There are no more mysteries in the 2014 NFL season. The elite teams have identified themselves, while the pretenders have been exposed.
The regular season has seen the defending champion Seattle Seahawks go through midseason difficulties, but they have re-emerged at the most important time of the year as middle linebacker Bobby Wagner has returned to the lineup and Russell Wilson has asserted himself again.
The Green Bay Packers have been moving steadily forward since their season-opening beat down at the hands of the Seahawks, and they are the most dangerous offensive team in the league with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback and his 1-2 WR punch of Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb.
The New England Patriots are the class of the AFC because they hammered the Denver Broncos and they have built a hard-hitting, physical defense to go along with a relentless offense that features Tom Brady’s accuracy and the big-play factor of Rob Gronkowski.
These are the three best teams in the NFL, and it would be a big surprise if one of them did not win the Super Bowl in Glendale, Arizona on Feb. 1.
The other contenders and playoff participants are all flawed or questionable, even the Denver Broncos. Peyton Manning has been relying on his running game in recent weeks, and you have to wonder if he is still capable of carrying the Denver offense on his shoulders. Manning has averaged 177 passing yards over the last two games with two TDs and two interceptions. More than one scout has said that Manning’s throws have lacked sufficient velocity in recent weeks.
Manning has proven critics wrong in the past, but it’s hard to look at them as a team that can beat the Patriots on the road.
The Eagles have been exposed by the Packers and the Seahawks, and Chip Kelly just may not be as smart as he wants you to think he is.
But there’s one team that has a chance to emerge when the playoffs get underway. They still have to earn a spot and it could be as AFC North champions if they get there. If the Pittsburgh Steelers are in the AFC playoffs, they will be the team nobody wants to play.
The Steelers are dangerous in a way they have never been before. The classic Steelers teams of the past would destroy opponents with a defense that was nasty and physically intimidating.
As the years have gone by and the rules have changed to favor the offense, the Steelers changed with the times. They remained committed to defense to an extent, but they realized that the way to win in the modern NFL was through the passing game.
Roethlisberger is healthier at this point in the season than he has been in recent years because he has not had to take as much physical abuse. The offensive line is doing a better job of protecting him, and he has responded with a brilliant season. Roethlisberger has thrown for 4,055 yards and he has a 29-8 TD-interception ratio. While that’s not quite Rodgers-like, it’s not bad.
One of the reasons that Roethlisberger has been able to stand and deliver has been the running of Bell, who has been a growing concern for opposing defenses since the start of the season. Bell can run inside or outside, and he has gained 1,231 yards while averaging 5.1 yards a carry. He has eight runs of 20 yards or more, and he has found the endzone five times.
Brown is a magical receiver who makes his cuts at near full-speed and might be the one big-play wideout who could get away from New England’s Darrelle Revis. Brown has caught 105-1,375-11, and opponents can do little to stop him because fellow receivers Martavis Bryant, Lance Moore, and Markus Wheaton are all capable of making big plays themselves. The Steelers are rich in explosive wideouts, and that could give them a legitimate chance come playoff time.
Can they beat the Patriots on the road in a key playoff game? The odds will be stacked against them and it will be a brutally difficult assignment. But as much as the Patriots have improved defensively, they couldn’t stop Rodgers in Week 13 and they will have a difficult time with Roethlisberger as well.
No team functions as well on the road as they do at home, and the Steelers are no exception. However, they won three road games prior to beating the Seahawks in the Super Bowl following the 2005 regular season, and they know that it can be done.
They have the weapons to cause problems for the Patriots and keep Bill Belichick up at night. The AFC appears to belong to New England, but the Steelers are going to have to be reckoned with before anything is decided.
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