Continued from page 1

“As a coach I think we’re always going to sit here and tell you that we’re trying to improve every week and that’s our goal,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said, noting his units have gotten stingier. “Certainly as the season goes on and people play together longer and are out there with each other longer then hopefully that’s what’s taking place.”

Houston revived its dominant, ball-hawking defense Sunday at Tennessee and has more balance than any AFC team. It also has little postseason experience, some injury concerns that have tested its depth and very little behind Andre Johnson at wide receiver. Defenses often can shut down one brilliant receiver in the playoffs with double and even triple coverage.

Baltimore (9-3) probably will hold on in the AFC North, but its warts have shown for a while, especially the last two weeks in a tight escape over San Diego and a home loss to undermanned Pittsburgh.

Many pegged San Francisco (8-3-1) as most likely to emerge from the NFC after the Niners manhandled the Bears and outplayed New Orleans with second-year QB Colin Kaepernick emerging. Then they stumbled against the Rams, a team that also outplayed the 49ers in a tie last month.

That powerhouse defense is impressive, but might not be enough to carry San Francisco all the way. Coach Jim Harbaugh has placed his chips on Kaepernick over Alex Smith, hoping the addition of big-play potential and fast feet will complement a nasty D.

With the road to the Super Bowl almost certainly heading through Atlanta, which is 6-0 at home, the Falcons might look like a good bet. Remember, however, that they went 13-3 and were the conference’s top seed two years ago, yet went out meekly against Green Bay in their first playoff game.

Until QB Matt Ryan, coach Mike Smith and a previously questionable defense come through in the postseason, there will be serious doubts about the Falcons.

The Packers and Bears need to get healthy to have any shot, but instead they keep seeing more players head to the infirmary. Green Bay has enough passing offense, Chicago has enough rugged defense. As for their other units, who knows? Particularly with so many injuries.

That leaves the juicy prospect that if Peyton Manning can get there, younger brother Eli and the Giants will be waiting. The Giants sprang to life even later in 2011 _ in the final two weeks of the season _ and have the key elements every contender desires: a winner at quarterback, strong pass rushers, a variety of playmakers and experience.

Then again, with no clear favorites in what has been an unusual NFL season, leave open the unprecedented possibility of two wild-card teams making their way to the Superdome in February.

___

Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL