Super Bowl favorites? All guesses are under review
By BARRY WILNER, AP Pro Football Writer
Unless you're part of the Manning family and hoping for a hometown
reunion with Eli, Peyton and their teams in New Orleans, there's little
reason now to make Super Bowl reservations.
With a quarter of the schedule remaining, there's no way to pick a
favorite for the Lombardi Trophy. Not even the two teams with 11-1
records, the Falcons and Texans, or Eli Manning's Giants or Peyton's
While there has been significant separation between the haves and the
have-nots in the NFL - three division races are over and only the NFC
North has no odds-on choice among the undecided sectors - none of the
top teams presents overwhelming credentials for winning it all.
Several teams are trending upward, most notably the Broncos with a
seven-game winning streak and the Patriots, who always begin peaking in
November and December. Atlanta just about has home-field advantage in
the NFC, and Houston would pretty much secure it in the AFC if it wins
at New England next Monday night.
So that makes them the top contenders, right?
''Well, there's different championships,'' Broncos coach John Fox said.
''Your division is obviously one, everybody aspires to be in the
conference championship, but at the end of the day, everybody is
looking for that world championship.
''It's a great accomplishment, a tribute to the staff and coaches in
that locker room. They did a fantastic job. We still have a whole
quarter of the season left. We'll see what happens.''
What has been happening in Denver is encouraging because the Broncos
(9-3) have been winning in a variety of ways. Yes, Manning remains the
key to a first Super Bowl trip since his current boss, John Elway,
retired after the 1998 title season. Throughout his remarkable comeback
year after missing 2011 because of neck surgery, Manning has become
more comfortable and familiar with his targets, his blockers and his
running backs. That bodes well for the winter rush toward the Big Easy.
So does having a solid, physically imposing defense with a dynamic,
big-play leader (linebacker Von Miller) and other playmakers.
Throw in strong special teams and it's a nice mixture.
But the Broncos also are a developing team, a much improved one since
the beginning of the season, yet still a work in progress. Getting that
work done in the next two months could be a rush job.
New England was 5-3 in 2011, then won eight in a row, two playoff games
at home, and lost to the Giants for the championship. The Patriots
(9-3) are on another roll and it would surprise nobody if they run the
table, even though they have Houston and San Francisco coming up.
Tom Brady, the only quarterback with 10 division crowns, is in the MVP
conversation again. He has a formidable running game for once, and even
with standout tight end Rob Gronkowski injured, Brady doesn't lack for
Any Patriots issues center on a defense that has been exceedingly
inconsistent and, at times, patchwork. New England survived it a year
ago, but the other AFC contenders generally are better offensively now
than last season.
''As a coach I think we're always going to sit here and tell you that
we're trying to improve every week and that's our goal,'' defensive
coordinator Matt Patricia said, noting his units have gotten stingier.
''Certainly as the season goes on and people play together longer and
are out there with each other longer then hopefully that's what's
Houston revived its dominant, ball-hawking defense Sunday at Tennessee
and has more balance than any AFC team. It also has little postseason
experience, some injury concerns that have tested its depth and very
little behind Andre Johnson at wide receiver. Defenses often can shut
down one brilliant receiver in the playoffs with double and even triple
Baltimore (9-3) probably will hold on in the AFC North, but its warts
have shown for a while, especially the last two weeks in a tight escape
over San Diego and a home loss to undermanned Pittsburgh.
Many pegged San Francisco (8-3-1) as most likely to emerge from the NFC
after the Niners manhandled the Bears and outplayed New Orleans with
second-year QB Colin Kaepernick emerging. Then they stumbled against
the Rams, a team that also outplayed the 49ers in a tie last month.
That powerhouse defense is impressive, but might not be enough to carry
San Francisco all the way. Coach Jim Harbaugh has placed his chips on
Kaepernick over Alex Smith, hoping the addition of big-play potential
and fast feet will complement a nasty D.
With the road to the Super Bowl almost certainly heading through
Atlanta, which is 6-0 at home, the Falcons might look like a good bet.
Remember, however, that they went 13-3 and were the conference's top
seed two years ago, yet went out meekly against Green Bay in their
first playoff game.
Until QB Matt Ryan, coach Mike Smith and a previously questionable
defense come through in the postseason, there will be serious doubts
about the Falcons.
The Packers and Bears need to get healthy to have any shot, but instead
they keep seeing more players head to the infirmary. Green Bay has
enough passing offense, Chicago has enough rugged defense. As for their
other units, who knows? Particularly with so many injuries.
That leaves the juicy prospect that if Peyton Manning can get there,
younger brother Eli and the Giants will be waiting. The Giants sprang
to life even later in 2011 - in the final two weeks of the season - and
have the key elements every contender desires: a winner at quarterback,
strong pass rushers, a variety of playmakers and experience.
Then again, with no clear favorites in what has been an unusual NFL
season, leave open the unprecedented possibility of two wild-card teams
making their way to the Superdome in February.
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