EA Sports yesterday completed its announcement of the field of 64 candidates for the cover of Madden NFL 13, and opened voting today in its joint promotion with ESPN. Having tried to predict the entire field before it was announced (I went 38 for 62), I'm now going pick who wins the play-in round.
How it works this year: All 32 teams have two player representatives. Fans choose one this week on SportsNation's Facebook page. The winners then get re-seeded into a traditional bracket. So I haven't picked any future matchups because, well, they don't exist yet.
Bear in mind that while some of this judges a player's popularity to his own fan base, obviously sports fans nationwide are voting in this, too. And popularity, not talent, is the sufficient condition for winning out. Some knowledgeable fans will vote based on a player's merit and performance, but many more—and nearly 13 million cast votes last year—will not.
Cowboys—Neither guy really excites me, and the vote will be influenced by who Cowboy haters hate least. LB DeMarcus Ware prevails over TE Jason Witten.
Giants—It's a toss-up between DE Jason Pierre-Paul and WR Victor Cruz, but Pierre-Paul wins. Either is a fine representative of the defending Super Bowl champions.
Eagles—I've given up trying to divine who Eagles fans hate on their own team, and why, but remember this isn't a primary in which only one constituency is voting. So QB Michael Vick prevails over RB LeSean McCoy. If Vick made it to the final round last year, there's no reason to think he won't win a popularity contest here.
Redskins—So happy that I correctly predicted both participants. LB Ryan Kerrigan got in basically because of an interception against the Giants in Week One. He falls to the bigger name auto insurance endorser, LB Brian Orakpo.
True to his on-field talent, Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson is a serious threat to go deep in this tournament.
Bears—The bleep sandwich Bear fans are eating in this vote-off makes me chortle. Do they vote for sourpuss, injured QB Jay Cutler? At least RB Matt Forte will be on the team. The Bears franchise-tagged the unhappy camper while they work out a deal. Forte's production overcomes Cutler's lack of it.
Lions—I outsmarted myself when I thought EA Sports hadn't lined up WR Calvin Johnson or QB Matt Stafford. This might be the highest-quality pairing in the field. Megatron is a great candidate to win it all and he triumphs here.
Packers—Aaron Rodgers may be the best and is at least one of the three best quarterbacks in the league, which is more than enough to get him past LB Clay Matthews. I would have much preferred to see Madden put da WR Greg Jennings on da cover, doe.
Vikings—Defensive end Jared Allen isn't well-liked at large but he's the team's best player not named Adrian Peterson, who isn't in this probably because he's coming off a torn ACL, and it'd just be trolling to put him up to a Cover Curse as he rehabs. Pasta Padre noted that WR Percy Harvin was dropped from NCAA Football 10's cover at the last minute after he tested positive for pot in 2009. I think it's a moot point after Allen wins out.
Buccaneers—I never would have thought RB LeGarrette Blount would go from falcon-punching his way out of a scholarship to Madden cover candidate in a little more than two years. Guess that's what happens when The Dunge is your life coach. He falls to QB Josh Freeman in the field's most anonymous pairing.
Falcons—Another QB-WR matchup. Go with QB Matt Ryan over rookie target Julio Jones.
Panthers—A breakout rookie season makes QB Cam Newton a threat to go far in the main draw. He'll breeze past WR Steve Smith.
Saints—I so want EA Sports to pay a $1,500 bounty to the player who knocks out QB Drew Brees in the first round. Brees will be seeking his second Madden cover after fans take him over TE and Madden Bowl XVIII teammate Jimmy Graham. How far Brees gets may depend on how big the stink is over the Saints and their bounty scandal. Commissioner Roger Goodell should hand out punishment on that soon.
Patrick Willis could just as easily represent the 49ers, but I think on the whole fans vote offense, and they'll also remember Vernon Davis' catch to beat New Orleans in the playoffs.
49ers—It's a coin-flip between LB Patrick Willis and TE Vernon Davis, but I think Davis' late-game heroics in bringing down the Saints this postseason is what fans will remember and vote on first.
Cardinals—CB Patrick Peterson, a rookie, tied a record with four punt return touchdowns last season, including a sensational 99-yarder. But WR Larry Fitzgerald is basically the face of the franchise and fans will give him a chance to appear on his second Madden cover.
