Super Bowl

Top NFL teams: contenders or pretenders?

After nine weeks of scintillating National Football League action, most of the 32 NFL teams will evaluate the first half of the season and try to make adjustments for a second half playoff push. Others will look to improve for next season and determine what positions they can supplement at next year’s draft. But which teams have the mark of a future Super Bowl champion? Conversely, which teams have been successful up to this point but don’t have the all-important “it” factor necessary to win in the playoffs?

Since a disappointing 2-2 start for perennial contender New England, the Patriots have won five games in a row, including a rout of the defending American Football Conference champion Denver Broncos last Sunday. During their winning streak, the Patriots have scored an average of 40 points and given up just an average of 22. Tom Brady, in spite of the accusations regarding his age, has thrown for 2,392 yards, 22 touchdowns, and just three interceptions. The Patriots are rolling right now and have all the experience they need in a future Hall of Fame coach and quarterback that have won three Super Bowls together. Consider them one of the favorites to bring home a Vince Lombardi trophy next February.

Meanwhile, the Arizona Cardinals, the third best team in a talented National Football Conference West a year ago, hold the league’s best record at 7-1 and defeated the 6-2 Philadelphia Eagles and 6-3 Dallas Cowboys in back-to-back weeks. Furthermore, despite losing starting quarterback Carson Palmer to injury for three weeks, the Cardinals came from behind to defeat the New York Giants and held the San Francisco 49ers to 14 points in a winning effort the following week. Their only loss came on the road in week five against preseason favorite Denver. Peyton Manning threw for 479 yards and four touchdowns in what was the only black mark against the Cardinals’ defense all season. A young team with playmakers like defensive backs Patrick Peterson, Jerraud Powers, and Rashad Johnson, the Cardinals look ready to make a push for the Super Bowl this season on the merits of their defense alone (they’ve allowed just 19.5 points per game). Additionally, the Cards have veteran leadership on offense in Palmer and superstar wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. The Cardinals may not have the playoff experience, but they will be tested down the stretch with a schedule that includes two games against defending champion Seattle, two against sneaky St. Louis, one at San Francisco, and one versus Detroit. If the Cardinals hold on to win the NFC West with such a difficult remaining schedule, they are a legitimate contender.

Despite losing badly at New England this past weekend, the Denver Broncos continue to be one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl this year. They have beaten the Colts, Cardinals, Chargers, and 49ers. They have Peyton Manning, the new all-time leader in touchdown passes and one of the best to ever play the game. He alone makes the team a contender. But, in addition, the Broncos have bolstered their defense since last year’s disappointing performance in the Super Bowl. They have added DeMarcus Ware to their offensive line and Aqib Talib, a dynamic cornerback, to their secondary. Quietly, the Broncos have given up the fewest rushing yards per game of any team in the league so far this season. Though, this may be due in small part to the sizeable leads they have taken in four of their past five games, hard-hitting run-stoppers like Terrance Knighton and Von Miller make this defense a solid unit. The fact is, the only team better than the Broncos right now is the Patriots. A Patriots-Broncos AFC rematch looks likely. Brady is 11-5 against Manning during his career, but Manning won their most recent playoff duel 10 months ago in the AFC Championship.

Outside of the top three, a slew of contenders remain. Seattle, for all the talk of being in disarray, is 5-3 and has won two in a row. In addition, Seattle is fourth in opposing rushing yards and sixth in opposing passing yards. They still have defensive backs Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, and Earl Thomas. Let’s not forget last February’s Super Bowl where the Seahawks’ defense dominated, taking Manning out of rhythm and creating turnovers in route to a 43-8 victory. They’re a contender until they get eliminated from postseason play.

The Colts have won six out of their past seven since starting the season 0-2. But in their lone defeat during that span, they allowed 639 yards of total offense and 51 points to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Andrew Luck leads the league with 3085 passing yards and 26 touchdowns. T.Y. Hilton is second in the league in receiving yards with 937. They have the offense, but they need more defense.

The Dallas Cowboys started the season at 6-1 with key victories over New Orleans and Seattle. A back injury to starting quarterback Tony Romo has resulted in two straight defeats at the hands of Washington and Arizona. However, he is expected to return following the Cowboys’ week 11 bye, and a victory over the Jaguars in week 10 seems likely. Running back Demarco Murray leads the NFL with 1133 rushing yards. The Cowboys’ defense has improved dramatically from being the league’s worst last season to better than average this year. The health of Romo, Murray, and the offensive line are paramount to Cowboy Super Bowl hopes. The door is open for Romo to prove all his doubters wrong by winning in January. Only time will tell if he has it in him.

The Philadelphia Eagles have gone 6-2 so far this season. An injury to starter Nick Foles means that former Jets starter Mark Sanchez will be the new leader for the majority of the Eagles’ remaining regular season games. Foles hasn’t been terribly effective anyway and Sanchez has been to two AFC Championship games in his career. Butt fumble aside, Sanchez is an accomplished enough quarterback to help the Eagles win ball games. The Eagles’ offensive success has been predicated on speed at the running back and wide receiver positions. LeSean McCoy, Darren Sproles, and Jeremy Maclin have played their parts well so far. They haven’t been blown out thus far and have beaten the likes of Indianapolis, Houston, and St. Louis. They’ll need to win some tough games in the next eight weeks, but should be around in January. Like Indianapolis, they’ll need better defense than they’ve had thus far to make it to the big game.

Past Super Bowl winners Pittsburgh, Green Bay, and Baltimore, as well as San Francisco, all have the “it” factor needed to win, but all have struggled at times this season, particularly San Francisco, who has lost two in a row. The Detroit Lions have gone 6-2 without Calvin Johnson’s usual dominant production with solid defense. The Cincinnati Bengals are 5-2-1 and now have wide receiver A.J. Green healthy for a playoff push. 5-3 teams Kansas City, Buffalo, and Miami all have won on the basis of stingy defense, but are inconsistent on offense. The greatest surprise might be that Cleveland is also 5-3. They’ve won three of those games by five points or less and also have a 31-10 blowout of Pittsburgh to their credit (the Steelers haven’t lost since then).

The race to the playoffs is wide open. While the Broncos and Patriots look like the two teams to beat in the AFC, there aren’t any clear cut favorites in the NFC, making for an exciting eight weeks to come. Sit back and enjoy.