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 Broncos.
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 receivers.
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 taking place.”
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 coverage.
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.
Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL
More Related Stories
- Stop what you're doing and go watch "Borgen"
- Teenage girl claims she was beaten up for looking like Taylor Swift
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- New York chef serves up eight-course meal around "Arrested Development" jokes
- HLN: Jodi Arias "pleading for her life" got us a ratings win!
- Michael Ian Black on Maron feud: He "considered me a poseur"
- Chekhov's story mirrors Russia's own
- Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina denied parole
- Joe Francis apologizes for calling jury "retarded"
- Mary Karr: David Foster Wallace and I kept each other alive
- Morgan Freeman sleeps during televised interview
- J.J. Abrams reveals deleted shower scene with Benedict Cumberbatch
- Is the anti-gay backlash on?
- Paul McCartney backs Pussy Riot
- Cannes: Ryan Gosling's new movie draws the boo-birds
- Radio host tweets rape joke, blames journalists for reporting on it
- Juror responds to Joe Francis' insults with thoughtful email
- New track from the Lonely Island features Solange Knowles, semicolons
- Amazon introduces fan fiction publishing platform
- Naomi Watts, "Argo," "Wonderstone" among bizarre Teen Choice Awards nominees
- Imprisoned Pussy Riot member declares hunger strike
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11