– By BARRY WILNER, AP Pro Football Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — The NFL has reached the quarter pole with its share of thoroughbreds. And its share of pretenders.
With four weeks remaining, the Packers, 49ers and Saints have separated themselves in the NFC, and perhaps in the entire league. Green Bay and San Francisco already have secured division titles, and New Orleans is almost there.
The elite of the AFC, while not quite so accomplished, are the Ravens, Steelers, Patriots and Texans.
In the middle is a muddle: all kinds of teams with all kinds of strengths — and weaknesses.
Nine teams sit at 7-5, and one (Giants) at 6-6. All are in the mix to either win their division or grab a wild-card spot.
Most, if not all of them, are not legitimate championship contenders, no matter how bravely they talk.
Such as what Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said after a 38-35 loss to Green Bay that was New York’s fourth straight.
“Hopefully something wakes us back up and lets us understand that we still have a great shot of getting to where we want to get if we come out with that intensity and come out with that passion and play like that every game, we aren’t going to lose a lot of games,” Tuck said.
Heading down the stretch, here’s who really has a shot at making the postseason and doing some damage there:
The Packers lead the list, naturally, just as they lead the standings at 12-0 and seem headed for an undefeated regular season — if they decide to chase it. Aaron Rodgers is in the midst of one of the greatest years for any NFL player, quarterback or otherwise. The offense is so dynamic the Packers can outscore the mistakes of their gambling defense, which makes a bunch of them.
Green Bay also has been through the crucible, having won the Super Bowl at the end of a six-game winning string to finish off the 2010 season.
“I think it helps to have done what we did last year,” receiver Greg Jennings said.
Two years ago, it was New Orleans leading the charmed life. Drew Brees has an even deeper, more dangerous receiving corps and backfield than in 2009, and while the Saints also have issues on defense, they, too, can outscore them.
Plus, the Saints understand the pressures of chasing a championship.
The 49ers most certainly don’t as they have become one of the NFL’s surprise success stories. Having clinched their first playoff berth since 2002, the Niners have the kind of rugged, versatile defense that gives any team a chance.
“It’s not a Hollywood team,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “It’s a blue-collar team.”
Four AFC teams are 9-3 and, barring collapses, are headed to the postseason. New England, Baltimore and Pittsburgh are the perennials, Houston the newcomer. Unlike the NFC’s best, though, each carries some hefty question marks.
As long as Tom Brady is slinging the ball and Bill Belichick is masterminding game plans, the Patriots can’t be discounted. Their defense, though, isn’t particularly reliable, with a secondary that makes big plays and gives them up, and a so-so pass rush. Plus, they have lost their last three postseason games, two at home. There’s no air of invincibility around them.
Nor is there one around AFC defending champion Pittsburgh, which must protect Ben Roethlisberger better and create more turnovers on defense. Still, the Steelers are coming on.
Baltimore might have the best balance of offense, defense and special teams in the AFC, with game-breakers (Ray Rice, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata) on both sides of the ball. If the Ravens have cured their tendency to play down to the level of the opposition and can get home-field advantage for the entire playoffs, they could be formidable.
Houston, closing in on its first playoff appearance in its 10th season, is using a rookie third-string quarterback and has been ravaged by injuries, yet has responded superbly. The Texans need to maintain their winning formula even without some key players, a difficult enough challenge in the regular season. The remaining schedule is not the most rugged with Cincinnati, Carolina, Indianapolis and Tennessee remaining.
Even with the enticing story they are writing with Tim Tebow, a forceful defense and some great clutch performances, it’s difficult to see the Broncos riding deep into the playoffs. Same for the Raiders, who are tied with Denver atop the AFC West but who have huge issues on defense and with penalties. One of them will win the division — their schedules are similar and they don’t meet again — and not much more.
Dallas can be dangerous in the NFC East, and also can be a flop, as it proved Sunday at Arizona and nearly did on Thanksgiving Day against Miami. You don’t face anyone on the Cardinals’ or Dolphins’ level in the playoffs.
The Cowboys might not even get out of the division if they don’t at least split with the Giants, who trail them by a game and have significant problems running the ball and covering the pass.
Cincinnati can’t beat any of the good teams on its schedule, Chicago is down to a backup quarterback and its key offensive player, RB Matt Forte, has an injured right knee. Undisciplined on the field, Detroit is in semi-free-fall.
The Jets won’t match their last two Januarys, in which they made the AFC title game, unless their defense tackles and covers better, their special teams hold onto the ball and they get a running game to take pressure off QB Mark Sanchez. Tennessee probably needs to beat New Orleans or Houston to grab a wild-card slot, but at least its best player, Chris Johnson, is hitting his peak and is capable of carrying the Titans higher than projected.
That leaves Atlanta, the one “outsider” with the best chance of having an impact in the final four weeks. For that to happen, the Falcons need to emulate their regular season of 2010, when they were the NFC’s top seed. And soon.
Coach Mike Smith expects it will happen.
“We have not played smart, we have not played consistent and I don’t believe we’ve played as focused as we need to be,” he said. “And I think that shows that during different parts of a football game, we’re hitting on all cylinders and then other times, we’re not. That’s something we’ve got to get fixed as a team and we’re going to do this thing together.”
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