it defends the pass, and Richard Sherman is quickly ascending to elite territory for cornerbacks. Enough improvement from Wilson and some more pass rush could go a long way in turning this team into a juggernaut.
With one of the league's best home-field advantages, Seattle will definitely make winning the NFC West over rival San Francisco a primary goal in 2013. Playing better on the road should be another goal. You could see this team came out flat on the road in the Eastern Time Zone in both playoff games, but put the Seahawks in front of the Pacific Northwest crowd and they could quickly add yet another Super Bowl appearance for the once criticized, but certainly rising NFC West.
7. Green Bay Packers (11-5; Lost NFC divisional)
Mike McCarthy's Packers will always be in the hunt as long as Aaron Rodgers is healthy, but that is not a given with his high volume of sacks. Veteran receiver Donald Driver retired, but the big story is what will happen with free agent Greg Jennings, who might play elsewhere in 2013. The Packers still have talent at the position, but when healthy Jennings was their best receiver.
The Super Bowl season in 2010 appears to be the anomaly for Dom Capers' defense, as it has been ripped apart in season-ending losses three of the last four years. This past season began and ended with a different San Francisco quarterback picking the defense apart with two styles. Meanwhile physical defenses have the most success against Green Bay's pass-happy offense.
The schedule looks tough again, and without some improvements on both sides of the ball, it could be another season where the Packers are forced to traverse a difficult road to reach the Super Bowl.
8. Houston Texans (12-4; Lost AFC divisional)
For much of 2012 the Texans were leading the AFC before a late collapse dropped them to the No. 3 seed. Houston has elite players in running back Arian Foster, wide receiver Andre Johnson, and defensive end J.J. Watt on defense, who had an all-time great season.
But there are still those missing pieces that prevent this team from taking the next step. The offense needs another weapon for Matt Schaub to pair up with Johnson, which Houston has never really made much effort to find.
Defensively, Wade Phillips did a great job in quickly turning the unit around from their poor 2010, but his defense plays terribly against the best quarterbacks. Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady torched this defense for at least 40 points a collective four times since last season.
Houston's defense is not good enough to slow those teams down, while the offense is not dynamic enough to outscore them in a shootout. You must beat a team like this to win a Super Bowl, and the Texans need to make changes while they still have this window of superiority in the AFC South over the rising Colts.
9. New York Giants (9-7; missed playoffs)
Why go with a team who failed to make the playoffs? The Giants are weird like that. Under Tom Coughlin, New York has started 5-2 or better in nine straight seasons, tying a NFL record (Dallas Cowboys, 1975-'83). But when it comes to finishing, the results are a mixed bag. The Giants have gone on two incredible title runs, while in the other seasons they were either one-and-done or failed to make the playoffs.
The talent was there this year, and the Giants had five wins by at least 23 points, including a 26-3 rout in San Francisco. Those are dominant wins, but then you have the bad like an 18-point loss in Cincinnati, followed by the ugly: lost 34-0 in Atlanta and 33-14 in Baltimore.
Eli Manning is going to start every game and deliver enough wins to have the team in the hunt, but you never know if you can trust the Giants to avoid a second-half swoon. But if they get into that tournament, they are as tough of an out as any team in the league.
10. Indianapolis Colts (11-5; Lost AFC wild card)
The 2012 Colts were statistically the worst 11-5 team in NFL history, but they were the season's best story and most resilient team. Bruce Arians, the NFL's Coach of the Year, stepped in for Chuck Pagano after his leukemia diagnosis and led the team to a 9-3 record. Arians moved on to Arizona, but this could be a positive as Andrew Luck is reunited with Stanford's Pep Hamilton as his new offensive coordinator.
While many will predict the Colts to regress because of their bad statistics, improvement should be expected with so many young players going into their second season. More than just Luck on offense, it will be the sophomore season for Vick Ballard, T.Y. Hilton, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. This offense should be more efficient by replacing Arians' high-risk, vertical passing game.
The defense has only forced 32 takeaways since 2011, the lowest two-season total ever. But what everyone hopes is a full, healthy year for Pagano should result in better play on that side of the ball.
GM Ryan Grigson also has plenty of cap room to spend to improve the defense and Luck's pass protection, so even if the Colts, likely playing a tougher schedule, may dip to 9-10 wins, the young core of the team should show clear improvement.
Since winning a Super Bowl is part luck, then it cannot hurt to have a quarterback with a name full of it.
Scott Kacsmar (@CaptainComeback) writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, Bleacher Report, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network.
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