While enjoying a rebroadcast of Super Bowl XLV on NFL Network, I couldn't help but be confronted by a very serious question.
The Green Bay Packers are defending Super Bowl champions. They beat the game, got their rings, had their parades and now it's back to level one, week one, tonight against New Orleans.
The championship belt metaphor the Packers used so many times in 2010 seems especially apt now, because it's they who are defending it and they who will carry it into the ring in 16 regular season games.
What is beyond the top of the mountain? It's hard to tell, other than 31 teams that want to knock them off it.
The Lions knocked Aaron Rodgers out of their game at Ford Field and will feature a fearsome defensive front four. They're good, but they're flawed. Suspect line play will lead to struggles running the ball and keeping Matthew Stafford upright. As for the defense, there will be many sacks, but what happens if Ndamukong Suh and company don't make it to the quarterback in time? There could be a lot of reliance on some very iffy defensive backs.
NFC North. 1. Packers, 2. Lions, 3. Bears, 4. Vikings
NFC East: 1. Eagles, 2. Cowboys (WC), 3. Giants, 4. Redskins
NFC South: 1. Saints, 2. Buccaneers (WC), 3. Falcons, 4. Panthers
NFC West: 1. Rams, 2. Cardinals, 3. Seahawks, 4. 49ers
Wild Card: Eagles over Cowboys, Buccaneers over Rams
Divisional: Packers over Buccaneers, Saints over Eagles
Championship: Packers over Saints
AFC North: 1. Steelers, 2. Ravens, 3. Browns, 4. Bengals
AFC East: 1. Patriots, 2. Jets (WC), 3. Dolphins, 4. Bills
AFC South: 1. Colts, 2. Texans (WC), 3. Titans, 4. Jaguars
AFC West: 1. Chargers, 2. Raiders, 3. Chiefs, 4. Broncos
Wild Card: Jets over Colts, Chargers over Texans
Divisional: Jets over Patriots, Steelers over Chargers
Championship: Jets over Steelers
Super Bowl XLVI: Packers 34, Jets 17
However, there will be progress made, and I see the Lions finishing just outside the playoff picture at 9-7.
Turned out the Bears are who we thought they were in the NFC Championship Game. It's becoming a rather goofy pattern that the Bears only seem to be good about once every three or four years. Jay Cutler, though not nearly as evil as we media types have portrayed him to be, is going to need someone to throw to and someone to block for him. He doesn't really have much of either and he'll be dispassionately watching this year's NFC title game from his couch.
Meanwhile, the schadenfreude was laid on thick (almost as thick as that snow that destroyed the Metrodome roof) for those, like myself, who hate the Minnesota Vikings. Brett Favre finally appears to have ridden his tractor off into the Mississippi sunset and Donovan McNabb, running as fast as he can from the smoldering hulk that is the Washington Redskins, has taken over. Call me one media member who isn't 'desirous' that McNabb do well in the Dome.
In the NFC East, the Eagles are the best, but they're an overrated team in an overrated division. The Cowboys will be significantly better, a year too late. The Giants are already badly banged up and have too nasty of a second-half schedule to contend. The Redskins are starting Rex Grossman at quarterback and that's all you need to know.
The NFC West was the worst divison in football history last year. The Rams weren't ready for prime time last year when they lost in Week 17 at Seattle, but they'll at least be respectable enough to win the division with a winning record. Arizona can't be any worse at quarterback and should also be better. Speaking of getting worse at quarterbacks, both Green Bay and Minnesota fans can look forward to the unintentional comedy that will be Tarvaris Jackson starting for the Seahawks. In San Francisco, Jim Harbaugh has barely had time to remember his players' names much less develop a system.
Atlanta, like the Bears, has a tendency to have a great season, then disappear into the mist like "Brigadoon."
It'll happen again this year thanks to a resurgent Saints team and a Tampa Bay squad that is young, hungry and flying under the radar. Carolina will attempt to build with a new coach and new quarterback.
In the AFC, the Patriots and Jets are going to be as good as anyone, but quarterback play from Tom Brady will speak louder than even Rex Ryan's perpetually flapping gums. Miami and Buffalo aren't even close.
Kansas City doesn't have Charlie Weis' offense or San Diego's special teams disasters to count on and will sink fast. The Chargers should be solid, the Broncos will be bad, and the Raiders will always be entertaining, on and off the field.
The AFC champion Steelers didn't get any weaker, and they'll seperate themselves from the Ravens, a team with a vanilla offense and an aging defense. The Browns are probably a year or two away from serious contention, while the Bengals might be the worst team in the NFL since the 2008 Lions.
Of course, the playoffs are notoriously hard to predict, and it's probably not worth bothering in September, but I like the Jets to make a run as an AFC Wild Card. New England may be the division's better team in the long run, but the Jets have the weapons to be in any game (including at Foxborough).
However, their long run will come to a halt in Indianapolis, when they meet the Packers. You were expecting anyone else?
They're the champs and they're even healthy. Just think how much damage they could cause if they had a postseason home game.
One advantage of making it to the top of the mountain is knowing the route to get there again.
Brandon Veale can be reached at email@example.com.