San Diego won't make the same mistakes, and Atlanta got stronger in all the right places. They'll meet in Indy, and feathers will fly

Hey, it could be stranger. I was seriously thinking of picking the Lions to play in the Super Bowl. In fact, if Detroit's running game hadn't reverted to mediocrity this summer and first-round defensive tackle Nick Fairley hadn't spent more time in a walking boot than bonding with Ndamukong Suh, I would have. The Lions are good enough to make the playoffs. But they're too thin to win it all.

So, Atlanta--San Diego. What's not to like? Two top 10 quarterbacks, two top 10 defenses (going out on a limb with Atlanta, but I semi-believe), two adequate running games (going out on a limb with San Diego's Ryan Mathews, but I do believe), two clubs that got better during a strange off-season. The Falcons and the Chargers aren't the two best teams in the league as the season kicks off, but I think they will be when it ends.

Traveling around the country this summer on my 23-camp tour, I met quite a few people who remembered that last year I picked Pittsburgh and Green Bay in this space. (Except I had the Steelers winning, and four months later, at the start of the playoffs, I switched to a New England--Green Bay Super Bowl.) Because I got it (sort of) right for the first time in my long history of preseason title predictions, some of you consider me a bit of a seer—or at least not a total maroon. At a sports bar in Phoenix last Thursday a 30ish guy came up to me and said, "I've got money riding on your Super Bowl pick. Who do you like?"

"Still sorting it out," I said, and I was. "I might pick Atlanta."

"The Falcons!" he said. "I can't even see them getting out of their division! How do you not pick Green Bay?"

We see it year after year after bloody year in the National Football League: What we think on Labor Day is never what we think on Super Sunday. Today I'm like you: How can anyone beat the Packers? The Patriots look unbeatable. They're on a collision course.

They may be. But only once in the last 15 seasons have August's champions met for the Super Bowl, in 2004, when preseason favorites New England and Philly went all the way. Things always seem to happen.

What things? I don't know. Packers linebacker Clay Matthews not staying healthy for 16 games. The Patriots failing to develop a pass rush, again. Aaron Rodgers slipping on a cheese curd. Chad Ochocinco tweeting a Patriots playoff game plan, 140 characters at a time. The NFL title chase has been as logical as a pigeon race in the 27 years I've covered the game. So the chalk ... that's not for me.

In the AFC, I see the usual suspects getting rounded up. I thought hard about including Houston and Cleveland in the playoff party, but I think Peyton Manning will play enough to fend off the improved Texans, and in the end I couldn't picture the Browns surviving four games against the Steelers and the Ravens over the last five weeks. I think the Chargers will exorcise their special teams demons and weather a killer schedule—Pats in September, Jets in October, Packers in November, Ravens in December—to win the AFC West behind MVP Philip Rivers. It's time. It might have been time last year, except for the worst special teams season in history, when San Diego allowed four blocked punts and four kick or punt returns for touchdowns. That won't happen again. It can't.

I like Atlanta for three reasons. The Falcons saw and addressed their weak points, particularly after a 48--21 division-round loss to Green Bay that was as embarrassing a defeat as any playoff team had last year. General manager Thomas Dimitroff knew he needed to add some offensive explosiveness, bring in pass-rush help for John Abraham and find a way to keep his team from folding far too easily when the going gets tough. We'll get to like speedy wideout Julio Jones, drafted sixth overall in April, for whom Dimitroff gave up five prime draft choices. As you'll read in Atlanta's scouting report (page 142), he's a young player who cares only about winning and is willing to do whatever's asked of him to make that happen. Defensive end Ray Edwards, a free agent from the Vikings, is no Bruce Smith, but he gives the underrated Abraham the help he's been crying out for and will toughen up the team. Edwards, a semipro boxer, won't let the Falcons be anyone's doormat.

I'm big on signs in the summer. I saw one with Atlanta. In the second preseason game, at Jacksonville, slot receiver Harry Douglas caught a simple intermediate post route from Matt Ryan at the Jags' 40 and looked for an open lane. He juked left. Jones sped in to escort and clear the path for Douglas over the last 35 yards. Touchdown. I thought: We all forgot about Harry Douglas. The 2008 third-round pick missed all of '09 with a knee injury and wasn't fully back last year. He's a good player, and he's looked sharp in the preseason.

Last January, Ryan had two great weapons in Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. Now he's got White, Gonzalez, a very good slot man in Douglas and the receiver Dimitroff has dreamed about. Jones could catch 40 passes as a rookie and still be incredibly valuable. And happy. All of Atlanta will be if the new guys come through.

AWARDS

PETER KING FORECASTS THE 2011 WINNERS

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

Philip RiversQB, Chargers

Rivers (above) will nip Aaron Rodgers thanks to a 5,000-yard season

RUNNERS-UP

Aaron Rodgers QB, Packers

Matthew Stafford QB, Lions

OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Philip RiversQB, Chargers

The offense could score 500 points, and he's at the center of it

RUNNERS-UP

Aaron Rodgers QB, Packers

Tom Brady QB, Patriots

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR

DeMarcus WareLB, Cowboys

Could break the sack record under cut-'em-loose coordinator Rob Ryan

RUNNERS-UP

Nnamdi Asomugha CB, Eagles

Tramon Williams CB, Packers

COACH OF THE YEAR

Jim SchwartzLions

No applause yet, please. My 2010 pick: John Fox of the Panthers

RUNNERS-UP

Pat Shurmur Browns

Tom Coughlin Giants

OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Andy DaltonQB, Bengals

Cincinnati will be terrible, and he'll get beat up, but he's a keeper

RUNNERS-UP

Kyle Rudolph TE, Vikings

Anthony Castonzo T, Colts

DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Von MillerLB, Broncos

The No. 2 overall pick looks like a pass-rushing force already

RUNNERS-UP

Jimmy Smith CB, Ravens

Mason Foster LB, Buccaneers

COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Albert HaynesworthDT, Patriots

If he doesn't do it now, he's washing cars next year.

RUNNERS-UP

Matthew Stafford QB, Lions

Jermichael Finley TE, Packers

PHOTOPhotograph by GREG NELSONONE FINAL PUSH Ryan (with ball) has a new weapon for his already prolific attack, and—just as important—the Falcons' defense has added some much-needed feistiness. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (RIVERS)[See caption above]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)