Top competitors in the NFL may mirror last season

By Charles Surette, Staff Writer

The 2014 NFL season officially kicks off tonight, with 32 teams playing for the chance to hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy next February. Last season’s Super Bowl matchup, AFC’s Denver Broncos and NFC’s Seattle Seahawks, stand poised to emerge as conference champions once again.

Denver, led by renowned quarterback Peyton Manning, was an offensive juggernaut in 2013 and finished with a 13-3 record and an AFC Championship victory over the New England Patriots, capping off a campaign that saw Manning shatter records for both passing yards and touchdown passes. The Broncos were thoroughly embarrassed in Super Bowl XLVIII, however, losing 43-8 to the NFC Champion Seahawks.

Seattle also finished with a 13-3 record, reaching the Super Bowl thanks to its league-best defense, headed by cornerback Richard Sherman; safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas; and Super Bowl Most Valuable Player linebacker Malcolm Smith. With an offense featuring dynamic young quarterback Russell Wilson and powerful running back Marshawn Lynch, Seattle outplayed Denver on nearly every front, stymying Manning and his receivers to secure the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl victory.

Although both appear favorites to return to the conference championships, Denver and Seattle will not go unchallenged. Denver added wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and cornerback Aqib Talib in free agency, but it lost wide receiver Eric Decker and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to the New York Jets and New York Giants, respectively. The team also might be without receiver Wes Welker, who sustained his third career concussion during the preseason in addition to being suspended for four games due to his use of banned substances. 

Questions remain about Denver’s defense and reliance on an aging Manning to win games, despite the addition of Talib and defensive end DeMarcus Ware. Denver will also face an improved New England team, which will feature a healthy Rob Gronkowski as tight end and Pro Bowl cornerbacks Darelle Revis and Brandon Browner on defense as the team looks to avenge last year’s 26-16 AFC Championship loss and chase an elusive fourth Super Bowl.

On the NFC side, Seattle has largely retained its offensive and defensive cores — save for wide receiver Golden Tate — but will once again battle division rival San Francisco; led by quarterback Colin Kaepernick; wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree; tight end Vernon Davis; and running back Frank Gore on offense, with linebacker Patrick Willis leading a top-five defense of his own.

With Denver and New England clearly the top of the AFC, the two teams will likely meet again in the conference championship. Although the NFC may feature more top-to-bottom talent and tighter competition, look for Seattle and San Francisco to once again be the last two teams standing in January for a rematch of the NFL’s Final Four from last season.

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Sept. 4 print edition. Email Charles Surette at [email protected]