Four teams are true title contenders

The National Football League regular season is three-quarters toast, 75 percent for those of you who are fractionally challenged.

Here’s the reality: There are four teams that can win the Super Bowl, maybe six if you want to factor in a couple of Baltimore Raven-like underdogs.

In the AFC, the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots are head and shoulders above the rest. A third team that stands a slim chance is the Cincinnati Bengals.

In the NFC, the Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints, two teams that squared off Monday night in Seattle, are in the front row, with the San Francisco 49ers just behind.

That’s it. No other team stands a chance.

Several might want to argue, maybe the fine folks from Kansas City, maybe someone from Carolina, Dallas or Philadelphia, but those teams don’t have enough to make their way through the playoff minefield, then win a game in New York City in February.

If the playoffs were to start today, Denver (10-2) holds the AFC’s top seed, home-field advantage through the playoffs and a first-round bye. New England (9-3) also has that first-round bye.

First-round wild-card games in the AFC would have sixth-seeded Baltimore (6-6) at third-seeded Indy (8-4) and fourth-seeded Cincinnati (8-4) hosting the fifth-seeded Chiefs (9-3).

In the NFC, Seattle (11-1 after Monday night) and New Orleans (9-3 after losing to Seattle) are the top two seeds.

Third-seeded Detroit (7-5) would host sixth-seeded San Francisco (8-4) and fourth-seeded Dallas (7-5) would host fifth-seeded Carolina (9-3).

That’s the here and now of it.

The Broncos are once again in control of their own destiny, in danger only of falling asleep at the wheel, as has happened as recently as last season.

Several things will keep that from happening:

First, it is nice to know the Broncos’ brass pays attention to me. Last week after a loss at New England, I suggested a certain quarterback needs go downfield more often with his passes.

Voila!

Four touchdowns to Eric Decker, another huge deep strike to Demaryius Thomas, and Peyton Manning and his crew are back on track offensively — another 400-plus passing day for Manning, another five TD passes, and all is well with the offense.

Next, how about a plug for the defense?

Although Denver did give up more than 400 yards to the Chiefs, the defenders rose to the occasion just often enough. They stopped Alex Smith and the K.C. offense on five straight series in the second half, allowing them to take a two-touchdown lead.

Wesley Woodyard came up with a key interception in the end zone on Kansas City’s first drive of the game, and safety Mike Adams made a big fourth-down play in the end zone in the final minute.

Denver’s defense doesn’t have to be the best in the game; it just has to come up with a stop every now and then.

Here’s another reason the Broncos are going to be just fine, thank you: They have survived a massive dose of misfortune on the health and wellness front.

The head coach, for crying out loud, had heart surgery just more than a month ago. However, John Fox is back at work and that will ease the strain on Jack Del Rio and the rest of the staff. Fox does the dirty work when it comes to management and is a steadying influence in the locker room and on the sideline.

Del Rio can now go back to what he is very good at — scheming. And that will be necessary with three defensive starters down, Kevin Vickerson and Derek Wolfe on the line, Rahim Moore in the backfield.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the team’s best one-on-one defender, missed the second half of the New England game and was held out in Kansas City. He was sorely missed, but will be back and immediately clamp down on the opposition’s top receiver.

Champ Bailey is also back on the field, and, although not his old self, will do nothing but get better as the season winds down. He, Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris, playing at a Pro Bowl level defending in the slot, bode well for Denver’s defense down the stretch.

Yes, the bandwagon has arrived and is loading.

Now, it becomes a matter of navigating a few bumps in the road on the way to the Super Bowl.


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