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Super Bowl Contenders

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The assignment: Identify the four best teams in the NFL and the likely participants in the conference title games Sunday, Jan. 22. It sounded easy enough until further study proved that this isn’t a great season for great teams. In other words, there may not be four.

Here’s a look:

1. The Green Bay Packers – The Packers lost one game among their first 15. The only team to solve the Packers: The dysfunctional Kansas City Chiefs, a team that fired its coach and was outscored, 191-26, in five of its first nine losses. Upon such unpredictability Las Vegas was built.

Every team can be excused one hiccup, however, and that was it for the Packers. There is some question about their injured offensive line, but the bye week will serve as a nice healing mechanism.

On defense, veterans B.J. Raji, A.J. Hawk, Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson form a solid nucleus.

But the chief reason you’ll see the Packers in Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI is the strong bond of trust built by coach Mike McCarthy with quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Each knows what the other is thinking, allowing a smooth flow between play-calling and execution.

Rodgers throws the ball with great accuracy to a reliable stable of receivers that includes athletic tight end Jermichael Finley and wide receiver Greg Jennings (when healthy).

The running backs are only average, but Rodgers is the best quarterback in the league, so the ground game really doesn’t matter. The Packers will reach the NFC Championship game and be favored to win their fifth Super Bowl and second in a row.

2. New Orleans Saints – If Rodgers is No. 1 at the game’s most important position, the Saints’ Drew Brees is No. 2.

Remember how we noted Rodgers’ precision? Through 14 games, Brees’ ability to hit the mark was better, with a 71.5 completion percentage that led the league. He also was tops in average passing yards per game (341.4). Brees throws a few more interceptions and isn’t quite as dominant outside the Superdome, so the edge in the NFC goes to Green Bay.

There is no question that the Saints are a different team away from New Orleans, losing at the Packers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and St. Louis Rams. Knowing what we know today, those final two losses almost defy explanation.

But the Saints won six in a row after losing to the Rams, and were building momentum for the playoff run.

Brees’ aerial artistry opens lanes for a running game that is fifth in the NFC without a true star, giving the Saints enough on offense to reach the NFC Championship game. But a defense that has trouble forcing turnovers will be no match for Rodgers.

3. New England Patriots – So many NFL wise guys kept telling us how the Patriots’ leaky defense ultimately will bring doom upon Bill Belichick and his special brand of genius.
photo by Chuck LeClaire
That appeared to be the case when the Patriots looked ordinary or worse in losses to the Buffalo Bills, Steelers and New York Giants, and allowed 17 more points overall than the Cleveland Browns (through 15 games).

But the demise of the Patriots never occurred as they found a way to win most games, with a 12-3 record with one to go.

Oh, yeah, a guy named Tom Brady still takes snaps for the Patriots, and he knows a little about winning. The parts surrounding him keep changing—and not necessarily for the better—but Brady remains the smartest quarterback in the league, finding success without a top running back or a defense that puts him in good positions.

That said, there is nothing special about these Patriots—or anyone in the AFC—and the playoffs will present new and increasingly troublesome matchups.

They get a bye in the first round, which will help, and Belichick knows how to draw up a game plan as well as any coach in the league.

It’s not hard to imagine the Patriots reaching the AFC title game and the Super Bowl, as long as the defense allows Brady enough time to pull out the victory in the end.

4. Baltimore Ravens – The NFL is so bereft of quality teams that finding four that are exceptional is difficult, perhaps impossible.
photo by Chuck LeClaire
Even the Ravens can’t win away from home with any regularity.

Nonetheless, playmakers on both sides of the ball such as Ray Rice, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed give an edge to Baltimore, if it’s fortunate enough to play a postseason game at home. The Ravens are the only AFC team that didn’t lose a home game.

The best endorsement of all for the Ravens is their tendency to beat good teams. It decisively defeated the New York Jets, 34-17, and knocked off the Houston Texans, 29-14, before they lost Matt Schaub.

Four more victories against the Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals and 49ers prove there is nothing awaiting the Ravens in the playoffs that they can’t handle.

If they can learn to win outside Baltimore.

AFC Championship game: Patriots 34, Ravens 30.
NFC Championship game: Packers 35, Saints 24.
Super Bowl: Packers 31, Patriots 21.

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