My Super Bowl XLV pick has been Baltimore-Green Bay since May, and the ensuing months have provided few reasons to waver.
The Packers’ offense has the look of an indefensible juggernaut. 23-year-old Jermichael Finley, who led Green Bay in receiving yards, touchdowns, and pass targets in the final eight games of last season, will be the most productive tight end in football if he stays healthy. Aaron Rodgers doesn’t miss, and his protection is improved with the return to health of tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, complemented by the first-round selection of 2009 Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year Bryan Bulaga. With Rodgers given more time to throw, Greg Jennings will dominate deep as Finley, Donald Driver, and James Jones control the seams and underneath game.
The defense has question marks in the secondary, but reinforcements are on the way in the form of stalwart cornerback Al Harris and hard-hitting safety Atari Bigby, both eligible for return from the PUP list in Week Seven. Back-four shortcomings will be made less apparent by an improved pass rush. Outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Brad Jones are bound for advancement in their second years. New nose tackle B.J. Raji can also collapse the pocket, and Green Bay already has the run-stopping part down, having led the league in rush defense last season.
An underrated development to Green Bay’s preseason was the emergence of No. 2 tailback Brandon Jackson. Jackson, predictably slow to develop after starting for just a half-season at Nebraska, piled up 89 yards and a score on 12 touches against Indianapolis’ first-team defense in the third exhibition game after Ryan Grant’s concussion. If Grant goes down in the regular season, Mike McCarthy’s team can use the Next Man Up philosophy, and they’ll be just fine.
Perhaps the most well-run franchise in football, the Baltimore Ravens have worked the trade and free agency markets to precision. G.M. Ozzie Newsome added new dimensions to coordinator Cam Cameron’s offense by bringing aboard powerful run-after-catch receiver Anquan Boldin, whose skillful blocking fits perfectly the Baltimore mentality. Late-camp pickup T.J. Houshmandzadeh is quality insurance for 36-year-old wideout Derrick Mason at the very least. Houshmandzadeh, 33, has plenty left in the tank, coming off a 79-catch season for the passing-inept Seahawks.
It all adds up to a potential breakout season for quarterback Joe Flacco. The focal point of the offense, however, remains versatile tailback Ray Rice. Still just 23, Rice topped 2,000 all-purpose yards last season, and will only get better. Like the Packers, the Ravens have a more-than-viable running back replacement in Willis McGahee, who would start for at least 10 other teams.
Baltimore annually fields a top-five defense, and this year will be no different. While Newsome upgraded the offense via trades and signings, he dedicated the first day of draft weekend to defensive youth injections. If venerable nose tackle Kelly Gregg gets hurt, the Ravens can smoothly transition to mammoth second-round pick Terrence Cody. Sergio Kindle’s fractured skull was unfortunate, but he’ll add pass rush off the edge once healthy.
Middle linebacker Ray Lewis still fills hard against the run, Terrell Suggs looked revitalized in the preseason after a disappointing campaign, and the August 31 swindle of playmaking cornerback Josh Wilson helps to bolster a secondary that’s received good news with the quick recoveries of Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb from ACL surgery. Tom Zbikowski will ably hold down the fort until All-Pro free safety Ed Reed (hip) comes off the PUP list.
Ultimately, though, the Packers are the strongest, deepest, most talented team in football. If these two ball clubs do battle in February, look for Green Bay to take home the Vince Lombardi trophy by a score of 31-23.