Analyst picks for Super Bowl LI

As the 2016 NFL season kicks off, our analysts predict how the year will end.

| 2 months ago
Arizona Cardinals RB David Johnson

(Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images)

Analyst picks for Super Bowl LI

With the 2016 NFL season kicking off today, what better way to celebrate the start of the season than by predicting how it will end?

Seven of our analysts took a shot at tagging the future Super Bowl LI champion—see their picks here, as well as the thought processes behind the selections.

Neil Hornsby, PFF Founder

Pittsburgh Steelers

I said I liked the Steelers before Le’Veon Bell was suspended, back even before Martavis Bryant was suspended. Even taking those hits into account, however, I still believe Pittsburgh is the team to beat. The immediate rationale is obvious: the Steelers have Ben Roethlisberger and the best WR in football (Antonio Brown), who again looked un-coverable this preseason. Many other factors, though, are underrated. For example, is there a better backup RB than DeAngelo Williams? The Steelers also feature a solid O-line with the return of Maurkice Pouncey (his actual play has never lived up to the hype, but he’s still very good, and a massive upgrade over Cody Wallace). I don’t like saying an injury would ever help, but Bud Dupree was phenomenally unproductive last year, while James Harrison was brilliant every time he took the field. Anything that gives the latter more playing time is a plus. Finally, everyone talks about the secondary as a disaster, but, at the starter level at least, it’s far from that. Injuries would hurt, but if this is the Achilles heal, I’m happy with my selection of the Steelers to go all the way.

Sam Monson, Senior Analyst

Buffalo Bills

Anybody can tell you that the Packers or the Patriots will win the Super Bowl, and I’m guessing many of my colleagues have, but I want to go for the big-money pay off. The Oakland Raiders have become too popular, but when you go to the long-odds teams, the one with the shot to make something special happen, to me, is Buffalo. For one, the Bills get potentially a four-game head start over the Patriots before Tom Brady comes back. If they get out ahead in that division, I think Rex Ryan will have that team believing in miracles. The defense—at least for one season—should be better with the Ryan brothers both involved, and the more I watch QB Tyrod Taylor, the more I think he can do some pretty impressive things, and this time he has some help around him. You heard it here first—and probably last—the Bills will win Super Bowl LI.

Gordon McGuinness, Lead Special Teams Analyst

Houston Texans

This is not the pick I thought I’d be making a couple of months ago, but on top of having possibly the best defensive player of all time in J.J. Watt, I’m expecting a breakout year from Jadaveon Clowney. After averaging a pressure a little over once every 10 pass-rushing attempts in 2015, Clowney averaged one every six this preseason. On offense, Brock Osweiler is a big upgrade over Brian Hoyer, and looked to really find his groove in that all-important third preseason game. They’ve upgraded the weapons around him, too, adding Lamar Miller in the backfield with Braxton Miller and Will Fuller joining the wide receivers. Fuller is going to be an interesting player to watch, and I don’t think it’s ridiculous to say that he might lead the league in both yards per catch and drop rate. In an AFC where all the top teams have question marks, I think Houston could be the best team.

Nathan Jahnke, Director of Analytics

Arizona Cardinals

Most of the good teams from a year ago have lost quality players, or at the very least, haven’t changed much. Arizona, on the other hand, is a team that improved in several areas. The offensive line should be better with A.Q. Shipley, Evan Mathis, and D.J. Humphries compared to last year’s Lyle Sendlein, Ted Larsen, and Bobby Massie. David Johnson being the lead back the entire season will be a step up from what they had last year. The pass-rush with Chandler Jones and Robert Nkemdiche will be better, and Tyrann Mathieu, who missed the 2015 season playoffs, will be back. Arizona made it all the way to the conference championship game, and if it wasn’t for some late-season injuries, they may have been champions. To me, Arizona seems like the team with the fewest weaknesses, which makes them the best pick to win Super Bowl LI.

Ben Stockwell, Director of Analysis 

Pittsburgh Steelers

Though they’re missing Le’Veon Bell to start the season and are without Martavis Bryant completely, the Steelers are still strong at the skill positions, led by Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger. Add to that a solid offensive line and a defense stacked with players—like Cameron Heyward and James Harrison—capable of impact plays, and you have a team with all the ingredients to make a run at the right time for the Lombardi Trophy. There may be better teams than the Steelers over a 16-game season, but when it gets down to the grind of the playoffs, Pittsburgh is as well-placed as anyone to make a run.

Mike Renner, Senior Analyst

New England Patriots

While the Broncos proved a season ago that one dominant unit can take a team all the way to the Super Bowl, I don’t foresee any team having that same caliber of talent on either offense or defense this season. For that reason, I’m choosing the team with the fewest holes in the roster. Sure, the Pats could use a little help along the offensive line, and they don’t have a true nose tackle, but those are minor quibbles given how quickly Tom Brady gets the ball out of his hands and how stout New England’s linebackers are. The Patriots’ secondary is one of the deepest in the league, and they have a two-headed monster at tight end that Bill Belichick will surely get creative with. I’m not betting against a Tom Brady with a vendetta this season.

