Super Bowl XLV: Jets v Falcons?
The NFL‚Äôs website really is a model in what a modern sports league should offer its fans and among the many handy features is a playoff picture that shows exactly what the situation would be if the season ended now.
As it stands, the top team in the AFC is the 9-2 New York Jets while in the NFC, the Atlanta Falcons are in control with 9-2. Both teams are almost assured a place in the playoffs but have they got what it takes to go all the way to Dallas?
What tends to indicate they have an opportunity is that in a season full of surprises, the Jets and the Falcons each have one elusive ingredient which is absolutely essential to reaching the Super Bowl.
For the Jets, whose last four games have included two overtime wins on the road and a late, late game-winning touchdown at home to Houston, it is their uncanny ability to come out winners when staring defeat in the face that makes them a team that is so hard to bet against.
Combined with a road record of eight straight regular season wins, a quarterback in Mark Sanchez who is coming of age and a head coach, Rex Ryan, who clearly gets the very best out of his players, the New York team, beaten by the Colts in last season‚Äôs AFC Championship game, have good cause for their oft-declared confidence.
This Sunday‚Äôs big game against the Patriots will provide a very useful gauge as to whether those factors are now enough to deal with one of the league‚Äôs established powerhouses.
When you look at Atlanta, the one word that springs immediately to mind is completeness. The NFL is rightly proud of the unpredictability in the league but one of the reasons for this year‚Äôs particularly inconsistent performances is the amount of incomplete teams competing.
There are some strong defenses, some exciting offenses, some quality quarterbacks and powerful running backs. There aren‚Äôt many teams that manage to combine all those elements. What is striking about Atlanta is that they have that all-round consistency.
The Falcons have the top-rated wide receiver in the NFL in Roddy White with 1,066 yards, a top ten quarterback in Matt Ryan, a running back in Michael Turner who is ranked fifth in the league with 974 yards, one of the most consistent field goal kickers in Matt Bryant and a defense which, although not featuring high in the stat charts, has helped deliver results.
The Falcons face three road trips now ‚Äď Tampa, Carolina and Seattle before hosting the defending Super Bowl champions, the New Orleans Saints, on Dec. 27.
In those next four games we should learn a little more about whether Atlanta‚Äôs defense is up to the task needed to make an impact in the post-season, particularly in that encounter two days after Christmas.
Keep an eye on the Saints by the way ‚Äď- with running back Reggie Bush back from injury and the team on a four-game winning streak, they might just find that little extra that made the difference last year.
Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles along with the New York Giants also pose a threat in the NFC while on the other side of the bracket, the Baltimore Ravens are proof that a bone-crushing defense still gets you far in this league and Tom Brady and the Patriots have defied those who felt they were a fading force this year.
The Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning don‚Äôt feature on the playoff chart yet but it would be a fool who writes them off, even if there are real signs that the old aura around that team is starting to fade as the 36-14 loss to San Diego on Sunday illustrated.
Unnecessary Roughness is a weekly blog looking at the NFL from British-born, Miami-based sports reporter Simon Evans.