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Key question for 2014 NFL season: Can Seattle repeat? Answer is ...

NFLColumnSportsFootballPro FootballSuper BowlSeattle Seahawks
Seattle is the pick to repeat as Super Bowl champion with victory over Indianapolis
Seahawks try to become first repeat Super Bowl champion since Patriots in 2003-04
Broncos hope a revamped defense can rise to the level of their potent offense

History is not on the side of the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.

No NFL team has won back-to-back Super Bowls since New England in 2003 and '04.

In Pete Carroll, however, the Seahawks have a coach who has won consecutive national championships at USC, so he understands how to keep a team focused. For him, the Super Bowl is more a milestone than a mountaintop, and he doesn't want his players so satisfied that they exhale.

Despite losing some key players, the Seahawks still have a top-shelf defense. Their offensive line isn't as good as last season, though, and punishing runner Marshawn Lynch has a lot of miles on his 28-year-old body.

Then there's this statistic, which should catch the eye of Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson: None of the last eight Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks has won a playoff game the following season.

Still, the Seahawks did a masterful job of tuning out distractions last season, and ended it by raising the Lombardi Trophy.

They answered all the challenges in front of them. Now, with the season beginning Thursday when Seattle plays host to Green Bay, comes a whole new crop of NFL questions:

NFC or AFC, where do the majority of the best teams reside?

NFC, definitely. Besides Seattle, the powerhouse contenders are San Francisco, New Orleans, Green Bay, Chicago and Philadelphia.

The Saints appear to be back to their Super Bowl form. The 49ers and Packers have lots of offensive potential but are dealing with big defensive setbacks. For Philadelphia, a lot depends on how teams adjust to Coach Chip Kelly's offense in Year 2. And Chicago will keep its fingers crossed with Jay Cutler, who hasn't played a full 16 games since 2009.

Will Denver's Peyton Manning rewrite the record books again?

Manning looks as sharp as ever, but for his offense to really roll, it's essential to have receiver Wes Welker on the field. Welker is recovering from his third concussion in 10 months, and Denver is a different team without him.

Do the Broncos have a defense to match their offense?

On paper, the defensive moves they've made are impressive. DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward are eye-catching additions. But history is filled with examples of big-name free agents fizzling in their new cities.

Which quarterback is primed for a statistical slide?

Philadelphia's Nick Foles. In just 10 starts last season, he had 27 touchdown passes and only two interceptions. The Eagles are in good shape to win the NFC East, and there's no doubt Foles is a talented passer, but that's too high a standard to maintain — especially with teams increasingly familiar with Kelly's offense.

How much longer can the Patriots expect Tom Brady to do it all?

They're definitely tempting fate. Brady is 37 and was sacked 40 times last season, the most since his first full season as a starter. He's not getting any more elusive, and New England didn't help him by trading Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins to Tampa Bay. Brady will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and the Patriots figure to win the lukewarm AFC East again, but his life (on the field) isn't getting any easier.

Which is the league's most lopsided team?

Dallas. Explosive offense. Defense that has already imploded.

Which rookie quarterback will make the biggest impact in his first season?

Cleveland's Johnny Manziel will get the most attention, but the biggest impact will be made by Oakland's Derek Carr or Jacksonville's Blake Bortles. I'll go with Bortles, who has looked outstanding. He won't start the opener against the Eagles, but he's made it awfully hard for his coaches to justify keeping him on the bench.

Most captivating soap opera?

The Manziel saga. Brian Hoyer is the starter for the moment, but the Browns need playmakers on the field, especially with the full-season suspension of All-Pro receiver Josh Gordon. That ratchets up the pressure to use Manziel, either as a starter or in special packages. The Browns have their bye in Week 4, so that's a natural spot to swap starting quarterbacks.

In each of the last 11 seasons, at least one team has gone from worst to first in its division in consecutive seasons. Who will do that this year?

The candidates are Buffalo, Cleveland, Houston and Oakland in the AFC, and Washington, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and St. Louis in the NFC. Washington has the best chance, because the NFC East is the most fluid division, but Tampa Bay is the best of those teams. The Redskins get the nod, because it's unlikely anyone is going to unseat New Orleans in the NFC South.

Can last season's comeback player of the year come back even further?

That's the challenge for San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers, who shook off a two-season slump to rally the Chargers back to the playoffs in 2013. San Diego pulled off road upsets in Kansas City and Denver, then gave the Broncos a scare in the playoffs. If they can keep their running game going, and if they get good play from their two new corners, the Chargers should be in the thick of the AFC West race. Of course, it would help if they didn't have to claw their way out of a hole, something they're forced to do nearly every season.

San Francisco's Aldon Smith has been suspended for the first nine games. Which NFC West opponent is relieved?

St. Louis. The All-Pro outside linebacker will miss both games against the Rams. He will be available for both games against Seattle, though.

With Smith out and All-Pro teammate NaVorro Bowman hurt, is there any good news for the vaunted 49ers defense?

Yes. Rookie inside linebacker Chris Borland, a third-round pick from Wisconsin, has looked particularly impressive. The absence of Bowman opens the door for him.

After missing the playoffs in four of the last five seasons, can the Giants get back on track?

The odds are against them. Their offensive line is lousy, and quarterback Eli Manning has been running for his life. He had a career-high 27 interceptions last season, and now has a receiving corps with very little depth and no answer at tight end. John Mara, the team president and co-owner, called the offense "broken" last season, and the Giants don't look much more proficient despite their new West Coast scheme. A big test comes in the opener at Detroit, because the Lions can score in bunches. The Giants lost their first six games last season. If they repeat that, they're doomed, because their November is brutal — Indianapolis, at Seattle, San Francisco, Dallas and, mercifully, at Jacksonville.

Can Pittsburgh pull it together?

The Steelers pulled out of an 0-4 tailspin last season, but even with a 6-2 finish fell just short of reaching the playoffs. So far this summer, they've looked closer to the early-season version of last year's team. They have a running game now, and a healthy Heath Miller at tight end, but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is working with a hugely inexperienced cast of receivers. They've gotten younger, yes, but that's not necessarily a good thing.

Who's the in-vogue pick as the NFL's surprise team?

Cincinnati. The Bengals have a premier playmaker in A.J. Green and a smothering defense. They're in position to take the next step, but they need to prove they can win on the road in the division and, of course, in playoff games. They are 0-5 in postseason games since 1991.

Who will be the real surprise teams?

Indianapolis and Arizona.

Colts quarterback Andrew Luck has even more weapons now — among them a healthy Reggie Wayne and Dwayne Allen — and the Colts have the easiest schedule, according to last year's records.

The Cardinals won their final seven games last season and are the only visiting team in two years to win at Seattle. The loss of defensive tackle Darnell Dockett hurts them, but they should do some damage this fall.

At the start of the 2013 season, you correctly selected Seattle over Denver in the Super Bowl. What's this year's pick?

Seattle over Indianapolis.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesfarmer

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