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Taking in a striking NFL landscape

With the NBA lockout threatening to swallow up the entire 2011-12 season – and slam shut the closing window on the Celtics’ chances at one final title run – it seems like a good time to relish the presence of football, and what has thus far been a riveting 2011 campaign. Consider the following:

• For the first time since the late 90s, the two undisputed best teams in the league (Packers, 49ers) reside in the NFC.

• Three quarterbacks (Brees, Brady, Rodgers) are on pace to annihilate Dan Marino’s single-season passing record of 5,084 yards.

• In this new era of gaudy air attacks enabled by concussion-related rules in place that essentially force defenses to play with one arm tied behind their backs, Tim Tebow is 3-1 as an NFL starter while running an offense that bears more resemblance to Navy’s than any other NFL team.

• A neck injury has proven beyond any reasonable doubt that Peyton Manning is the most important/valuable/indispensable player/coordinator/on-field general to his team in the history of the sport.

Typically, by mid-November all the chatter is geared toward which squads are contenders and which are bound to regress to the mean. That’s because roughly half of the teams are at or above .500 around Thanksgiving, but in reality at least bradybelichickone-third of those “playoff-hopefuls” are nominally such, and nothing more (aka the pretenders).

These days, however, there are a pair of juicier subplots that need to be investigated in more detail before the annual playoff-push commences.

Reports of Patriots’ demise premature … again

By tuning up the Jets on Sunday night, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady notched win No. 117 together, passing the Don Shula/Dan Marino tandem for first on the all-time victories list. The caveat being they did it in 35 fewer games.

So how does this relate to the here and now? First, it’s officially silly to write off the Patriots in the regular season. Period. Naysayers, naturally, have free rein to trash New England for its recent playoff inadequacies. That hate is founded for a team that is a combined 41-16 (.719) in the regular season since its last postseason win. Second, to not give New England the benefit of the doubt in a division it has owned each of the last seven years Tom Brady has been on the field is shortsighted.

Now, considering the cupcake schedule the Patriots are staring at over the stretch run, it’s going to be tough to legitimately appraise what looks like, at worst, a 12-4 team. The real answers won’t come until January. But teams start to develop patterns by this time of the year, which slowly evolve into identities.

As opposed to recent New England outfits – which, let’s face it, were gifted with talent but plagued by a soft underbelly – this squad has a certain spunk to it. The next-hand-on-deck mentality that was the hallmark of the title teams has made a cameo, most notably on Sunday night, when the Patriots trotted out of a defensive backfield that had even the omniscient Al Michaels grasping at straws in pursuit of arcane nuggets. Alas, even Google only knows so much about the Sterling Moores, Antwaun Moldens and Niko Koutouvides of the world.

Lest we forget, the Patriots of yesteryear were perennial long shots and afterthoughts – rife with castoffs and perceived nobodies – but they embodied the intellect, discipline and toughness of their pair of leaders, which permeated through the ranks, 1-through-53.

Preparation and toughness, more than anything else, wins in January. And while the Patriots have already lost more games than all of last regular season, it’s been their resiliency that has kept them hanging around until the bitter end of tilts against the Cowboys, Steelers and Giants that they had no business winning (something that can’t be said of Jets 28, Patriots 14; and Browns 34, Patriots 14).

aaron-rodgersThe Packers are frighteningly good

Not exactly a newsflash, I know. But for those counting at home, Green Bay has not lost since dropping a 31-27 affair in New England last December … with Matt Flynn at quarterback. Since then, it’s been two wins to close out the 2010 campaign, four more en route to a world championship, and nine straight to begin the title defense.

Between the 15-game win streak, the otherworldly play of Aaron Rodgers and the 2007 Patriots still fresh in everyone’s memories, it’s difficult not to at least start thinking about the possibility …

Here’s my two cents: With a Thanksgiving game in Detroit and a trip to the East Coast 10 days later to face a Giants squad that is well-constructed to give the prolific Packers’ offense fits and also capable of putting up its fair share of points (ie the formula for beating Green Bay), I’m not ready to say the 2011 Packers are 16-0 in the making.

Though this is without a doubt the fiercest squad since the ’07 Patriots, and right there with the ’01 Rams as a team you must absolutely conjure up the perfect game plan for – and execute flawlessly – to even have a chance of prevailing.

In addition to the seemingly limitless explosive offensive potential of Rodgers and Co., the much-maligned Packers defense is a good deal better than it gets credit for. When Clay Matthews is flying off the edge and forcing quarterbacks into accelerating their progressions, and when Green Bay’s All-Pro caliber corners are playing off one another and in cohesion – as opposed to bickering among themselves – that D is a unit to be reckoned with (see: Packers 45, Vikings 7)

That said, Green Bay still has the feel of a 15-1 team with the potential to go 18-1 (the right way).

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