The NFL has arrived at its desired destination of parity via the intersection of imperfection. As opposed to the last three years, when the Steelers and Patriots (twice) won the Super Bowl because they were the closest thing to a perfect team, this season is different. There are a handful of very good teams, and a few quality teams. All are flawed. The AFC is easily the stronger conference, but for each AFC Super Bowl contender, I see an NFC counterpart, waiting to fulfill its parallel destiny. Without further hesitation, the contenders:Possible road warriors
Bengals (8-6) Last year this team lost its quarterback to a horrific knee injury in a playoff game they knew they could’ve won, then watched the hated Steelers go three cities to glory. This year the Bengals have a realistic chance of finishing with more arrests than wins. They’ve been embarrassed on and off the field. Their star receiver almost had a nervous breakdown on live television. Yet the Bengals, like their misdemeanor offenses, simply refuse to go away. It’s the way of things in football; withstanding adversity breeds optimism. Carson Palmer’s knee is recovered. Chad Johnson is back. The defense can stop the run again. And while the “Jungle” may not be playing host to any postseason games this January, who really wants a piece of the Bengals when it’s all on the line?
Giants (7-7) They beat Carolina, the one game they really needed in their quest to just get to January. Stumbled against the Eagles, but still control their own destiny. With another win or two the Giants will have earned the right to go on the road for good once the games become do or die. Like the Bengals, the G-Men have spent time on the dark side and fought their way back. They’ve put a four-game losing streak behind them. Michael Strahan, the one player the defense has to have, is very close to being back in the lineup. Eli Manning has cut down on his interceptions and increased his completion percentage. Strahan hasn’t intimidated any female reporters in the last two weeks. Plaxico Burress has shown some fire. Bottom line is that a healthy New York pass rush and a productive Eli Manning still represent the most balanced attack of any NFC team. These guys could certainly hush the crowd on the road in the playoffs.
Ho-hum field advantage
Colts (11-3) Because of Peyton Manning the Colts will always be a Super Bowl contender, and usually have home field advantage. Big deal. Every Manning-led Colts team has been plagued by a defense ultimately incapable of performing at a championship level. However, recent history would suggest that the Colts deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball have not represented their downfall. Instead it has been the superior implementation of schemes by the Patriots and Steelers that Manning, and the Colts, could not overcome. Not this year. The Indianapolis run defense is epically bad. It gave up nearly 400 yards of rushing offense to Jacksonville two weeks ago. I’d be interested to know how many high school teams gave up 400 yards on the ground this year. Before, the way to beat Peyton Manning was to confuse him through masked blitz and coverage packages. The object was to slow him down. Now it’s much simpler. Line up and run the ball down the throat of the Indy defense. Either Peyton finds another gear or the Colts get run right out of the playoffs.
Bears (12-2) When the Achilles heel of a team is its quarterback, that team is usually nowhere close to being considered championship-caliber. Rex Grossman has gone through his share of growing pains this season, but the Bears have kept winning and will have home field advantage throughout the NFC Playoffs. Because of this, head coach Lovie Smith has refused to entertain any notions of yanking Grossman in favor of Brian Griese. Grossman clearly has the potential to become a franchise quarterback, but he also has the potential to single-handedly throw the Bears out of the playoffs. With the league’s most dominant defense, Chicago doesn’t need a quarterback to win games. It just needs one that won’t lose them.
Seahawks (8-6) Toughest team to figure out. The Hawks treaded water while their two superstars were out, positioning themselves to make a run. Ran off wins against Green Bay and Denver with Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander back in the lineup. Then looked very ordinary against Arizona and San Francisco. Since reigning Super Bowl losers haven’t even been a part of playoff races this decade, Seattle clearly has an element of mystery factored into its chances. And don’t forget this is a Super Bowl team that added a Super Bowl MVP (Deion Branch). A wild card game at Qwest is a certainty, which means the Seahawks will at the very least be competing for a chance to return to the NFC Championship Game. If Hasselbeck, Alexander and the Seahawks defense all start clicking, Seattle will be more dangerous than mysterious.
Patriots (10-4) For all intents and purposes New England has been written off. The Patriots are like the bully that ruled the playground. And like all bullies, they got beat up once and became an afterthought in the minds of relevant parties. By getting knocked out once a bully loses his edge, that air of invincibility. But his nature doesn’t change. The outside world may no longer perceive him as an enforcer to be feared and revered. But inside him still burns that craving to hit someone in the mouth. The Patriots defense is a collective bunch of bullies governed by the most savvy bully in the game of football. They got knocked out once, and everyone forgot about them. They won’t go down again without being remembered.
Ravens (11-3) The Ravens defense is looking as scary as ever. (Yes, even scarier than the legendary 2000 Ravens, because Ray Lewis wasn’t yet an alleged felon.) I believe Steve McNair could lead Baltimore to the Super Bowl. But I also believe he could lose a limb in the first round of the playoffs and doom them for good. That said, I see more glaring matchup problems for the Ravens than other AFC contenders. If I were Brian Billick I would not want to see Tom Brady or Carson Palmer coming to town for a divisional game. The Patriots can match the Ravens defensively and the Bengals can simply outscore them. Avoid those foes and top of the AFC looks favorable to Baltimore.
Cowboys (9-5) Dallas is a confounding team. I had them pegged third-best in the NFC East, and their mediocre first half, coupled with TO’s overdose/suicide attempt, seemed to reinforce that notion. Then Donovan McNabb tore his ACL, TO was reborn (no pun intended), Tony Romo stepped in looking like Tom Brady ’01, the defense started stuffing the run, and suddenly the Cowboys were the team to beat in the NFC. Since then they’ve been pummeled at home by the Saints in a game that would’ve given them the second bye and suffered yet another TO “episode”. The NFL Playoffs are as much a test of momentum as they are of resolve and preparation. Because of Bill Parcells, Dallas will be a well-prepared playoff team. The rest is up to the boys.
Saints (9-5) Hey N’awlins! What if I told you in August that the Tigers would be playing in the Sugar Bowl and the Saints would be hosting a divisional playoff game ten days later? Now is that something you might have been interested in!?! Alas, all signs point to the resurgent Super Dome playing host venue to two of the biggest games in both old and new history of this storied town. Why could New Orleans be booking tickets to Miami? Because they are led by the patron saint of lost causes himself, Drew Brees. He may not go by Saint Jude, but there has surely never been a more appropriate pairing of lost city and lost player. It’s New Orleans! The best quarterback in the NFC! The Saints! Hell, this is going to have to become its own column.
Chargers (12-2) The feeling around the league is that any team entertaining championship aspirations will have to go through San Diego. I agree, but must note that the Chargers are simply the least flawed of the contenders, as opposed to “the complete team”. With LaDainian Tomlinson, the formula for success is simplified. The Chargers are going to run the ball, and force defenses to stop one of the great backs of all-time. No paltry task for a foe. But, as good run defenses like Pittsburgh’s and Baltimore’s have proven, even LT can be contained. You can be sure that the Chargers will run into a team (be it Baltimore again, or New England) that will neutralize Tomlinson and put the onus on Phillip Rivers to carry San Diego. Frankly, I’m not convinced he can live up to the task. This is undoubtedly the team beat, but it’s far from unbeatable.