Sports

Klein ’20: Who will reach the Super Bowl?

By
Sports Columnist
Thursday, September 13, 2018

The beginning of the 2018 NFL season has been wacky. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns played to a tie. Aaron Rodgers came back from what looked like a season-ending injury and led the Green Bay Packers to victory over the Chicago Bears. Sam Darnold and the New York Jets obliterated the Detroit Lions and embarrassed newly hired head coach Matt Patricia. It’s a cliche in sports to say that anything can happen, but this truly seems to be an accurate description of the NFL landscape right now. With that in mind, let’s take a look at who could be playing down the road in the Super Bowl.

First off, the AFC. We have to begin with the New England Patriots. Though fans bemoaned the state of the organization in the offseason and worried about quarterback Tom Brady’s commitment to the team, the Patriots were their usual, triumphant selves in Week 1. They thoroughly outplayed the Houston Texans in a 27-20 win that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score indicated. The wide receiver corps may be a mess right now, and the team chemistry may not be perfect, but it’s difficult to see the combination of Brady, tight end Rob Gronkowski and coach Bill Belichick losing in the AFC playoffs. Thanks to the lackluster state of the AFC East, the Pats have the division title all but locked up. The path to the Super Bowl for any AFC team goes through New England.

The Kansas City Chiefs enjoyed a tremendous opening week performance, defeating the Los Angeles Chargers 38-28. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes received much of the attention, and for good reason, as he threw four touchdowns. His deep ball skills and strong arm helped Kansas City look more explosive and dangerous compared to the teams of previous years with Alex Smith at the helm. Mahomes and wide receiver Tyreek Hill beat the Chargers largely on their own thanks to Mahomes’ arm and Hill’s speed. Once running back Kareem Hunt and tight end Travis Kelce grow more involved, the Chiefs will be threatening in all phases of offense. But coach Andy Reid will have to manage the clock effectively in the playoffs — something that has proven difficult for the 60-year-old in years past.

Even though the Chargers lost to the Chiefs, I’m still high on this team. After starting out the 2017-18 season with four consecutive losses, Los Angeles raced to a 9-3 record down the stretch, just missing out on the playoffs. Between quarterback Philip Rivers, running back Melvin Gordon and wide receiver Keenan Allen, the Chargers have a balanced and dangerous offense. And their defense can get to the quarterback and make life difficult for opposing teams. No one will be able to hold off defensive ends Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram for long once Bosa returns from injury.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been contenders in the AFC for a long time, but that run of success could be coming to an end. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has shown signs of slippage in recent seasons. The situation surrounding Le’Veon Bell, who has refused to report to the team in hopes of a larger contract, has poisoned the locker room, with offensive linemen speaking out against the running back. The atmosphere in Pittsburgh is worsening fast.

Don’t forget about the Jacksonville Jaguars though. They were only a few plays away from beating New England in the AFC Championship Game last year. Their defense, led by the trash-talking cornerback Jalen Ramsey, is fearsome. So is running back Leonard Fournette. Quarterback Blake Bortles though? Not so much. I doubt whether the Jaguars can survive a Bortles playoff stinker like they did last year against the Buffalo Bills.

The NFC, meanwhile, is a jumbled heap, with no team truly separating from the pack. The Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl last season, but they must hope quarterback Carson Wentz returns soon because Nick Foles’ magic has run out. With wide receiver Alshon Jeffery injured as well, the Eagles will rely heavily on running back Jay Ajayi. It’s hard to see a way for Philly to score many points. The defense must win the games until Wentz returns. Fortunately, between Fletcher Cox, Chris Long, Michael Bennett, Malcolm Jenkins and others, the Eagles’ defense may be the best in the entire league. Philly could look entirely different in the playoffs with Wentz back, but at this moment, they are in survival mode. Expect plenty of low-scoring battles.

The Los Angeles Rams were a preseason favorite after a breakout 2017-18 season and a host of offseason moves. Quarterback Jared Goff just has to play within himself and create opportunities for running back Todd Gurley, the best in the NFL at his position. Wide receiver Brandin Cooks should help Goff, who improved mightily in his second campaign. Adding cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, along with defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, made for a home run of an offseason. This team is scary.

The Minnesota Vikings upgraded their quarterback over the offseason, moving from Case Keenum to Kirk Cousins. While Keenum was great last season, Cousins has the more proven track record — we know Cousins will perform at a consistently high level. Wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are back, as is running back Dalvin Cook, but a worrying sense remains that the Vikings already missed their best shot at a championship. After a miraculous game-winning touchdown as time expired, Minnesota had only a win between themselves and a home Super Bowl game. If they couldn’t get the job done last year, why should this season be any different?

I fully believed the New Orleans Saints would contend for a Super Bowl as well, but they need to prove that their shocking Week 1 loss to Tampa Bay was just a fluke. Giving up 48 points to Ryan Fitzpatrick cannot be a good sign. Quarterback Drew Brees, running back Alvin Kamara and wide receiver Michael Thomas did all they could, and the Saints did score 40 points. But will they be able to stop anyone? Marshon Lattimore, Cameron Jordan and the rest of the defense have to come ready to play in Week 2.

My Super Bowl pick: New England Patriots over Los Angeles Rams.

George Klein ‘20 can be reached at george_klein@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.