|Peyton Manning's Broncos, Jay Cutler's Bears and Russell Wilson's Seahawks are gunning for football's top prize.|
The NFL season has hit the halfway point, yet there isn't a clear-cut favorite in either conference. In fact, I would suggest that more than half of the league has a legitimate shot to win the Super Bowl this season. After taking some time to study the game tape, analyze the schedule and assess the chances of possible hot streaks, here is a list of viable contenders that can get to New Orleans in February, ranked from least likely to win the title to most:
17. Indianapolis Colts
Why they're legitimate contenders: Andrew Luck is playing at an MVP level. The No. 1 overall draft pick is tied for fourth in the NFL in passing yards and leads the league with 37 completions of 20-plus yards. While those numbers are certainly impressive, the fact that he has produced four 300-yard games despite directing an offense with four rookies (running back Vick Ballard, tight end Coby Fleener and receivers Dwayne Allen and T.Y. Hilton) playing prominent roles says a lot about Luck's ability to make his teammates better. Luck has shown he can carry his team with the game on the line (having engineered four fourth-quarter/overtime game-winning drives in eight starts), meaning that the Colts are always competitive, which is critical to postseason success.
16. Miami Dolphins
Why they're legitimate contenders: The Dolphins are currently sitting at .500, but a strong defense and an emerging running game give them a chance to take a shot at the title. Miami ranks sixth in scoring defense (allowing 18.6 points per game), and the Dolphins' 23 sacks are tied for 10th-most in the NFL. More importantly, the unit has adopted a physical brand of football that would play well in the postseason. Offensively, running back Reggie Bush has become a dangerous workhorse in the backfield. Although he has recorded just one 100-yard game this season, the fact that Bush averages 4.4 yards per attempt is enough to command eight-man fronts on a consistent basis. With rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill capable of picking apart single coverage on the outside, the Dolphins have just enough balance to make life difficult for any potential playoff opponents.
15. Dallas Cowboys
Why they're legitimate contenders: The Cowboys are in the midst of a disappointing start, but they can still make a serious run at the NFC East crown. Although the offense has failed to play at a high level in recent weeks, the eventual return of DeMarco Murray should instantly reignite the Cowboys' sagging running game, alleviating some of the pressure on Tony Romo in the pocket. If coach Jason Garrett can further relieve some of the burden on Romo by managing the game better and implementing a more diverse game plan, the Cowboys' offense might catch fire, sparking a run down the stretch.
14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Why they're legitimate contenders: New coach Greg Schiano has quietly put together one of the NFL's most explosive offenses. Fueled by the explosive running skills of Doug Martin and the burgeoning chemistry between quarterback Josh Freeman and receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, the Buccaneers have averaged 36 points per game over the past four weeks. More importantly, the unit has displayed the kind of versatility that can create headaches for defensive coordinators, who will have a hard time attempting to neutralize the Buccaneers' most explosive weapons. The Buccaneers also have an emerging defense that can stop the run; this squad can force opponents into wild shootouts, making them a dangerous team to face in a "one-and-done" scenario.
13. San Diego Chargers
Why they're legitimate contenders: Their inclusion on this list might raise a few eyebrows, but the Chargers have a legitimate shot to make a run at the Lombardi Trophy, based on their history of finishing strong under Norv Turner. After Nov. 1, Turner's Chargers teams have won 72.7 percent of their regular-season games (a 32-12 record), including an impressive 21-3 mark in December and January. Veterans like quarterback Philip Rivers, tight end Antonio Gates, linebacker Shaun Philips, safety Eric Weddle and cornerback Quentin Jammer are accustomed to winning games down the stretch. The Chargers' confidence will make them a tough out for any team vying for a playoff spot.
12. Detroit Lions
Why they're legitimate contenders: The Lions have bounced back from a dismal start, re-entering the NFC race as a viable threat. Led by quarterback Matthew Stafford and the NFL's top-ranked passing game, the Lions can post a "40-burger" on any defense that lacks the personnel to match up with their explosive perimeter weapons. In addition, the rapid development of Mikel Leshoure as the feature runner has given Detroit's offense just enough balance to allow it to thrive in rough and rugged games down the stretch. Ndamukong Suh and Co. are also starting to impose their will in the defensive trenches. The Lions are a dangerous team with enough confidence and talent to catch fire heading into the postseason.
11. Seattle Seahawks
Why they're legitimate contenders: Coach Pete Carroll has put together a hard-hitting defense with the size, speed and athleticism to match up with any opponent in any environment. The Seahawks' secondary in particular poses a serious challenge for opponents who rely extensively on the passing game to move the ball. Brandon Browner, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas challenge and torment receivers with their physicality; the toll that takes eventually induces turnovers in bunches. The Seahawks also have an athletic frontline that regularly wreaks havoc on quarterbacks in the pocket. Few contenders will want to face Seattle, particularly in the confines of Century Link field, where the 12th Man makes a substantial impact.
10. Baltimore Ravens
Why they're legitimate contenders: The Ravens were once considered AFC favorites until injuries robbed the defense of its leader (Ray Lewis) and lockdown corner (Lardarius Webb). While the unit can still slow down most of the explosive offenses in the NFL, the Ravens remain contenders because of their offense, which is led by quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice. The duo has keyed a no-huddle attack that befuddles opponents with its tempo and balance. Baltimore's offense has slumped in recent weeks, but the combination of a hard-nosed runner, a pinpoint deep-ball thrower and talented pass-catchers (Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith) could propel the Ravens on a deep run through a weak AFC.
