Way-too-early 2016 NFL preview and Super Bowl LI prediction

We’re still not over the fact that we’ll be without football for the next seven months, so we thought we might as well put together an early preview of the 2016 NFL season, spotlighting the favorites to play in Super Bowl LI.

Forget the slew of offseason transactions to come, and the important additions made through the NFL Draft. Disregard the fact that every team could look completely different in a few months as they try to upgrade their strengths and improve their weaknesses. We’re going to peer into our crystal ball, and take a guess as to which teams will emerge as the frontrunners for the Lombardi trophy. Why? Because, why not?

Let’s start with the two potential returnees to the big game. The Super Bowl 50 champion Denver Broncos need to figure out their quarterback situation as Peyton Manning is mulling retirement and Brock Osweiller is a free agent. Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller is also a free agent, but he’s expressed a desire to stay in Denver, so it’s highly unlikely he’ll go somewhere else. The stonewall Broncos defense should remain intact, and we’ve already seen how that can make all the difference in a championship game.

The Carolina Panthers will also be favored to come out of the NFC next season. Carolina has a young and talented core on both sides of the ball. Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly and co. will return with something to prove after their demoralizing defeat. The Panthers also have a chip on their shoulders after the way they were treated throughout this past season – chastised for celebrating when they won, and panned for being upset when they lost. The thing about Carolina is that the players will continue to be themselves, so with this added motivation, you can expect the touchdown dances to be twice as obnoxious and the losing press conferences to be 10 times more excruciating.

Standing in Carolina’s way would likely be the Seattle Seahawks, who appeared in two of the past three Super Bowls. Marshawn Lynch might be retired, but Seattle has players in key positions locked up for the foreseeable future. The Legion of Boom will be shot out of a cannon after a performance last season that was below their normally high standard. The Arizona Cardinals also pose a threat, but the most important players of their veteran-laden roster will be another year closer to the twilight of their careers. Sleepers in the NFC include the Green Bay Packers, who need to shore up some holes on the offensive line, and the Dallas Cowboys, who can be a dangerous team with Tony Romo and Dez Bryant at full strength.

In the AFC, all roads will likely go through New England, as the Evil Empire of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will be back for another campaign. As long as that tandem is around, it’s impossible to consider the Patriots anything less than a contender. The Cincinnati Bengals probably have the most talented team on paper in the entire conference, but questions remain as to whether they can overcome their postseason woes. But the real favorite could be the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have an incredibly formidable team when their roster is healthy. The trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown make for arguably the most explosive offense in the league. Sleeper teams include the New York Jets, who have a strong defense and could be dangerous if they manage to make the playoffs, and the Indianapolis Colts, who could be in contention if they just put some solid talent around a healthy Andrew Luck.

Prediction: The Seahawks are ticked off and run through the NFC, exacting revenge on the Panthers in the NFC title game. Colin Kaepernick comes off the bench in Week 13 for an injured Ryan Fitzpatrick and leads the Jets on a playoff run. Super Bowl LI: Jets 21, Seahawks 16.

(Disclaimer: This writer is a die-hard Jets fan. His viewpoint: if you speak things into existence, they’re more likely to come true, right?)

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