The long and winding road that leads to Houston and Super Bowl LI begins next week. And if the outright odds are to be believed, the forthcoming regular season undertakes to be among the most open on record. In fact, with every contender priced into double digits at a minimum, the betting landscape for The Greatest Show On Turf is more suggestive of a Grand National field of closely handicapped horses than a distinct grading of gridiron greatness.
However, before you think equality reigns in this paradigmatic society, it is well to remember an Orwellian cautionary tale. In that while all animals are equal, some are more equal than others. So, as ever, our challenge is to sift through the rabble to uncover the privileged elite, who will twirl their moustaches and pull the levers of power on Animal Farm.
10/1 Green Bay ready to reclaim SB glory
Aaron Rodgers loves to rock a tache, especially in Movember, so it's fitting to find his Green Bay Packers among the favourites in this lawless Wild West. The Pack are perhaps the most solid all-round team, forged over recent years in a crucible of consistency and continuity of crew - all masterminded by the logical approach of head coach Mike McCarthy.
His "keystones" strategy has reaped regular rewards (four of the past five NFC North titles) and allows him to fuse a promising new intake (watch for the physicality of Jared Cook at tight end) with some familiar faces on both sides of the ball. This unity of purpose, coupled to a cornerstone homefield advantage at fabled historic Lambeau Field, puts the Packers in prime postseason position (even before McCarthy cuts his roster from 75 to 53). Star receiver Jordi Nelson (among a stellar unit) appears to be timing his belated recovery for gameday. Eddie Lacy is back behaving and finishing his runs. And no-one is more adept than Rodgers at flicking the offensive switch between up-tempo and huddle.
There's a real sense of urgency in Green Bay this year. For all their consistency, they're without a Vince Lombardi trophy since 2010, and have to capitalise now, with Rodgers only likely to be at his peak for a few more seasons. The Pack's last three play-off campaigns have fallen at the last (i.e. in games which went to the final play) and so they must now convert that frustration into motivation. Particularly with a resurgent Minnesota massing under Teddy Bridgewater at a brand spanking $975,000,000 stadium. In short, the Cheeseheads can afford few divisional mistakes. After two seasons of underachievement in my outright portfolio, here's hoping a third selection proves the charm. Well, it finally told with the Denver Broncos.
Ignore poor preseason and take a chance on Big Blue
Elsewhere in the NFC, I'll invoke the hope that the Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals will snap each other's elasticity in the cutthroat West (where even the newly-rehoused LA Rams are a threat). That lazy maxim has clung to a thread of credibility for the past two terms. Yet, it's invariably an attritional journey for Seattle, where Russell Wilson's towering talents line up behind a porous offensive line; while Arizona's 2016 teamsheet doesn't scream progressive, in spite of an easy early schedule.
Carolina face similar challenges and taller expectations in the South (sure, it's a weaker division, but always a quarrelling quartet). So perhaps we should take a flyer in the East, where Tony Romo's bad break (this time to a lower-back vertebra) in Dallas has crystallised the picture. Romo could now miss between six-10 weeks of the season (he endured two similar back operations in 2013 alone) opening up the division to those unpredictable New York Giants, some underwhelming Philly Eagles, and an admittedly improving Washington outfit.
The Giants appear best-placed to take advantage. Don't pay too much attention to their aggressively average preseason form. The important point is that Eli Manning (the proud holder of a brace of Super Bowl rings, if you recall) has Victor Cruz back at full tilt, following his demoralising knee injury of 2014. In the interim, of course, the human highlight reel more commonly referred to as Odell Beckham Jnr has materialised to lead the receiving crew, so hope springs eternal in the Big Apple, at least where Big Blue in concerned.
After all, as much as his naysayers might whinny, Manning remains a threat. He's just been left chasing the game too often in recent history by a susceptible D. A new coach in Ben McAdoo and fresh personnel have shored up that leaky bucket a little, while Andre Williams has been assuring us he'll find a higher level this season. If Manning enjoys such balance (Justin Pugh returning at left guard will also help) he'll make better use of the time and his leading wideouts. Whisper it not in Gath, but this could prove another chapter of the unexpected in The Book of Eli.
Colts can finally get Lucky
Over in the AFC, Bill Belichick's New England Patriots are naturally considered postseason perennials. However, their dynastic sheen is losing its lustre. So even with Peyton Manning exiting stage left in Denver, Tom Brady won't have the stage to himself - particularly with a host of thrusting young Turks looking to hurry and harry him out the same door by which Manning Snr just departed. Trouble is: Brady doesn't have the defense to redeem his slips as Peyton did, so the Pats are vulnerable, even in their safehouse of the AFC (Buffalo have notably impressed in late preseason).
Kansas City look most likely to benefit from the Trevor Siemian bedding-in process at Mile High, but also watch out for the upcoming, retooled Raiders in Oakland. It all makes for a messy picture of imponderables in the AFC's East and West, so let's try something from the poles instead. The North contains the most legitimate Super Bowl pretenders (Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Baltimore) which again begs the question as to whether their mutually-cancelling schedules will negatively impact postseason seeding and homefield advantage for the play-offs.
For what it's worth, I fancy the Steelers to emerge victorious. But the South seems substantially softer, and the Indianapolis Colts can take advantage. Despite an erratic preseason, they have showcased the kind of explosiveness under Andrew Luck, which should've clicked into gear 12 months ago. Luck's annus horribilis can be mitigated by a raft of painful injuries, so perhaps he deserves another nod to validate his $140 million price tag. At a tender 26, now is not the time to be losing faith.
Safety TJ Green has been rejuvenating an ageing defense in warm-ups (4.3 seconds for the 40-yard dash will inspire the most jaded veteran), while running man Robert Turbin has the power and breakout speed to compliment the Colts' more credentialed acquisition, Stevan Ridley.
Although much of this bodes well for Luck redeeming his rep in a career year, the real problem for Indy's Multi-Million Dollar Man is his "no really, after you!" offensive phalanx. At least Luck's line was comprised of the same starting five in preseason, and its chemistry can only grow, even if it may never reach When Harry Met Sally proportions. "Protect our QB, protect our Super Bowl chances" must be their mantra. Turn those words into actions, and they may confound their critics to become the Texas Lonestar in early February. At a whopping 28.027/1 to back, I'll certainly pay to find out.
So there you have it: three chances to prove first among equals in this most wide open of Super Bowl fields. Orwell's Animal Farm fashioned a fairytale out of reality. I expect one of this troika of teams to achieve the opposite. Next stop: Disneyland.
Super Bowl Selections
8pts Back the Green Bay Packers @ 11.010/1 or better
5pts Back the Indianapolis Colts @ 28.027/1 or better
3pts Back the New York Giants @ 40.039/1 or better