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Saints, Bengals will rise to XLIX

Pete Dougherty
The Vince Lombardi Trophy.

The oddsmakers say the Super Bowl will feature the same teams as last season.

History says no way.

According to, the Seattle Seahawks are the favorites to win the NFC at 15-to-4, and the Denver Broncos are favorites to win the AFC at 2-to-1.

But then there's this: The same teams have played in back-to-back Super Bowls exactly once, when Dallas faced Buffalo in the 1992 and '93 seasons. In fact, it's been a decade since one team has gone to back-to-back Super Bowls, New England in the 2003 and '04 seasons.

So who will it be this year?

The guess here is history rules, that neither of those teams makes the return trip, and the New Orleans Saints will defeat the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XLIX.

That said, the Green Bay Packers have to be taken seriously as a contender. As long as Aaron Rodgers is their quarterback, they'll always be in the running going into a season.

There's reason to think the Packers' chances are especially good this season. If Rodgers and running back Eddie Lacy stay healthy all year, this should be one of the top two or three offenses in the league.

The Packers' defense also looks better than the one that last season finished No. 25 in the NFL in yards allowed and tied for No. 24 in points allowed. Probably their weakest link last season, the safety spot opposite Morgan Burnett, looks much stronger with either Micah Hyde or first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix — right now it looks like Hyde will be the choice to start the season. By the end of the year, this might even be a position of strength.

They're also better at cornerback. Casey Hayward's 2013 season was a bust because of a recurring hamstring injury, but he looked like the Packers' best cover man in training camp. Their No. 4 cornerback, Davon House, would be the No. 3 for many teams.

Then there's Julius Peppers. His age, 34, is a big red flag. But in camp, he hasn't displayed the stiff hips and balky bending of a 34-year-old. If you want to see a gifted pass rusher who's getting stiff, watch Denver's 32-year-old DeMarcus Ware.

Will Peppers' impact be modest? Significant? Huge? The preseason gave no indication because Peppers hardly played, and the games didn't count. But that will go a long way toward determining whether the Packers' season ends in an early exit, like the divisional-round playoff losses of the past three years, or in the season's final game, the Super Bowl.

The guess here is Peppers has a better season than he did for the Chicago Bears last year, maybe his last hurrah, and the Packers go 12-4.

But the guess here also is that the Saints will emerge from the NFC's group of contenders that along with the Packers probably includes the Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and maybe the Arizona Cardinals. The key will be New Orleans getting home-field advantage for the playoffs. With tight end Jimmy Graham and explosive receiver Brandin Cooks, their first-round draft pick, the Saints will be extremely hard to stop on the artificial turf of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The Saints don't have a lot of playmaking on defense, so that makes them vulnerable. But they have one of the league's best pair of safeties in Kenny Vaccaro and free-agent Jairus Byrd, which will help them run all the blitz packages that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will need to make up for his lack of a difference-making pass rusher. And the cacophony of the Superdome can help tilt things their defense's way.

Still, the Seahawks are favorites for good reason. They lost a little from last season — defensive end Chris Clemons left for Houston and receiver Golden Tate for Detroit in free agency. Clemons was part of an uncommonly deep Seahawks pass rush that sent waves of fresh players at offenses for four quarters. Tate was their leading receiver. But Clemons turns 29 later this month, so his best days probably are behind him, and if Percy Harvin is healthy this year, he's a far more talented receiver than Tate.

What has to worry the Seahawks is if running back Marshawn Lynch declines at age 28. He's the key to their offense and is a violent runner who inflicts a lot of punishment but also takes plenty. If his play slips, or he gets hurt, Seattle won't be the same team it was in winning the Super Bowl last year. Based on his history, Harvin's well-being always is in doubt.

San Francisco also is among the NFC's most talented teams. But there are enough ominous signs to question whether this will be the 49ers' year.

First, there are contract issues with key figures that can fester and damage a team. Coach Jim Harbaugh is in the last year of his contract, and the 49ers reportedly talked with Cleveland about trading him early in the offseason because of an impasse in extension talks. That's a bad starting point. The 49ers this week solved the issue with training camp holdout Alex Boone — the starting guard got a raise but not a contract extension — but have another key player in tight end Vernon Davis who's playing but unhappy with his deal.

The 49ers also might be losing their edge on defense, which has been dominant the past couple of years. Defensive lineman Justin Smith has been one of their two or three most important players, but a scout told me this week his age finally appears to be catching up with him — Smith turns 35 later this month.

Another of their premier players, linebacker NaVorro Bowman, tore his ACL and MCL in the NFC championship game last January, opens this season on PUP, and when he returns later in the year probably won't be the same player after the layoff and rehabilitation.

Outside linebacker Aldon Smith, their best pass rusher, is suspended for the first nine games for violating the league's substance-abuse and personal-conduct policies. He can't practice during his suspension, which figures to hurt his play when he returns.

Picking Cincinnati to win the AFC is risky, but the Bengals might be the most talented team in the conference. They have one of the NFL's top five receivers in A.J. Green; maybe the best tight end duo in Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham; and a young outside-inside rushing complement with second-year pro Giovani Bernard and rookie Jeremy Hill, second-round picks in the past two drafts.

Their defensive line is one of the league's best with Carlos Dunlap, who a scout this week said is becoming a monster at end; Geno Atkins, one of the game's top defensive tackles, though he's just back from knee-reconstruction surgery; and nose tackle Domata Peko. They have a fast-ascending linebacker in Vontaze Burfict; and a talented cornerback group that includes Leon Hall and first-round picks from the past two drafts, Dre' Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard.

The biggest question is whether quarterback Andy Dalton is good enough to get the Bengals to the final game. I'm saying he is.

Denver is the AFC favorite because of Peyton Manning and his explosive offense, but receiver Wes Welker's recent concussion, his third in the past 10 months, leaves his future in doubt, regardless of whether he plays this week. Also, though outside linebacker Von Miller is back from knee-reconstruction surgery performed last January, you have to wonder if he'll be the same pass rusher he was before the injury and 2013 suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs. I don't see Ware making a big difference in the Broncos' pass rush.

New England has Tom Brady, so it's automatically in the running. But even with the signing of free-agent cornerback Darrelle Revis, they Patriots might not have enough playmakers to win it all. With only tight end Rob Gronkowski making plays on offense, Brady still probably has to carry that team too much.

Indianapolis could make a run, too. The Colts have what looks like the next great quarterback in Andrew Luck, so there's no telling how far he might take that team in his third NFL season.

— or follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.