The long and winding road that leads to Arizona and Super Bowl XLIX begins this Thursday night. And if anything, the approaching regular season appears more open than ever. In fact, so evenly matched are many of the protagonists that tight twists and turns seem assured over the coming campaign.
Only trouble is that one conference, the NFC, arguably houses the four finest teams in the entire league. So with the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers all battling it out for championship honours - and occupying four of the six leading positions in Betfair's Superbowl winner market - there appears some imbalance in the overall balance of the NFL.
Last year, of course, the Hawks outstayed the 49ers in the Conference Championship, before going on to rout the Denver Broncos in the Bowl. So while there's a danger that these teams could slit one another's throats in the battle to lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy, attritional dog-fighting didn't stop these fat cats from contending in the play-offs in 2013/14.
Still, the suspicion persists that another 12 months on the calendar and some lacklustre pre-season performances may count against the Hawks and the Niners, two of this term's favourites. The pair, of course, hail from the same division, the NFC West - actually one of the weaker quartets in NFL history until 2012. Both sides may sport some dazzling CVs and trade under the 13.012/1 mark, but it's possible they could cancel out one another's credentials in a personal duel that may deny them victory in the greater war.
Instead I'd rather make for the NFC North where the Green Bay Packers (divisional champions for the past three seasons) should have an easier time of things. Aaron Rodgers is back in rude health and throwing at full pelt in training camp. A clavicle break sidelined Rodgers for seven games last year and the key to the Pack's challenge is keeping their star man fit.
Rival defenses will target his collarbone once again and the offensive line is perhaps the one weak link which could leave this QB vulnerable. Rodgers' starting centers have both been knocked out for the foreseeable, so tackles like David Bakhtiari need to channel their inner bears at the line of scrimmage.
Not that the Green Bay Packers need be overly concerned. By any yardstick you care to name, Rodgers remains one of the best quarterbacks of all-time (top in both QB Rating and Interception Percentage categories, albeit since increasingly stringent rules on passer-protection were introduced). His quick-fire release and rapid receiving corps (notably the blossoming Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb) are also neatly complemented by the emergence of Eddie Lacey at running back.
Lacy is one of the rookie finds of recent drafts and has already proved himself a three-down back with some explosive breakout potential. His attritional gains and willingness to carry the can without coughing up fumbles make him the slow-and-steady foil to Rodgers' rapier aerial assault. Lacy's mere presence in the backfield means that defenses won't know which way Green Bay are coming from and gives Rodgers even more time to tear apart their secondaries. Not that this efficient gunslinger ever needs much more than a moment to deliver a deep downfield strike.
More importantly, Green Bay's defensive detail have also been hitting their marks in rehearsals all pre-season. Mike Daniels, Clay Matthews and Mike Neal have been harrying and hurrying offenses off the park and appear to be coming of age for an age-defining push. This continuity and unity of purpose is a feature of Mike McCarthy's wider "cornerstones" strategy and, in historic Lambeau Field, the GB coach has the keystone homefield to take the Pack all the way.
Over in the weaker AFC, many think that Peyton Manning and his crack receiving crew will again have things all their own way. But the great man is another year older and for all his precision, moss is gathering on his right shoulder. Manning certainly can't shift it down the field like he used to and one hit to the team talisman and the Broncos might not even prove the irrepressible stampeding force most consider them to be for the AFC West.
That's largely because of the rallying San Diego Chargers, who could upset the odds this year after a few shrewd trades and another year of sunshine on the backs of their breakout talents. Just a few solar cycles ago, many commentators (myself included) were writing off Philip Rivers as one of the great disappointments of his quarterback class. Sure, he invariably posted some big numbers, but he came up short when it mattered most. His allegiance with much-maligned coach Norv Turner created a definitive blueprint for regular-season underperformance followed by meteoric post-season improvement which always left the Bolts a fag paper shy of greatness.
That roster's collective skillset, though, was such that Rivers will wonder how he wound up without a Super Bowl appearance, let alone a ring. Never again would he receive support from such talented teammates. Rivers had missed his moment with a side that added up to less than the sum of their parts.
However, maybe I was too swift to strike a line through the Bolts. Mike McCoy has stepped up from being San Diego's offensive co-ordinator to a true team leader who has made his units recognise some solidarity and work towards a combined goal. Long story short, the Chargers' days of misaligned individual pursuit have long gone.
At least Rivers, who along with tight end Antonio Gates comprises the last vestige of Turner's antiquated system, understands this. He knows it's his last shot. Former Super Bowl QB Jake Delhomme is close to Rivers and expects his friend to turn over a new leaf in what could be a career year. You just watch Philip this year," he enthused. "He'll look brand new. The coaching staff have revamped his attack plan and he totally buys into it."
McCoy's revamp mostly centres around discretion being the better part of valour for Rivers, who has demonstrated a prolific propensity for picks at inopportune times. Going for the big play with the small probability used to be his mistake. Now, though, he is seeking out more myopic routes (a mere 2% of Rivers' passes went for 30 yards or more in 2013) within briefer timeframes (he shifted 315 passes in 2.5 seconds or fewer - 259 more than the previous season).
Rising receiver Keenan Allen (only 22), allied to all-star center Nick Harwick, form the dynamic duo facilitating a 70% completion percentage for Rivers - a rate which spawned 32 TDs for just 11 interceptions last year. This troika of terrors should establish Qualcomm Stadium as a house of horrors for all those who dare to visit.
In conclusion, then, that's something old (the maturing make-up of the Packers) and something new (the fresh air of youth and its rejuvenating impression on jaded pros) for 2014. A perfect marriage at Super Bowl XLIX may be too much to hope for. But I expect at least one of them to make it to the church on time.
Super Bowl Selections
7pts Back the Green Bay Packers @ [13.0 ]or better
5pts Back the San Diego Chargers @ 46.045/1 or better