Rams—With WR Brandon Lloyd shipping out of town, voters will take DE Chris Long, son of hall-of-famer Howie. I think the Rams should be represented by their No. 2 draft pick, or all the players they get once they trade it away.
Seahawks—As I said, overlooking S Earl Thomas was stupid on my part. But RB Marshawn Lynch has his beast mode TD and all the name recognition coming from it. It's too bad we couldn't get Jennings to meet Marshawn in this tournament. It'd be Demetry James' two biggest videos facing off, "Put Da Team On Your Back" vs. "Hold My Diiiiick."
Bills—Both candidates are about as equally recognizable; WR Stevie Johnson just made the news for re-signing in Buffalo, which caused QB Ryan Fitzpatrick to shave his receiver's name into the side of his head. I think Johnson advances but I'm not sure why.
Dolphins—Distracted fans pick WR Brandon Marshall over RB Reggie Bush while they wait to see what happens with Peyton Manning and this team.
Jets—Simple choice: QB Mark Sanchez is viewed as overrated; CB Darrelle Revis is not.
Patriots—Though WR Wes Welker had his best season ever I get the feeling his novelty has worn off on a lot of people. TE Rob Gronkowski has a little more notoriety, not least because he dates porn stars. He also was voted the starting tight end at the Pro Bowl, but was busy at the time.
Bengals—Both QB Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green are rookies. Dalton's position tips the balance to him, especially as he beat expectations to help lead the franchise to the playoffs for only the second time in 25 years.
Browns—I just can't see anyone from Cleveland making the cover again, after how things turned out with Peyton Hillis last year. Either way, CB Joe Haden prevails over OL Joe Thomas here, and gets thrashed in his next meeting.
Ravens—This is also a very solid pairing of two worthy candidates. LB Terrell Suggs is the defensive player of the year, carrying him past RB Ray Rice, who appeared on the virtual cover of NFL Blitz.
Steelers—The controversy surrounding QB Ben Roethlisberger may have simmered down, thanks to Big Ben keeping his mouth shut and laying low. But that means he can't go out and star in one of those hilarious Head n' Shoulders commercials that helps give S Troy Polamalu a good-guy rep. He gets the nod here.
Texans running back Arian Foster is a solid choice to win it all, but he must first overcome equally admired teammate Andre Johnson.
Colts—Oh God, do we really have to pick this? The Colts at least franchise-tagged DE Robert Mathis. DE Dwight Freeney may be a bigger name but he may also be gone in a house-cleaning that began with Manning's release today. Still, a bunch of voters may go with Freeney, making his cover candidacy potentially perilous, or hilarious, depending on how you view this.
Jaguars—RB Maurice Jones-Drew over QB Blaine Gabbert may be the widest margin of victory in this round, or the entire contest.
Texans—An intriguing pairing as both players, because of injuries, were only on the field together for three quarters all season long. I think RB Arian Foster prevails over WR Andre Johnson. Johnson is very well respected but played less than half of the season thanks to injury. While Johnson did return for the playoffs, it limited his visibility next to Foster, who was a high draft choice in anyone's fantasy football league and delivered, despite missing four games with an injury himself.
Titans—It's between Chris Johnson and rookie QB Jake Locker, and while Johnson got paid big-time and proceeded to have his worst season, he's still done more than Locker.
Broncos—Again, this is a popularity contest, so I still feel that it's Tim Tebow's tournament to lose. Although the further we get from memory of the Broncos' winning streak and overtime playoff win, the more competitive it gets, especially with Suggs, Megatron and Rodgers in this field. Anti-Tebow voting, and there should be plenty, will also damage his chances. As usual, Tebow overshadows his defense, besting LB Von Miller easily.
Chargers—Neither guy had a good year, both are more or less equally visible to football fans at this point. I'm taking QB Philip Rivers over TE Antonio Gates, largely because Rivers went to State.
Chiefs—WR Dwayne Bowe scored 10 fewer touchdowns this year, though quarterbacking played a role in that. But LB Derrick Johnson was first-team All-Pro. Take Johnson.
Raida Organization—And finally, we get to the Oakland Raider Magical Mystery Tour. Which football player who actually uses his foot to kick a ball will represent the Silver and Black? While K Sebastian Janikowski probably gets through, I'd love it if it was P Shane Lechler. It'll be fun to see how far he goes as fans realize they can vote a punter onto the cover. Will the comedy hold up when Lechler meets elite candidates?