With a quarter of the schedule remaining, there’s no way to pick a favorite for the Lombardi Trophy. Not even the two teams with 11-1 records, the Falcons and Texans, or Eli Manning’s Giants or Peyton’s Broncos.
While there has been significant separation between the haves and the have-nots in the NFL _ three division races are over and only the NFC North has no odds-on choice among the undecided sectors _ none of the top teams presents overwhelming credentials for winning it all.
Several teams are trending upward, most notably the Broncos with a seven-game winning streak and the Patriots, who always begin peaking in November and December. Atlanta just about has home-field advantage in the NFC, and Houston would pretty much secure it in the AFC if it wins at New England next Monday night.
So that makes them the top contenders, right?
“Well, there’s different championships,” Broncos coach John Fox said. “Your division is obviously one, everybody aspires to be in the conference championship, but at the end of the day, everybody is looking for that world championship.
“It’s a great accomplishment, a tribute to the staff and coaches in that locker room. They did a fantastic job. We still have a whole quarter of the season left. We’ll see what happens.”
What has been happening in Denver is encouraging because the Broncos (9-3) have been winning in a variety of ways. Yes, Manning remains the key to a first Super Bowl trip since his current boss, John Elway, retired after the 1998 title season. Throughout his remarkable comeback year after missing 2011 because of neck surgery, Manning has become more comfortable and familiar with his targets, his blockers and his running backs. That bodes well for the winter rush toward the Big Easy.
So does having a solid, physically imposing defense with a dynamic, big-play leader (linebacker Von Miller) and other playmakers.
Throw in strong special teams and it’s a nice mixture.
But the Broncos also are a developing team, a much improved one since the beginning of the season, yet still a work in progress. Getting that work done in the next two months could be a rush job.
New England was 5-3 in 2011, then won eight in a row, two playoff games at home, and lost to the Giants for the championship. The Patriots (9-3) are on another roll and it would surprise nobody if they run the table, even though they have Houston and San Francisco coming up.
Tom Brady, the only quarterback with 10 division crowns, is in the MVP conversation again. He has a formidable running game for once, and even with standout tight end Rob Gronkowski injured, Brady doesn’t lack for receivers.
Any Patriots issues center on a defense that has been exceedingly inconsistent and, at times, patchwork. New England survived it a year ago, but the other AFC contenders generally are better offensively now than last season.