It's that wonderful time of year when every NFL team believes it's a Super Bowl contender.
Elite teams, buoyed by the swagger of past success, already know they have the ability to make a deep playoff run. Upstarts are fueled by a maddening desire to take the next step and join pro football's top echelon. Sleepers and underdogs are motivated by perceived disrespect to prove all the haters wrong.
Then the games begin, and the narrative of the season is written.
Some teams overachieve and surprise us for the better. Others underachieve and stupefy us with their failure. Ultimately, as the season progresses and the spotlight burns brighter, 12 teams will earn playoff invitations. Of course, only two teams can emerge as parties to the NFL championship. Who will they be?
We tap our experts for their Super Bowl XLVII picks:
John Clayton, senior writer
When Green Bay beat the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV, the Packers had the look of a franchise that could be in three Super Bowls in six years. All is set up this year for the Packers to win it all, and I think they will. As they learned last season, it's difficult to repeat as a Super Bowl champ. A 15-1 regular season was met with a disappointing loss in the playoffs, but now all is set up for the Packers to get to the Super Bowl and win it. Their schedule is the easiest in the NFC. Their six games against first- or second-year quarterbacks should help build confidence for a defense trying to break six rookie draft choices into the mix. More than anything else, the Packers have Aaron Rodgers at quarterback when he's in his prime.
Super Bowl pick: Packers over Patriots
Herm Edwards, NFL analyst
Andy Reid has already been to one Super Bowl, but I think he gets back to another this season -- and finally gets his ring. I expect that the players will rally around tragedy and play inspired football in the wake of his son's death. This team reloaded on defense through the draft with Fletcher Cox, Mychael Kendricks, Vinny Curry and Brandon Boykin, and the coaching staff had an offseason to work with the additions from last offseason, such as Nnamdi Asomugha. The defense should be much improved. If Michael Vick can make better decisions with his body -- sliding, getting out of bounds and throwing the ball away instead of taking sacks -- this team has the talent to be the most explosive offense in the NFL.
Super Bowl pick: Eagles over Texans
Ron Jaworski, NFL analyst
The Green Bay Packers have the most multi-dimensional offense in the NFL, and they will clearly benefit from a revamped defense after a debacle on that side of the ball in 2011. I think the Ravens reach the Super Bowl not on the strength of their defense, but on the arm of Joe Flacco, the legs of Ray Rice and a wide-open offense.
Super Bowl pick: Packers over Ravens
Mel Kiper, football analyst and NFL draft expert
My Super Bowl pick has two teams that could have met last season. Green Bay gets the nod because it was a very good, but flawed, team in 2011. The Packers spent their offseason -- particularly the draft -- trying to fix a pass rush that became non-existent toward the end of the season. If they can generate pressure, they can be unstoppable in 2012. Houston could have reached the Super Bowl last season had Matt Schaub been healthy, and while I don't think they made major strides in any one area, they are in a division that is ripe for the taking and can get positioned to go on a postseason run. If the defense takes the next step, it'll be that unit, and not an efficient offense, that carries them into February. And the offense isn't too shabby.
Super Bowl pick: Packers over Texans
Chris Mortensen, senior NFL analyst
In my mind, Houston would have made it to the Super Bowl last year had Matt Schaub been healthy, so I'm going to step out on a sturdy limb with the Texans to win it all this season. This is not a pick made with full confidence. When is it ever? Schaub, and, of course, Andre Johnson must be fully healthy down the stretch for Houston to go all the way. I really like the 49ers in the NFC. Everyone seems to forget what Alex Smith did against the Saints in the final minute in the divisional playoffs last season. He's not going to be Drew Brees, but he will be better than last season. San Francisco's great defense, superior running game and an improved passing game give it the look of a team that can make it all the way to New Orleans. I do know one thing: The 49ers will have a much harder road to the Super Bowl than any of the strong AFC teams. A consensus of people I talk with in the league believe that the NFC is by far the tougher conference.
Super Bowl pick: Texans over 49ers
Bill Polian, NFL analyst
When I think ahead to the Super Bowl, I think we'll see two teams whose time has come in the Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens. And we'll witness the ascent of two talented quarterbacks in Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco. I really think Ryan is going to grow under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, and I look for him to take a pretty big leap because of the nature of the offense. It will not be the run-heavy offense of the past. It will be more wide open, and Ryan will get a chance to spread his wings. That anyone spent the offseason criticizing Flacco strikes me as ludicrous. Flacco didn't drop the ball in the end zone against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. In fact, it was Flacco who drove the Ravens to give them two chances to win that game. It was others who didn't make plays. While he doesn't play in an offense that shows off his skill statistically, Flacco is a winning QB, and his record (44-20) shows it. The injury to Terrell Suggs may have deprived the Ravens of the label of AFC favorites, but they can withstand the loss. In their defense, they can scheme rush as long as they have cover corners -- which they do -- and their young linebackers will grow over the course of the season. In a one-game situation, it's a flip of the coin between these two teams. But if this game is serving as Ray Lewis' farewell party, I think Baltimore gets the emotional edge.
Super Bowl pick: Ravens over Falcons
Adam Schefter, NFL insider
It's a quarterback league, and had Houston not lost its starting quarterback to injury last season, the Texans could have supplanted the Patriots as the Giants' Super Bowl foe. Now the Texans and Packers each have unfinished business to go along with quality personnel. The usual suspects of the Patriots, Steelers and Ravens will contend in the AFC, and familiar franchises such as the Giants, Eagles and Saints will contend in the NFC, but ultimately the two teams with the most playmakers will meet up in New Orleans, with Aaron Rodgers hoisting another Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Super Bowl pick: Packers over Texans