Here's Who'll Win Madden's Battle of the NFL Stars

The day before the Super Bowl, I handicapped the field of potential Madden NFL 12 cover stars, coming up with seven candidates and settling on Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback of the eventual champion Green Bay Packers. I buzzed Anthony Stevenson, Madden's lead marketer, to ask if I any of my picks were on-target. "You're close," he said, "You're going to flip when you find out."

Turns out I was more than right. For now. Not only did I call Rodgers as the overall No. 1, I also named six others who joined him in the field of 32 players being voted on, in tournament fashion, for the cover of the next game. A champion will be crowned about this time next month.

You can vote on the opening round matchups through a page hosted by ESPN; you can also pick a bracket, March Madness-style, on Madden's Facebook page, for fun and prizes. In that bracketology spirit, I've handicapped the field. Maybe it'll help you with your picks.

EA Sports selected many of the candidates not just for their availability but for the fact they can get people talking, either through what they're known for - or notorious for - or who they're paired against in the opening round. In the end, I think more substantial qualities, such as playing position, fan base, and champion status are what will move the needle on a lot of votes. Quarterbacks and running backs do better than receivers; large market teams have national followings; some teams can count on heavy antivoting from rivals and others who resent their success.

This is how I see the tournament playing out, realizing that every bracket I pick turns to toilet paper after one round.

Here's Who'll Win Madden's Battle of the NFL Stars

OLD FOGEY REGIONAL

Six of the eight teams represented here have played football since the 1930s. The other two founded the AFL.

Intriguing matchup: EA Sports paired St. Louis' old team against its current one with (9) Larry Fitzgerald (WR, Arizona) and (8) Sam Bradford (QB, Rams). Fitzgerald was the cover co-star of Madden NFL 10 and has an incumbent's advantage here.

Elsewhere, (1) Aaron Rodgers (QB, Green Bay) is even-money favorite for the entire contest, prevailing over (4) Danny Woodhead (RB, New England) in the regional final. Woodhead's here partly because he was cut by the Jets at the end of training camp last year, and going from cut to cover would be a nice story indeed. Ain't happening. New England faces a strong anti-vote and Woodhead himself is viewed by other fans as a media creation.

Here's Who'll Win Madden's Battle of the NFL Stars

COWTOWNS REGIONAL

Denver, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Charlotte ... we're talking cheap real estate and prom night at the Olive Garden here.

Early word is that (11) Tim Tebow (QB, Broncos) is in trouble against (6) Jamaal Charles (RB, Kansas City) for the same reason - Tebow's also perceived as overexposed and propped up by fawning sports writers. He will miss his shot at back-to-back NCAA Football 11/Madden NFL 12 cover appearances.

Even without the anti-vote he won't last long in this bracket. (3) Maurice Jones-Drew (RB, Jacksonville) is a widely admired runner and a staple fantasy football selection, making him a comfortable pick for many despite his team's tiny market and fan base. I like Jones-Drew even against (2) Matt Ryan (QB, Atlanta) to come out of this region.

The bracket's laugher is (15) Jordan Gross (OL, Carolina) vs. Ryan. The Panthers were terrible and really had no good candidates so, why not an offensive lineman. Why not a punter?

Here's Who'll Win Madden's Battle of the NFL Stars

BLOODBATH REGIONAL

Naturally, when N.C. State is seeded No. 1 in something, it's in the group of death.

(1) Philip Rivers (QB, San Diego) would be the No. 2 overall choice, but he is in an absolute meatgrinder of a regional that he will not survive. Rivers will crush Darren McFadden (RB, Raida Organization) but it's a coin flip if he gets past Adrian Peterson (RB, Minnesota). I don't think he does. Either will then face one of two quarterbacks with more formidable qualities: Mark Sanchez (New York Jets) or Drew Brees, (New Orleans Saints), who was Madden NFL 11's cover star.

Why do I like Sanchez so much? Last year, asked to pick the matchup for the Madden 11 Demo, fans overwhelmingly chose the Jets-Colts AFC Championship game over the more memorable Saints-Vikings NFC final, or the usual Super Bowl rematch. That's all New York. Mark Sanchez emerges from this regional.

Here's Who'll Win Madden's Battle of the NFL Stars

LOMBARDI REGIONAL

Sixteen Super Bowl trophies in this bracket full of winners, and the Eagles.

It's too bad that (6) Andre Johnson (WR, Houston) and (11) Chris Johnson (RB, Tennessee) have to lock horns in the first round, the best 1-on-1 matchup of the early voting. I like Johnson. I mean the player. I mean the Texans wide receiver, who also is said to be destroying his Titans opponent.

That being said, I think Andre Johnson goes down to (3) Michael Vick (QB, Philadelphia) who, as Crecente reminded us, once ran a dogfighting ring and served two years in the federal slammer for it. Vick will pull both a strong Philadelphia vote plus an enormous anti-Cowboys vote to overcome DeMarcus Ware (DE, Dallas).

In the regional final, I like a Quaker State matchup of Vick versus (2) Hines Ward (WR, Pittsburgh). This is a very intriguing matchup, for if Vick has baggage, Ward is not exactly loved outside of western Pennsylvania, and I would love to see the IP addresses from the Baltimore area in this vote. Both have devoted, proud fan bases. I think Vick wins, actually. He's undeniably one of the league's most dynamic players and, like it or not, many have forgiven him. Ward is a talented wide receiver but matches up poorly against the more dynamic Vick.

FINAL FOUR

Our final pairings give us overall (1) Rodgers versus (3) Jones-Drew, and then (5) Sanchez against (3) Vick. I like Rodgers to smoke Jones-Drew on the way to the final, and there he'll meet Sanchez, who rides the New York vote plus the anti-Vick backlash to a finals berth.

In the end, with money on the table, the nation makes the pick you'd expect: A Super Bowl MVP quarterback is, to much of the public, football incarnate for the coming year.

Plus, I really want to be right about Rodgers.