- Associated Press - Thursday, December 16, 2010

So many contenders, so many holes.

Not the kind of holes that powerful offensive linemen create for running backs. Nor the gaps blitzing linebackers find to sack quarterbacks.

Massive holes in entire units. Swiss-cheese secondaries. Blockers who can’t pass protect. Not to mention key players on both sides of the ball blanking out in critical situations.

Contenders? Maybe some of the teams chasing playoff berths are more pretenders.

Let’s look.

AFC

INDIANPOLIS COLTS _ If the Colts make a return trip to the Super Bowl, it’s time to put Peyton Manning in the Hall of Fame, premature as that may be. Indy can’t stop the run, can’t run the ball, and has had more problems keeping Manning comfortable in the pocket than ever before.

There no longer is a mystique surrounding the Colts; the fear factor for opponents disappeared this season.

NEW YORK JETS _ The other finalist in the AFC title game last January has severe issues on offense, in part because the Jets get far too cute rather than staying basic. Mark Sanchez has developed well in his second year at quarterback, but his inconsistency shows he’s not ready to carry the team, and the running game has stagnated.

Plus, Rex Ryan’s defense isn’t nearly as formidable as the coach thinks it is. Where’s the pass rush?

BALTIMORE RAVENS _ If Ryan’s defense has been a disappointment in big spots, what about Baltimore’s? The Ravens have looked old and worn late in games, blowing leads in the fourth quarter against New England, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Houston. Baltimore likely will have to meet the Patriots, Steelers or perhaps even the Falcons if it hopes to win the title 10 years after its only Super Bowl.

There also are issues on the offensive line.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS _ One of the league’s biggest surprises, so it’s not right to nitpick too much. But the Jaguars don’t have the passing game or the pass defense to stay with the big boys. However, they do have a sizzling running game that at least can keep them close to the favorites.

Also, Jacksonville is minus-10 in turnover differential, with 27 giveaways. That won’t cut it in January.

ANYONE IN AFC WEST _ After all of its flops in past playoffs, it’s impossible to take San Diego seriously if it wins the division. Somehow, Philip Rivers has kept the Chargers afloat despite all the injuries around him, and the Chargers are ranked near the top in yards gained and yards allowed. Don’t buy into that; look at their minus-7 turnover margin as more indicative of their prospects.

Kansas City runs the ball as well as anybody and Matt Cassel quietly has had a very good year _ until his recent appendectomy, that is. The defense is improved, too. But does anyone fear the Chiefs, who are a year or two away from the elite level?

Oakland? Raiders nation shouldn’t get carried away with high expectations.

NFC

NEW YORK GIANTS _ Steve Smith’s injury is particularly worrisome because the receiving ranks already are thinned. That’s led to some poor decisions and poorer throws by Eli Manning _ the Giants have 33 giveaways, worst in the NFL. At least the Giants are getting healthier on the offensive line. Their 1-2 rushing punch of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs is formidable.

The defense might be too reliant on a heavy pass rush, but it seemed that way in 2007, too, and look what happened.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES _ Philly will score points on anyone in any weather on any field. However, the defense can be had because it gambles too much, especially in the secondary.

Then again, the Eagles lead the NFC with a plus-15 in turnovers and have 30 takeaways. But they also have a mediocre linebacking corps that has been depleted by injuries, something teams like the Saints and Falcons could tear apart.

CHICAGO BEARS _ No contender has gotten less respect this year. The defense is staunch most of the time, if not last Sunday; the Patriots are embarrassing everyone’s D these days. But you can pass on Chicago, and do you really have faith in Jay Cutler in big spots against strong opponents? Or in his protection?

GREEN BAY PACKERS _ Injuries have ravaged the Pack and it’s amazing they’re 8-5. But if Aaron Rodgers is sidelined for any lengthy period, they can start thinking about 2011.

Green Bay is all pass, no run, and while it’s defense is gritty and aggressive, it also is prone to big errors.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS _ The Bucs are way ahead of schedule and QB Josh Freeman has developed rapidly in his second NFL season. But all of their wins have been against the dregs of the league. Wait until the 2011 season for anything special.

ANYONE IN NFC WEST _ Seattle and St. Louis are tied for the division lead at 6-7. San Francisco is one game behind and Arizona, at 4-9, has not been eliminated. Need we say more?

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