- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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No team has made a repeat appearance in the big game since the New England Patriots after the 2004 season.
With change being in the air, here are the five teams that have the best chance to be in the Super Bowl next season:
1. Denver Broncos: Signing Peyton Manning put the Broncos in the Super Bowl hunt on an annual basis. He's in the AFC West, a winnable division, and the schedule is favorable. The Broncos won all six AFC West games in 2012, and they have a good chance of doing that again in 2013.
Even better, the Broncos have the league's easiest schedule next season. They play teams that had a combined record of 110-146 in 2012. The Broncos were able to parlay an easy 2012 schedule into the AFC's No. 1 seed. They thought the key to the season was being able to stay ahead of the Patriots in the battle for home-field advantage. Coach John Fox succeeded with that goal. What the Broncos didn't expect was opening the playoffs against a team -- the Ravens -- that turned out to be a team of destiny.
Bovada established the Broncos as a 7-1 favorite to win Super Bowl XLVIII.
2. New England Patriots: The Patriots have been in seven of the past 12 AFC title games, and there is no reason to think they won't be there again. The AFC East is once again set up for the Patriots to go 6-0 in divisional play, as they did in 2012. Though their overall 2013 schedule isn't as easy as 2012, it's far from daunting. They play a .508 schedule, which is the 13th toughest, but overall, they play only six teams that had a .500 record or better in 2012.
Regardless of the schedule, no one will know how good the Patriots are until the playoffs. For years, the Patriots have meandered successfully through easy schedules and an easy division to be a top seed. Only the playoffs will tell if the Patriots are Super Bowl-worthy or have holes.
The problems have been on defense. Once again, coach Bill Belichick can use the regular season to tinker with the defense and let the playoffs determine if those experiments were successful. Bovada established the Patriots at 15-2.
3. Green Bay Packers: Once again, the Packers will be the favorites to win the NFC North, particularly with the coaching change in Chicago. The baffling part about this team is why it has fallen short in the playoffs the past two seasons. This year, defensive coordinator Dom Capers didn't have the right plan to handle the 49ers' read-option and Colin Kaepernick.
The Packers have drafted well to help out the defense, but reinforcements are needed. It also will be interesting to see if the offense will drop, with the expected loss of Greg Jennings to free agency and Donald Driver's retirement. The Packers also have to determine if they want to keep tight end Jermichael Finley, who is being paid as a franchise-caliber tight end but not playing at that level. Bovada has Green Bay at 10-1.
4. Seattle Seahawks: Thanks to the drafting of Russell Wilson at quarterback and how coach Pete Carroll rebuilt the defense, the Seahawks are ready to challenge the 49ers -- who have owned the NFC West the past two seasons -- for the division title.
Now, the Seahawks are ready. The schedule betrayed them in 2012 and cost them a chance to win the division. The NFL gave the Seahawks three division road games early in the season. Wilson, a rookie who took only a third of the snaps in the preseason, wasn't able to pull those early games into victories. As a result, the Seahawks started the season in an 0-3 hole in the NFC West.
They scrambled to finish the season within a half-game of the 49ers. In 2013, you figure the Seahawks will get a fairer distribution of NFC West games and have a better chance of going 4-2 or 5-1 in the division. The Seattle-San Francisco rivalry is growing. Bovada has the Seahawks as the No. 6 favorite at 12-1.
It won't be easy. Sean Payton is back in charge of the New Orleans Saints after a one-year suspension. They should be playoff-bound. Plus, the Falcons won't have the benefit of having the league's easiest schedule, as they did in 2012. The Falcons play a .504 schedule in 2013, which should put them in position to win 10 or 11 games.
Maybe the loss in the NFC Championship Game will toughen the Falcons. They haven't taken advantage of two top seeds in the past three years. It's not out of the question for the Saints to win the division and the Falcons to make it as a wild card. As we've seen from the Giants, Ravens, Packers, Steelers and others, Super Bowls can be won the tough way as wild cards. The Falcons have to find a way to do that, which they can. Bovada has them at 18-1.
15hEric D. Williams