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The 12 true contenders for Super Bowl LIII

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Sep 10 NFL Preview Issue. Subscribe today!

In a cool, quiet hallway off the Seahawks’ practice field in early August, coach Pete Carroll cuts off my question about the challenge of balancing a win-now mindset with the need to build and maintain a roster for the future.

“I don’t have any idea what that’s all about,” Carroll says. “You go for everything you can possibly go for every single time you go, forever, until you can’t. Maybe people do this ‘Oh, maybe we’ll win next year’ — I can’t imagine. It doesn’t register. I can’t even relate to the topic.”

So … yeah. Guess we know where Carroll comes down on this issue. This year, like every year, he’s going into the season thinking the Seahawks can win the Super Bowl.

He’s not alone. Every year, all 32 teams enter the season thinking, on some level, they’re going to win the Super Bowl. Even the lowly Browns, winners of one whole game over the past two seasons, have let it cross their minds: “Well, if Pittsburgh has a bad year and Tyrod Taylor breaks out and the defense comes together …”

Every year, 31 of those teams are wrong.

So what we want to do here is get real — to narrow it down a bit. Obviously, no matter how optimistic or determined the teams all are, there aren’t 32 that can win the big one. This season I’m going to say there are 12. Admittedly, 12 might even be a little generous.

Of course, the Super Bowl LIII champion might not be on this list. After all, had I listed 12 such teams this time last year, I wouldn’t have included the Eagles. So I’m fully prepared to look like a fool. But as the early 20th century Swedish statesman Dag Hammarskjold said, “Never, for the sake of peace and quiet, deny your own convictions.” He would have been a Vikings fan, I think, had he lived long enough. Which means he’d have liked this list.


THE HEAVY FAVORITES
Eagles, Patriots, Saints, Steelers

These are the real front-runners — the teams that are going in expecting to win this season’s Super Bowl. The teams for whom not winning it would register as a Hangover Part II — level disappointment.

At this point, the Patriots might as well list the game on the magnetic schedules they give their fans at home openers. The Pats have appeared in three of the past four Super Bowls and won two of them. Their current coach/quarterback combo has won five Super Bowl titles together. They haven’t finished a regular season worse than 12-4 since 2009, and the ongoing lack of a legitimate challenger in their own division nearly guarantees them a first-round bye. As long as Tom Brady‘s slinging, Bill Belichick’s scowling and the Jets, Dolphins and Bills are still piecing things together, the Pats belong on the list of favorites.

Now, as Eagles fans will be quick to point out, the Patriots won two of their last three — but not last season. Yes, the trophy currently resides in Philly, not Foxborough. And you could absolutely pick the Eagles to win it all this year, except that the NFC looks loaded, and teams almost never repeat. Generally, championship teams can’t count on the same kinds of breaks and injury luck two years in a row. Which, now that we think about it, could be good news for the Eagles, who had horrendous injury luck last year and still won the whole thing. You can excuse them for believing that they’re set up to be the first team to win back-to-back Super Bowls since the Patriots did it 14 years ago.

The Steelers and Saints both have veteran quarterbacks and coaches who’ve won titles. They have superstar playmakers on offense. And they were both divisional-round losers in January who thought they’d at least get a chance at the conference title games, so they share a desperation about how much longer their window will stay open. Pittsburgh, like New England, doesn’t look to have a challenge to worry about inside its division. New Orleans does, but no one else finished top-five in rushing and passing offense last season. The Saints are dangerous.


THE HUNGRY UPSTARTS
Chargers, Jaguars, Rams, Vikings

I know what you’re thinking — or at least what the Jaguars are thinking. How can we put Jacksonville in this group, behind Pittsburgh, after the Jags waxed the Steelers twice last season in Pittsburgh, including in the playoffs? I hear you. If Jalen Ramsey wants to @ me, he can. I get where he’s coming from.


The Jags absolutely have the talent to be in the first group. They sit here instead because their division looks much tougher than those of the two AFC teams in the top group and because, unlike the four teams up there, they’ve never won the thing. But there’s no reason to think last year was a fluke. They got better in the run game by signing elite guard Andrew Norwell, and the run game is their jam. If QB Blake Bortles can find consistency, they’re as good as anyone.