Jeff Ratcliffe, Director of Fantasy

Arizona Cardinals

Bruce Arians’ squad is my pick. The Cardinals are built to win with talent up and down the roster. While Arizona’s offense tends to garner a lot of attention, it’s really the defense that tips the scales for me. The Cardinals’ defensive front boasts Calais Campbell, who consistently grades out as a high-quality starter, along with promising rookie Robert Nkemdiche. The offseason addition of Chandler Jones gives this unit a more potent pass-rusher. The interior linebacker duo of Kevin Minter and Deone Bucannon is far from elite, but the Cardinals’ secondary features two of the league’s best in Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. Offensively, the Cardinals are going to pack a punch. Their trio of wide receivers—and the ascending David Johnson—give Carson Palmer an extremely potent set of weapons. That, plus the Cardinals’ top-10 offensive line, makes this team a serious candidate to win Super Bowl LI.

  • Wait

    Hey Sam- you feeling okay? Eat a snickers.

  • A.P. Andes

    As a Cardinals fan first (and a Steelers fan second), I would love to be eating crow come February, but I have serious reservations about picking the Cards to win it all for the same reason I do with the Steelers: there are two sides of the field, and while PP will hold down his side, the other CB position is seriously lacking. Letting Powers go was a huge mistake–as much if not more for his leadership as for his moves–and the replacements are a serious downgrade. Two teams whose QBs will be able to exploit that weakness for sure: Seattle and Green Bay. Same thing for the Steelers: Brown is on one side of the field, and Ben will need to make things happen on both sides. The absences are too much for them to overcome, I fear, even if they are 100% healthy the whole way.

    • Runner1967

      You should be far more worried about Palmer. I have no clue why folks haven’t pointed this out: he was awful in the playoffs and this pre season he hasn’t been any better. All the folks picking Cards are assuming Palmer will be just fine. I’ve seen this guy fall to pieces before over a crisis of confidence. Age and what happened in the playoffs last season should give anyone serious pause before picking the Cards. As PP he is overrated. In match up with Julio, AB, Bryant, Aj Green or any other top WR he has come up way short of his rep. The best cover guy Cards have is honey badger.

      • SeattleSteve

        He also got clowned by Jeff Janis (who?) in the playoffs last year.
        That Cardinal squad should of mopped the floor with that injury ravaged 2015 Packer squad… instead they squeak by.

        • A.P. Andes

          PP had a 100-yard TD negated by Rucker’s penalty that would have seriously changed that game, and is, along with Sherman, the least-targeted CB in the League, also given up the least yards. Subjective standards of “overrated” would seem to carry less weight. Unlike Sherman, Peterson covers the top receiver, wherever he goes. I will still take this problem over RW’s. That OL of his now has more gaps than an NHL’er’s grill. If he is still able to do this year what he did last year, I will tip my hat to him.

      • A.P. Andes

        I’m not saying I’m not worried. Plus, he could get injured again. Warner’s take that it was more nerves than his finger injury was not what I wanted to hear. But with that backfield and his weapons through the air, I think they will do fine on that side of the ball. As for PP, the Jones thing was in ’14 before he was diagnosed with diabetes, and he allowed no scores to Green, and only a couple 10-15 yard completions, one of which no CB could have defended.

      • Eric

        Though you may have valid points here, you lose all credibility when you make judgment calls on players based on how they played in the preseason.

    • Joe Doe

      As a fan of those two teams I think you have your lens focused in too far. If you have PP and Matthieu in your secondary, that is a top tier secondary compared to the rest of the league, regardless of who the other guys are. Same with Pittsburgh and their WR core. All the superbowl favorites have these. Seahawks have a bad offensive line, Packers have a bad front 7, Cincy’s d is mediocre, Carolina’s secondary is horrible and the Patriots have an average offensive line and running backs. The Cardinal’s roster is impressive. It has as few of holes or less than most contenders.

  • Malachi

    it’s crazy how the bills can win the superbowl even tho they won’t be in the playoffs this year

    • crosseyedlemon

      Usually half the teams still have a shot at a wildcard spot going into the final week and Buffalo will probably be one of those. They close out against the Jets again and you know Rex Ryan will be extra pumped for that one.

      • Malachi

        i personally think the bills are competing with the browns in week 17, for the worst record in the afc

        • crosseyedlemon

          Anything is possible but I think the Dolphins are far more likely to challenge the Browns for Gong Show award.

  • Malachi

    surprised nobody took the hawks

    • crosseyedlemon

      Several other sites have them as a top choice. They have some tough opponents this season and losing twice last year to the Rams has probably caused them to lose some support.

  • crosseyedlemon

    I’m shocked that Sam went with the Bills but as a long money play they are not a bad choice at all.

  • crosseyedlemon

    Ben was dead last in the weekly picks last season so that rules out the Steelers.