Commentary

Early Super Bowl favorites for 2014

Seahawks have youth on their side, but talent-rich NFC boasts plenty of threats

Originally Published: February 3, 2014
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The Seattle Seahawks reached rarefied air Sunday night.

They became the fifth-youngest team to play in a Super Bowl. Don't underestimate the significance of that. The youngest team was the 1974 Pittsburgh Steelers, and they won three more Super Bowls over the next five years. The 1981 San Francisco 49ers, the second-youngest team, won three more Super Bowls over the next eight years.

The 1971 Miami Dolphins lost Super Bowl VI as the third-youngest team and then came back to win back-to-back Super Bowls and had a five-year run in which they won 57 games. The 1985 Chicago Bears were the fourth-youngest team, and they and won 52 games in a four-year stretch.

Does that mean we'll see a Seahawks dynasty? It's debatable. The biggest thing standing in their way is the salary cap. All four of those aforementioned runs were in the pre-salary-cap era.

The only franchises to repeat as Super Bowl champs in the cap era are the Dallas Cowboys (1992-93), Denver Broncos (1997-98) and New England Patriots (2003-04).

So who are the five teams to watch in the 2014 Super Bowl hunt?

1. Seattle Seahawks: Pete Carroll assembled the essence of a team. Linebacker Malcolm Smith won the Super Bowl MVP, and technically, he's not even a starter. K.J. Wright was the regular-season starter. The Seahawks brought in Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in free agency, and they didn't even start. The Seahawks are deep, young, fast and talented.

Trying to keep the team deep will be the challenge. The Seahawks have roughly $3 million of cap room, but that will be gone once the Seahawks sign players to future contracts. Carroll already scheduled 2014 planning meetings for Tuesday, the day before the team's celebration parade.

Lots of work is needed. The Seahawks have 10 current players making $6 million a year. At the current cap level, teams can normally keep eight. They might have to cut defensive end Chris Clemons, tight end Zach Miller and wide receiver Sidney Rice in order to extend contracts for safety Earl Thomas, tackle Russell Okung and others. They could lose Bennett to Chicago, where he could unite with his brother, Martellus. Unsigned are right tackle Breno Giacomini, defensive tackle Tony McDaniel and wide receiver Golden Tate.

But don't underestimate Carroll, GM John Schneider and the Seahawks. They have established a franchise that is a destination point for players. Big-name pass-rushers are willing to come to Seattle for one-year contracts to get sacks and a bigger contract the next year. In an ESPN.com survey, Carroll was voted as the coach players would like to play for the most.

[+] EnlargeColin Kaepernick
Sam Sharpe/USA TODAY SportsColin Kaepernick and the 49ers will be on a mission to win the NFC West in 2014.

2. San Francisco 49ers: Based on the results of this Super Bowl blowout, it seems the real title game was the NFC Championship Game. The 49ers have been to three consecutive championship games, advancing to the Super Bowl once. Their mission next season is to win the NFC West first and then try to get back to the Super Bowl. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is expected to be better because he should have Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis for the whole season.

Coach Jim Harbaugh has to find a way to re-sign Anquan Boldin. The 49ers have $8.2 million of cap room and some interesting decisions. Unsigned are Boldin, cornerback Tarell Brown, center Jonathan Goodwin and safety Donte Whitner. Cornerback Carlos Rogers could be cut for cap purposes, and the team has to hope defensive end Justin Smith wants to play another year. The thought is that he will.

With Seattle, Arizona and St. Louis, the NFC West is a tough division. The core of this team is still young enough to challenge for a trip to the Super Bowl.

3. Denver Broncos: Now that he has re-established himself in Denver, Peyton Manning is doing what he did in Indianapolis. His presence almost automatically puts a team at 12 wins. Because of Manning and a solid front office, the Broncos have been a No. 1 seed for the past two years.

It will be tougher in 2014. Going into the '13 season, the Broncos had the easiest schedule based on 2012 records. Based on 2013 records, the Broncos have the second-toughest schedule, with opponents posting a .570 win percentage. Part of the problem is the AFC West plays the NFC West. To get back to the Super Bowl, the Broncos might have to do it as a lower seed, maybe following an 11-win season.

The Broncos have $5.4 million of cap room. They have plenty of tough decisions. Unsigned are cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, running back Knowshon Moreno, defensive end Robert Ayers, wide receiver Eric Decker, guard Zane Beadles and defensive end Shaun Phillips. But with Manning expected to be back, the Broncos have a chance to be back.

4. New England Patriots: As Tom Brady goes, so go the New England Patriots. Brady won't go through what he experienced in 2013. He entered the regular season minus his five top pass-catchers from 2012. Bill Belichick still has issues in that regard. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is coming off an ACL injury. Julian Edelman is unsigned, and if the Patriots re-sign him, they might have to cut Danny Amendola.

Clearly, the Patriots have to find a No. 2 tight end and upgrade the outside wide receiver position. They are at the cap, so a few players have to be cut. Cornerback Aqib Talib is the Patriots' main coverage cornerback, but he's unsigned. Also unsigned are halfback LeGarrette Blount and linebacker Brandon Spikes.

5. Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals: All right, I cheated to try to squeeze in three more teams, but I had to do it. The Saints made it to the divisional round this past season, and you can't count out Sean Payton. He'll be looking for a left tackle and maybe a right tackle if he doesn't re-sign Zach Strief. The Saints are $14 million over the cap, but they'll get relief when they cut linebacker Will Smith and a couple of other players.

To find other teams to watch, stay in the NFC West and NFC South. Carolina is a franchise on the rise. Cam Newton is maturing into a top-level quarterback. If the front office can upgrade his receiving corps, watch out. The Cardinals and Rams also are on the rise. Arizona coach Bruce Arians stunned everyone by acquiring Carson Palmer and winning 10 games. Although Arians is all about offense, the Cardinals have a talented defense that will only get better with general manager Steve Keim preparing for the draft.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher has the youngest team in football. He has two first-round picks, including the second overall choice in the draft. Quarterback Sam Bradford will be back from an ACL tear.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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