Early Super Bowl favorites for 2014


The Seattle Seahawks reached rarefied air Sunday night.

They became the fifth-youngest team to play in a Super Bowl. Don't underestimate the significance of that. The youngest team was the 1974 Pittsburgh Steelers, and they won three more Super Bowls over the next five years. The 1981 San Francisco 49ers, the second-youngest team, won three more Super Bowls over the next eight years.

The 1971 Miami Dolphins lost Super Bowl VI as the third-youngest team and then came back to win back-to-back Super Bowls and had a five-year run in which they won 57 games. The 1985 Chicago Bears were the fourth-youngest team, and they and won 52 games in a four-year stretch.

Does that mean we'll see a Seahawks dynasty? It's debatable. The biggest thing standing in their way is the salary cap. All four of those aforementioned runs were in the pre-salary-cap era.

The only franchises to repeat as Super Bowl champs in the cap era are the Dallas Cowboys (1992-93), Denver Broncos (1997-98) and New England Patriots (2003-04).

So who are the five teams to watch in the 2014 Super Bowl hunt?

1. Seattle Seahawks: Pete Carroll assembled the essence of a team. Linebacker Malcolm Smith won the Super Bowl MVP, and technically, he's not even a starter. K.J. Wright was the regular-season starter. The Seahawks brought in Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in free agency, and they didn't even start. The Seahawks are deep, young, fast and talented.

Trying to keep the team deep will be the challenge. The Seahawks have roughly $3 million of cap room, but that will be gone once the Seahawks sign players to future contracts. Carroll already scheduled 2014 planning meetings for Tuesday, the day before the team's celebration parade.

Lots of work is needed. The Seahawks have 10 current players making $6 million a year. At the current cap level, teams can normally keep eight. They might have to cut defensive end Chris Clemons, tight end Zach Miller and wide receiver Sidney Rice in order to extend contracts for safety Earl Thomas, tackle Russell Okung and others. They could lose Bennett to Chicago, where he could unite with his brother, Martellus. Unsigned are right tackle Breno Giacomini, defensive tackle Tony McDaniel and wide receiver Golden Tate.

But don't underestimate Carroll, GM John Schneider and the Seahawks. They have established a franchise that is a destination point for players. Big-name pass-rushers are willing to come to Seattle for one-year contracts to get sacks and a bigger contract the next year. In an ESPN.com survey, Carroll was voted as the coach players would like to play for the most.

2. San Francisco 49ers: Based on the results of this Super Bowl blowout, it seems the real title game was the NFC Championship Game. The 49ers have been to three consecutive championship games, advancing to the Super Bowl once. Their mission next season is to win the NFC West first and then try to get back to the Super Bowl. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is expected to be better because he should have Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis for the whole season.

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