Super Bowl 50: Eagles' new improvements can see them take flight

Going deep: Luck is ready to take up the mantle from Manning as a Super Bowl winner for Indy
Going deep: Luck is ready to take up the mantle from Manning as a Super Bowl winner for Indy

Romilly Evans runs his eye over the contenders along the road to this year's Super Bowl in Santa Clara, picking some likely and unlikely lads...

"So first up, stick a fork in the Pats, they're done. Maybe even in the perennially uncompetitive confines of the AFC East, too."

So the NFL finally returns to Point A again this week, and wipes the slate clean for a new season. However, an unpleasant vestige remains after a turbulent end to the prior campaign.

In trademark predictable legal fashion, the Tom Brady Deflategate saga is rumbling on stateside, even though the embattled New England Patriots poster boy is now set to take the field in the curtain-raiser against Pittsburgh on Thursday night. For while his initial four-game suspension has been nullified, the league are set to appeal the judge's decision. More fruitless wrangling seems certain.

The whole controversy has been terrible for the NFL, whose reputation was already in tatters for the way it was handling the cases of violent domestic abuse by some of its prominent players. In short, kick-off can't come soon enough to remind the fans of the game's redeeming on-the-field show, as opposed to its off-the-field mess.

Brady and his boys will steal the early headlines, of course. And the defending Super Bowl champs are unsurprisingly third-favourites in the betting to maintain their dominance. However, my impression is that this is the year the karma catches up with Bill Belichick and his franchise outfit.

Brady and all the accompanying media distractions won't help, but with or without their poster child, their D is now depleted in the total absence of any playmakers or proven defensive cohesion. Throw in a stiff schedule, and their goose is cooked. So first up, stick a fork in the Pats, they're done. Maybe even in the perennially uncompetitive confines of the AFC East, too. More on that elsewhere, though.

So if the defending champs are going to be this term's chumps, who will fill the void? Last year's vanquished foe in the Seattle Seahawks - or did they beat themselves? - appear a sturdier wager. However, their own lynchpin Marshawn is running out of time and public patience at his antics (admittedly, not that the latter seems to bother him one iota), so they may need to finally turn away from Lynch's hard-yard gains of warring attrition.

A new contract for Russell Wilson and the return of key tight end Jimmy Graham certainly make them look more dependable through the air as they near the end zone. However, star safety Kam Chancellor is dragging over his own contract, and has skipped preseason in a game of blink-first. It hardly sends the right message to his teammates (theoretically, he could even be off-loaded) and the Hawks' management could play hard ball. There are enough doubts, therefore, to test the resolve of those prepared to take the 5.85/1.

I'd rather look elsewhere, even in Seattle's own division, where a healthy Carson Palmer in Arizona could belatedly validate his Heisman gong of yesteryear and prove his detractors wrong. Whisper it but San Francisco could also bustle up the Hawks for NFC West honours now that they're free form the locker-room gravity of Jim Harbaugh which held them down in 2014. Collective rejuvenation could be the result from a talented outfit.

However, my pick in the NFC will go to the Philadelphia Eagles at 18.5 to back, with a saver on the oh-so-dependable Green Bay Packers, who admittedly let me down last year when they had their Super Bowl ticket locked up.

By any yardstick you care to name, quarterback Aaron Rodgers remains one of the best of all-time (top in both the crucial Passer Rating and Interception Percentage categories, albeit since increasingly stringent rules on passer-protection were introduced). His quick-fire release and rapid receiving corps (typically, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb) are also neatly complemented by the emergence of Eddie Lacy at running back.

However, Nelson is out with a torn ACL and Cobb fell painfully on his right shoulder in a warm-up match last week. Suddenly, Rodgers has to make Davante Adams, Ty Montgomery and Jeff Janis look like world-beaters. Fortunately, though, Cobb will recover to lead the wide men, and Rodgers should once again pick apart scrambling secondaries.

Throw in a defensive detail (featuring Mike Daniels, Clay Matthews and Mike Neal) which has a unity of mind and strength built on successful seasons together, and it is the continuity of Mike McCarthy's men which offers the enduring appeal. Even McCarthy's own passing of the play-calling to right-hand man Tom Clements smacks of natural evolution, never enforced revolution. Slow and steady could win this race for Green Bay who can limit the collateral damage along the way to another post-season push, hailing as they do from a weaker division.

Time was when the NFC East was always one of the best mini-leagues out there. Yet the presiding jury is no longer in, with so many variables imponderables affecting these well-known teams. The Chip Kelly exodus in Philadelphia, at first glance anyway, would appear the most alarming. However, as ever, there may be a fair amount of method in the ostensible madness.

The Eagles may look unrecognisable and stripped of some sublime skill (say goodbye to LeSean McCoy, Nick Foles, Jeremy Maclin and Evan Mathis to name but a few) but the retooling kit is full of star cornerstone replacements. Cue running back DeMarco Murray and Kiko Alonso, breakout names in a roster which screams flexibility and imagination, Kelly's calling cards.

Calling the signals at the offensive helm will be Sam Bradford. This first-pick from the 2010 draft, was long-rated as a world-beater, but had his progress derailed by a litany of injuries (two major knee surgeries) while in St Louis. Who could forget his late 24-24 rally against the Niners, though, and there have been signs of that same poise, touch and precision passing from Bradford in pre-season.

He's a risk, but he seems to still possess all the components for greatness. And with Murray's mere presence in the backfield striking fear into the heart of rival Ds, gaping windows of opportunity should come open for Bradford. This is his time, and this could prove the most potent offense around.

Back in the AFC, the play-off picture is more clear cut - under my lights at least, my colleague Neil Monnery seemingly disagrees. With the Patriots receding in combined might and composure, the chances for an unheralded team stepping up from this conference are good. However, with the formidable sides of the AFC North likely to slit one another's throats for play-off ranking, the spotlight falls on the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South and the Denver Broncos in the West.

Is this old Peyton Manning's last stand for Denver? Until he got injured last season, the Broncos were among the Super Bowl jollies, and looking to atone for two near-miss campaigns. Since then, they've sunk to outsider status, and now have enlisted a run-first coach. That move by John Elway might be an admission of defeat, and could sadly spell the end for the greatest QB of his generation. The odds of even Peyton righting the ship on the eve of his 40th birthday seem slim but are no means forlorn.

Perhaps instead, then, go with the guy who replaced Manning in Indy, Andrew Luck. This man mountain is already among the best signal-callers in the NFL, and he's only 25. He will continue to carry the Colts on his back this season, and they will only improve for his dynamic instruction.

Luck's numbers are off the charts, and he's also grown as a leader, especially in the wake of evergreen Reggie Wayne's departure. The additions of Frank Gore and Andre Dawson (alongside the drafting of wideout Phillip Dorsett) have bolstered Luck's line, while the Colts aren't too shabby on D either (note pass rusher Robert Mathis returning from the sidelines). Their road to Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium should be the most unimpeded of all.

Recommended Bets:

5pts back the Philadelphia Eagles to win the Super Bowl at 18.5 or better
5pts back the Indianapolis Colts to win the Super Bowl at 10.519/2 or better
3pts back the Green Bay Packers to win the Super Bowl at 8.615/2 or better

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