So are the Vikings, who look like monsters on both sides of the ball (assuming the offensive line injuries in training camp don’t do them in), and the Rams, whose offseason seemed like it must have been influenced by a Sean McVay conference 
call with Pete Carroll about whether to go for it. The Chargers might be a surprising pick, since they weren’t in last year’s playoffs — or any playoffs since 2013 — but goodness, it feels as if they should have been. Their roster looks as stacked as any in the league. One of these years, Charlie Brown is going to kick that football before Lucy yanks it away.


THE DANGEROUS WILD CARDS
Chiefs, Cowboys, Falcons, Packers

It’s been 19 months since the Super Bowl slipped through a hole in Atlanta’s back pocket, and its roster — ranked this preseason as the second best in the NFL by Pro Football Focus, behind only the Eagles — hasn’t changed all that much. A second season under offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has a chance to go more smoothly than the first did, and the young Falcons defense could bounce back and play the way it did during the team’s playoff run two seasons ago.

The Packers are getting Aaron Rodgers back from injury, which … well, it helps their Super Bowl chances exponentially. They have things to figure out at wide receiver, at running back and on defense, but as long as Rodgers’ health holds up, the quarterback makes them contenders.

Dallas just went 9 — 7 in a “down” year with its best offensive player suspended for six games and its second-best offensive player (left tackle Tyron Smith) battling injuries. No reason the Cowboys can’t make life difficult for the Eagles in a division that hasn’t had a repeat champion in 14 years.

And the Chiefs? Andy Reid seems to have a habit of making the playoffs, and if second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes really is as ready as Reid thinks he is, and if they can find enough answers on defense … well, go back up to the last section and read that Charlie Brown bit again. It applies to Reid too.


THE OTHERS RECEIVING VOTES
Yeah, Coach Pete’s Seahawks were a consideration. And if you want to count on Carroll and Russell Wilson to lift Seattle beyond the external expectations, there are worse bets you could make. But a lot of championship-caliber talent has walked out the door, so it’s fair to want to see it before believing it. Thought about the Titans here, but with so much change on the coaching staff and lingering questions at receiver, it feels like they need another year to crack that top 12. Carolina has lost a lot on the offensive line and is changing schemes on offense as well. And I gave some thought to Houston with Deshaun Watson and all those defensive studs coming back, but that division just looks too strong. Of course, look out for the Philly Special: Someone from this group (or someone not even listed here!) could jump up and make this whole exercise look foolish. It could totally happen. But I’ll stick with my Dangerous Dozen for now and bet the champion comes from that group when the confetti falls in Atlanta on Feb. 3.


THE ROAD TO SUPER BOWL LV — AND BEYOND
Now that we’ve picked our Dirty Dozen for 2018 … why not look even further? Brady and Brees can’t play forever, after all, and there are plenty of young guns hot on their heels. Here are the 12 teams that we see making this list in 2019 and 2020-and the 11 who will need to wait a little longer.

SUPER BOWL LIV
Gone from the list are the Steelers, since they’ll lose Le’Veon Bell (and maybe Big Ben?) and the Jags — one more year of Bortles magic was all I felt comfort- able predicting. In their place are the Titans, Texans and 49ers — three teams building their rosters around exciting young QBs — and the Panthers, who don’t typically miss two in a row. As for the staying power of the Pats? Consider that an official prediction that Brady decides to play at 42.

SUPER BOWL LV
With Brady and Belichick (finally) gone, the Sam Darnold-led Jets take over the AFC East. The Raiders hit it big in their fancy new Vegas stadium. Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes and Mitchell Trubisky fire up the debate over which 2017 first-rounder is tops. And we’re here for a little late-career renaissance for both Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. The continued presence of the Eagles, Vikings, Rams and Chiefs is a testament to how good their rosters look for the long-term.


SUPER BOWLS LVI-LIX
OK, so yes: That means we’ve made it to 2021 before the Cards, Giants and Dolphins have had even a whiff of contending football. But guys, don’t fret — not even you, Browns fans! We’ve mapped out the year we think you’ll join this exclusive club too. Super Bowl LIX (or, at the very least, a shot at it) awaits, Broncos faithful!

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