No. 1: SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
Last Season: 12-4
First place, NFC West; lost 28-24 to Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX
Back in 2011, the year before Russell Wilson arrived, the Seahawks ranked fifth in defensive EPA and had the NFL's seventh-leading rusher in Marshawn Lynch. And they still finished only 7-9. Why? Quarterback play. They ranked 25th in Total QBR. Then came Wilson, who is sixth in QBR over the past three seasons. True, the Seahawks don't ask Wilson to carry them with his arm (he ranks last in pass attempts per start over the past three seasons). But when he does air it out, he makes big plays. Seattle had 54 passes of 20-plus yards last season; add the 83 rushes of 10-plus yards and the Seahawks rang up more explosive plays than any other team. Wilson plus Lynch plus an elite defense makes Seattle a Super Bowl favorite once again. -- Mike Sando
The Seahawks have enough talent to overcome their primary concerns on each side of the ball, which is inexperience along their offensive line and a secondary with new pieces and suspect depth behind the starters. The acquisition of tight end Jimmy Graham gives the Seahawks' offense a weapon it's never had. He should be of particular help in the red zone, an area where Seattle had trouble converting opportunities into touchdowns last season. The defense that has allowed the fewest points in the league in each of the past three seasons is mostly intact from a year ago. And while it's not as strong in the secondary, it's healthier and deeper along the defensive line than it was in 2014.
The Seahawks start with what might be the two toughest games on their schedule -- at St. Louis and at Green Bay -- which means they could find themselves in an early season hole. The opener pits the Rams' biggest strength, their front seven, against the Seahawks' biggest weakness, an offensive line that might have only two starters at the same spots as a year ago. The Rams' defense has given Seattle fits in recent seasons. This game is in St. Louis, where the Rams have beaten the Seahawks two of the past three years. Winning at Lambeau Field is always a challenge, and it would be even tougher if strong safety Kam Chancellor has yet to return from his holdout. If so, the Seahawks would be faced with the difficult task of trying to stop the league's reigning MVP in quarterback Aaron Rodgers without one of their best defensive players.
Seahawks' percentage chance to win each game
Sept. 13 @ Rams: 60.3
Sept. 20 @ Green Bay: 41.1
Sept. 27 vs. Chicago: 77.8
Oct. 5 vs. Detroit: 72.3
Oct. 11 @ Cincinnati: 54.5
Oct. 18 vs. Carolina: 68.4
Oct. 22 @ San Francisco: 63.7
Nov. 1 @ Dallas: 50.0
Nov. 15 vs. Arizona: 69.1
Nov. 22 vs. San Francisco: 73.4
Nov. 29 vs. Pittsburgh: 65.1
Dec. 6 @ Minnesota: 59.8
Dec. 13 @ Baltimore: 50.8
Dec. 20 vs. Cleveland: 80.0
Dec. 27 vs. St. Louis: 72.8
Jan. 3 @ Arizona: 54.5
It's along the offensive line, where the Seahawks lost a pair of starters, then moved a third to a different position. Seattle sent Pro Bowl center Max Unger to New Orleans in the Graham trade, then let left guard James Carpenter leave in free agency. After none of the young players competing to start at those positions claimed either job, Seattle shook things up by moving right tackle Justin Britt to left guard. Now, the likely starters at center and right tackle, respectively, are Drew Nowak and Garry Gilliam, undrafted players who each have yet to start a regular-season game in their career. Unger was like the central nervous system of Seattle's offensive line, the one responsible for calling protections and getting everyone on the same page. His loss is a big one. But then again, the Seahawks traded Unger voluntarily, just like they allowed Carpenter to walk in free agency. The team believed in offensive line coach Tom Cable's ability to field a functional unit with a few cheap and inexperienced players. He has done it in the past. Can he do it again?
Comments from players and coaches have affirmed what's been evident in practice and preseason games: Graham has had no trouble fitting into Seattle's locker room or its offense. That wasn't the case the last time the Seahawks made a blockbuster trade for an offensive playmaker. The early signs with Graham are much more promising than they were for Percy Harvin two years ago. "I think the cool part about Jimmy is we can just plug him in," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. "We really don't have to do anything special." Graham said of his rapport with Wilson: "It's been pretty instant. I think with Russ it's bigger than the game, it's bigger than football, and that's how you know something special is going to happen, when it extends off the field. So far so good. It's been amazing."
That it's followed a similar path back to its third straight Super Bowl. This season won't be easy for Seattle. Then again, it wasn't in 2013 or 2014, either. The Seahawks reached the Super Bowl in both seasons despite challenges that would have derailed lesser teams including injuries and suspensions, locker room turmoil, brutally tough stretches in their schedule and an offense that briefly lost its way. This Seattle team is every bit as talented as the two that preceded it, which is why, even with issues on the offensive line and in the secondary, there's no reason to believe that the Seahawks can't make it back to another Super Bowl.