Early Super Bowl favorites for 2011
Expect Packers and Steelers to be in the mix; here are five other teams to watch
Do you have a query for John Clayton?
Click here to send a note to his mailbag.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have been to three Super Bowls in six years, and even though their defense is aging, don't count the Steelers out for getting back to the big game.
Over the past six years, the Steelers and Packers taught the rest of the NFL that playoff seeds are meaningless, as long as a low seed has the right quarterback and a good defense. Both franchises won Super Bowls -- the Packers in 2011 and the Steelers in '06 -- despite being sixth seeds.
Though it's hard to repeat trips to the Super Bowl, the Steelers and Packers will be in the mix in 2011. But here are five other franchises that will be in the hunt for the next Super Bowl.
1. New England Patriots -- Tom Brady has to figure out the reason for his recent flat performances in playoff games, dating back to his Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants. Injuries have played a role in those non-Brady-like performances. This is probably something Bill Belichick has to address. The offensive line has shown the wear and tear from age and needs serious upgrades. The front office needs to patch up the relationship with guard Logan Mankins and get him a long-term deal. With two picks in each of the first three rounds, the Patriots can continue their youth movement and do it with quality.
2. Indianapolis Colts -- As long as Peyton Manning is behind center, the Colts are always a Super Bowl threat. Turmoil within the AFC South -- Jeff Fisher's firing and the tenuous situations of Gary Kubiak in Houston and Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville -- will only help the Colts maintain the No. 1 spot in the division. But the Colts have to get Manning under contract. They have made him an offer to be the highest-paid player in the league. They believe they can franchise him if they don't get the long-term deal done. The Colts also have to find a way to improve their run blocking. Tight end Dallas Clark and receivers Anthony Gonzalez and Austin Collie should be healthy next year, making it easier for Manning to run his offense more smoothly.
3. New Orleans Saints -- The union of Sean Payton's mind and Drew Brees' ability to execute plays will keep the Saints in the Super Bowl hunt for the next several years. Free agency, though, could make the journey tough next season. Four of the team's top six offensive linemen -- as well as safety Roman Harper -- are free agents. The schedule won't help the Saints, either, with eight games against the NFC North and AFC South. They also draw the New York Giants and a St. Louis Rams team that is being built around quarterback Sam Bradford.
4. Atlanta Falcons -- To make the Super Bowl nowadays, a team has to have the type of elite quarterback who can carry it through the playoffs. Matt Ryan has that ability, but he has to take the next step after going 0-2 in playoff games in his first three seasons. A tougher schedule makes it doubtful the Falcons can repeat the 13-3 season of 2010. Head coach Mike Smith, who just signed a three-year extension, will have to tighten up a defense that struggled against the run and can be vulnerable to top quarterbacks in passing situations. Michael Turner was able to bounce back from a disappointing 2009 season, but the toll of his numerous carries could catch up to him if he doesn't train hard this offseason. The Falcons' offense stresses balance, but it might have to start focusing on the pass if Turner can't keep repeating his powerful inside runs week to week.
5. Baltimore Ravens -- I almost went with the San Diego Chargers because of Philip Rivers, but they have major holes to fill in their starting lineup. The Ravens have a complete roster. Quarterback Joe Flacco has won four road playoff games. Ray Rice offers big plays for the running game. The defense has some age, but it remains strong. General manager Ozzie Newsome upgraded the receiving corps last season with the Anquan Boldin trade. His next mission is adding a downfield threat. Defenses with three good man-to-man cornerbacks shut down the slower, older Ravens receivers this season and made it tough for Flacco to follow through on his progressions.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.