9. Green Bay Packers
Why they're legitimate contenders: The presence of the reigning league MVP, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, makes the Packers a threat in the NFC despite a host of injuries that have diluted the potency of one of the NFL's most explosive offenses. Rodgers has been on fire since Week 4, passing for 22 touchdowns while giving up just three interceptions in six games. Those numbers are especially remarkable when one factors in injuries to Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson on the perimeter, as well as the lack of a credible running game, with Cedric Benson on the sideline. The trio is set to return at some point this season, and Rodgers' sensational play should continue down the stretch, making the Packers' offense a scary unit to face in the postseason.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers
Why they're legitimate contenders: The Steelers are always a threat to take the crown, thanks to a defense that pummels quarterbacks the pocket. This season, however, the Steelers' revamped offense will make them a tougher out down the stretch. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley has helped Ben Roethlisberger become an efficient "dink and dunk" playmaker, and as a result, he's been taking fewer hits in the pocket. Pittsburgh has also rediscovered a power running game behind Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman. The Steelers can play "big boy" football against anyone, including the heavyweights in the NFC, and it's hard to discount their chances of winning the title.
7. New England Patriots
Why they're legitimate contenders: Tom Brady gives the Patriots a chance to win every game with his exceptional play from the pocket. He rarely puts his team in bad situations by making poor decisions; his ability to avoid turnovers allows the Patriots to operate at a high level, regardless of their opponent. New England has also added passing weapons (Brandon Lloyd) and developed a power running game behind Stevan Ridley, creating a diverse, balanced attack that will take the pressure off Brady in the pocket and make for more big-play opportunities. Their leaky defense remains a concern, but the fact that they can put 30-plus points on the board against anyone should make them tough to beat in the postseason.
6. New York Giants
Why they're legitimate contenders: The Giants are maddeningly inconsistent during the regular season, but no team rallies down the stretch like Tom Coughlin's troops. The core of the roster has won two titles in five seasons; these players understand what it takes to win in the postseason. Quarterback Eli Manning has developed into one of the best performers in the clutch, which is imperative when it comes to winning tightly contested playoff games. With their experience and their quarterback, the Giants will be undaunted by any situation or circumstance, making them the favorites to come out of the NFC.
5. Atlanta Falcons
Why they're legitimate contenders: The Falcons are the NFL's only unbeaten team, but observers have been reluctant to jump on the bandwagon due to concerns about how they'll perform in the postseason. Atlanta hasn't won a playoff game in the Mike Smith era, and no one is sure how the Falcons will respond when the pressure rises in January. Those concerns are legitimate, but there's something different about this year's team: the continued development of Matt Ryan, who is playing at an MVP level. He has four game-winning drives, suggesting he has the moxie to lead the Falcons to big wins when the stakes are high.
4. Denver Broncos
Why they're legitimate contenders: John Elway gambled by banking that Peyton Manning would return to the ranks of the elite after missing an entire season following multiple neck surgeries, and he won big. The four-time MVP has been outstanding over the first half of the year; Manning's ability to dramatically improve the Broncos' offense has made them a serious contender in the AFC. The veteran quarterback is in the midst of a sizzling run, notching 17 touchdowns while giving up just three interceptions over the past six games. Most importantly, he's orchestrated several improbable comebacks that have created an incredible resolve in the Broncos, who now believe no deficit is too big to overcome. Given their confidence and offensive prowess, the Broncos are destined to be in the mix at the end.
3. Houston Texans
Why they're legitimate contenders: The Texans are the most complete team in the AFC. They have an explosive offense led by quarterback Matt Schaub and running back Arian Foster and a stingy defense that is peaking behind the rapid development of J.J. Watt. Losing linebacker Brian Cushing will certainly impact the Texans' ability to get after pass-happy offenses with the blitz, but otherwise, they haven't skipped a beat without their defensive leader, and that should be a scary thought for future opponents. If the Texans can win home-field advantage and ensure themselves multiple games in front of their boisterous fans, they'll have the inside track on making their first Super Bowl appearance.
2. San Francisco 49ers
Why they're legitimate contenders: Jim Harbaugh has built a team that is ideally suited for postseason play. The 49ers' smash-mouth offense can move the ball through the air or on the ground, and their suffocating defense knocks opponents around at the point of attack. Some question Alex Smith's ability to thrive in a situation that demands precise passing, but his consistency and effectiveness in Harbaugh's system suggest he'll be fine when the chips are pushed to the middle of the table. Adding Randy Moss and Mario Manningham gave Smith more weapons on the perimeter, and the 49ers have turned their biggest offensive weakness into a strength that just might propel them into the Winner's Circle.
1. Chicago Bears
Why they're legitimate contenders: The Bears are the front-runners in the NFC due to a prolific defense that scores points at will. The unit has posted seven return touchdowns and seems to generate turnovers by the bushel. Few opponents can match the Bears' physicality and toughness; any game against Lovie Smith's squad is destined to turn into a bar fight that tests the mettle of all involved. Offensively, the connection between quarterback Jay Cutler and receiver Brandon Marshall has added a new dynamic to a unit that also torments opponents with the talents of Matt Forte in the backfield. The leaky offensive line could derail the Bears' title hopes, but Chicago's overall balance and versatility make them the team to beat in 2012.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks