It pains me to profess a profound lack of faith in Andrew Luck's club, but the Colts beat up on weaklings and get bullied by the likes of the Patriots, Broncos and Steelers. Given the offensive line's blocking woes and the inability of Trent Richardson and an injured Reggie Wayne to make plays, it seems there is once again too much responsibility being placed on Luck's shoulders, causing him to force things. This team needs to lean more heavily on Boom Herron, Donte Moncrief and Dwayne Allen while shifting Richardson and Wayne into the shadows. I don't know if the Broncos are the "least convincing" double-digit-win team, but Peyton Manning's obvious recent physical struggles leave me unconvinced they've got a return visit to the Super Bowl in their short-term future. The glass half-full view of Denver's offense the past month goes like this: They're still winning games, and their emerging running game suits "playoff-style" football. The glass half-empty view: The running game is covering up Manning's diminishing ability to push the ball downfield.
The numbers reveal an inarguable decline. Manning posted a passer rating of 100 or better in six of Denver's first seven games this season, and he threw just three picks in that span. In the team's past seven contests, by contrast, Manning has topped the 100 mark just three times while throwing eight interceptions. Forget the stats, though, and just use your eyes: Manning's passes -- never confused for the tight spirals thrown by Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady -- are fluttering more than ever. On Sunday, Broncos receivers had to continually adjust to underthrown balls. And what about the mysterious illness (or was it a thigh injury) that led to the unthinkable (backup Brock Osweiler taking snaps!)? Point is, something's going on here ... and it doesn't look good.
One thing seems clear: If Peyton's gonna get a ring in the twilight of his career, he'll have to do it the same way his boss, John Elway, did: leaning on a once-unheralded running back. The least convincing team in this group is Detroit. As I wrote in Monday's Schein Nine, the Lions' most recent win was more about Minnesota blowing its chances at scoring an upset after taking a 14-0 lead. Detroit is certainly solid in every phase, but you can find better passing attacks, run games and defenses. Matthew Stafford hasn't been great this year.
Give the Lions and Jim Caldwell credit for being tough and clutch. I just don't think they're good enough to do damage in January. I don't think there's a team in this group that doesn't deserve to have double-digit wins, but there are two squads with major question marks: the Cardinals and Colts. Arizona's defense is excellent, and the Cards might have found a running back in Kerwynn Williams; the second-year pro has stepped up in the absence of Andre Ellington, posting 175 yards in the past two games at a clip of 5.1 yards per carry. The question is, can the Cardinals run and pass protect well enough to overcome the inexperience at the quarterback position? Third-stringer Ryan Lindley has not shown himself to be an accurate passer when he's played this year, including in his one preseason game (8 of 15 for 64 yards, zero touchdowns).
As for the Colts, their offense is very good over the air, but they have trouble both running and stopping the run. And then there's the fact that Indy is 2-4 against teams with winning records, with the defense spawning concern in especially troubling losses to Pittsburgh and New England. The schedule has helped Andrew Luck and Co. Detroit has been especially unimpressive for a team that appears to be a lock for at least 11 wins. Yes, the Lions have the second-best defense in the league, but this squad simply has not overwhelmed its opponents. Consider last week's win over the Vikings, which hinged on crucial missed field-goal attempts by Minnesota. I don't feel great about the Lions heading into the playoffs, perhaps because they've disappointed before.
That said, Detroit should beat the Bears in Chicago on Sunday, especially if the home team plays like it did Monday night, though it will be interesting to see if the Lions can handle their first true cold-weather outdoor contest of the season.