Conventional wisdom says never pick an NFL team to repeat as Super Bowl champions. It’s not bad advice: Only one team can repeat as champion, 31 cannot. Who’s betting on the one?
This may be a year worth thinking about it. The Los Angeles Rams may be even better than last year, but the champs are already being disrespected by oddsmakers – who are routinely pegging L.A. no better than the fourth-best preseason choice to win Super Bowl LVII in Glendale, Arizona.
Part of that is the other contenders – in my opinion, mainly Buffalo and Kansas City – and part is respect for the quality of play in the NFC West, which in San Francisco and Arizona has two other teams capable of a Super Bowl run. Just to get the chance to repeat, the Rams face a challenge.
Tom Brady and the 2004 New England Patriots were the last NFL team to repeat as Super Bowl champions – is anyone surprised he was involved? – but Brady’s effort to repeat with Tampa Bay fell short of even appearing in last year’s title game.
With NFL training camps upon us, we’re going to offer our ManoPicks on all eight divisions. It seems appropriate that we start with the NFL’s best, the NFC West.
Los Angeles Rams (13-4)
L.A. didn’t make a ton of offseason moves, but one is notable. Letting Odell Beckham Jr. leave and replacing him with veteran Allen Robinson tells us the Rams know what they have in quarterback Matthew Stafford. He can distribute the ball. Robinson is a more consistent player than OBJ and his precise route running is a plus.
Let’s not forget Cooper Kupp’s 1,947 receiving yards last season was only 18 yards short of Calvin Johnson’s NFL record. That’s not going to happen again and the Rams don’t necessarily want it to – they’d be happy to see more yardage go to Robinson and Van Jefferson. With Cam Akers at running back and reliable Tyler Higbee at tight end, this is a potent offense. Look for Stafford to make a run at league MVP. I think he’s still got something to prove – that he is one of the NFL’s truly elite quarterbacks – and he’s going to prove it.
On defense, Aaron Donald has had 11 or more sacks for five straight seasons, Jalen Ramsey is one of the league’s shutdown corners and overlooked Bobby Wagner anchors a solid linebacking corps. Yes, it’s a tough division, but the Rams are the clear choice.
San Francisco 49ers (10-7)
There’s a lot riding on the play of Trey Lance, who the 49ers seem to think is a sure thing, but yet Jimmy Garoppolo remains on the roster. Garoppolo’s offseason shoulder surgery made him tough to trade in what was kind of a strange year for relocating quarterbacks, and it may be a blessing in disguise if Lance can’t get the job done. Garoppolo has taken a team to the Super Bowl.
My bet is Lance is a talent but he’ll be far from perfect in his first full season as a starter. He has a tremendous tight end in George Kittle and one of the league’s most dangerous weapons in Deebo Samuel, but Samuel is another to watch as the 49ers rejected his offseason trade request. Elijah Mitchell was a revelation at running back last season and he, along with Lance, makes the Niners a true dual-threat offense.
San Francisco has talent but I believe that a developing Lance is worth a few more losses than a healthy veteran such as Garoppolo.
Arizona Cardinals (9-8)
We all love the show Kyler Murray puts on, but the question I always come back to is, ‘Do I think he can take my team to the Super Bowl?’ Of that I am not convinced, though Murray is definitely no worse than the second-best quarterback in this division. The Cardinals brought in Marquise Brown, who becomes the team’s No. 1 receiver across from veteran A.J. Green while DeAndre Hopkins serves a six-game suspension.
Head coach Kliff Kingsbury enters his fourth season as head coach and stands at 24-25-1 overall. He’s not on the hot seat after last season’s playoff berth, but even in the rugged NFC West, this would seem to be a year the Cardinals can return to the postseason. Kingsbury’s best teams have historically gotten off to strong starts but sometimes struggle down the stretch. With Hopkins out until the seventh game, that hot starts gets harder. It’s difficult to see this team reaching the 10-win mark.
Seattle Seahawks (6-11)
Oh how the mighty have fallen. One of the most entertaining storylines this season could be watching Seattle head coach Pete Carroll on the sideline, forced to watch a Seahawks team quarterbacked by Drew Lock or Geno Smith.
Remember, when there’s no clear starter it’s usually because either the coach is a fool or he has two backups. Carroll is no fool – I’d say neither of these guys looks like a starter – though in fairness Lock does seem to be one of those players who has talent but somehow doesn’t win games. Carroll must think he can draw it out of Lock and perhaps he can, but it’s still not going to be a pretty season. The trade of Russell Wilson to Denver immediately put the Broncos back on the NFL map as a playoff contender. The Seahawks are currently not in that conversation and it’s possible they’ll go 0-6 in their division.