It’s an extremely difficult task to predict the teams that will play in Super Bowl 51. However, with this offseason beginning to round out, we have more clarity as to what the rosters around the league will be next season. With that said, here are the two teams we expect to face each other in Super Bowl 51 at the NRG Stadium in Houston.
New England Patriots
Behind their historically dominant defense, the Denver Broncos finally broke through the AFC by beating the New England Patriots in Peyton Manning’s final season. However, with much of the conference remaining the same as last season, it’s hard to believe that the Patriots won’t be back in the mix to make their 11th AFC championship appearance with Tom Brady and compete in the Super Bowl for their fifth NFL championship in franchise history.
As long as Brady and Bill Belichick are at the helm of the team, New England will always be a major threat to hoist another Lombardi trophy. There are several other teams in the AFC such as the Broncos — with a similar team outside of Manning — and the Pittsburgh Steelers — both Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are back in good health.
These two teams do pose a serious threat, but it’s still difficult to bet against the Patriots in any scenario. Keep in mind, even though the Broncos defense got to Brady more than any other team in the past, he put the Patriots within a two-point conversion and a missed field goal of reaching the Super Bowl. Brady is also coming off another highly productive campaign at the ripe age of 38, recording a league-best 36 touchdown passes with just seven interceptions while throwing for 4,770 passing yards and holding a 102.2 passer rating.
Last season marked the eighth time in Brady’s career that he has thrown for over 4,000 yards, the sixth time that he’s had more than 30 touchdown passes, and ninth occasion that he’s posted a passer rating above 90. It also helps that he will have the best tight end in the league in Rob Gronkowski at his disposal. With Brady still playing like the NFL’s top quarterback, this makes it an easier choice to rank the Patriots as frontrunners to be in the Super Bowl next season.
The Carolina Panthers steamrolled through the NFC, losing just one game in the regular season. However, the team that was their biggest threat to knock them off their stool is a familiar powerhouse in the NFL, the Seattle Seahawks. The Panther may have defeated them twice last year (regular season and the NFC Playoffs Divisional Round), but they certainly displayed reason to believe that they can make their third trip to the Super Bowl in four seasons.
In fact, it could be argued that had the Seahawks not had such a terrible first half against Carolina in the playoffs, they would have won that game and had a strong chance against the Arizona Cardinals to make their third straight Super Bowl appearance. The 2015 season was another year when they struggled, holding a 2-4 record through the first six games, but Seattle found their stride in the second half of the season, winning six of their last seven games heading into the playoffs.
Much of that was without Pro Bowl running back Marshawn Lynch and instead on the arm of Russell Wilson, who had the best statistical season of his young career. Wilson set several Seahawks’ single-season records by becoming the first player in franchise history to throw over 4,000 yards and 34 touchdown passes while posting a league-best 110.1 passer rating. He became the first quarterback to throw three-plus touchdown passes and post a 128.3 or higher passer rating in five consecutive games.
Wilson also had at least one touchdown pass in each game in 2015, which helped him become the only quarterback to have 4,000 passing yards, 30-plus touchdown passes, and more than 500 rushing yards in a single season. His progression in carrying the offense on his shoulders — albeit with the help of Doug Baldwin, who recorded 78 catches for 1,069 receiving yards and 14 receiving touchdowns — was eye-opening and encouraging.
Another key component is Seattle’s running back Thomas Rawls, who could pick the stack left by Lynch’s decision to retire. Rawls was in the midst of an impressive rookie campaign prior to suffering a season-ending fractured ankle in Week 14 against the Baltimore Ravens. He finished second among rookies in rushing yards (830), rushes for first downs (37), and rushes for 20-plus yards (seven).
Rawls’ breakout season included the first two 100-rushing-yard performances of his career in his first three starts and being the first player aside from Lynch to notch a 100-yard rushing game for the Seahawks since the 2012 season. His marks of 5.65 yards-per-carry average and 2.68 yards-after-contact were both the best in the NFL. The Seahawks’ Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham will also return after a season-ending injury late last year, which gives them another viable red-zone target and reliable receiver in the passing game.
Most importantly, the team will bring back almost the exact same cast of players on defense, which ranked either first or second in total defense in each of the last three seasons. All of this only strengthens their case to make a return to the Super Bowl with the opportunity to avenge their heartbreaking loss in Super Bowl XLIX against the Patriots.