Contenders or Pretenders, Volume I

A lot's happened so far this football season. The Titans have dominated everyone (except the Jets, which isn't weird at all) with Kerry Collins, the Falcons and Ravens are in the hunt with rookie QBs, and the Giants are the first team in what seems like forever to not have a year-after-the-Superbowl hangover. While a few playoff spots are clinched, most are still up for grabs. So, three weeks from the playoffs, who's a contender, and who's just pretending?

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Baltimore Ravens - Contender
They don't score enough on offense - a disproportionate amount of their points comes from defensive touchdowns, gadget plays, and Ed Reed - but you can't underestimate their toughness. Ray Lewis, as we've stated before, is as much of a workout freak as any linebacker in football, and he's likely played well enough this year to guarantee himself a shiny new contract after the season. With him anchoring the defense, and Reed ball-hawking in the secondary, they're going to be tough in the cold. And Joe Flacco's been okay, and he's confident, so look for him to keep them pointed in the right direction, rather than making mistakes to cost them big games. I still don't like them against Pittsburgh this week, but I think they're going to make the playoffs.

Denver Broncos - Pretender
Here's a weird one. They're a pretender who's going to make the playoffs. Barring a complete collapse - I believe they'd have to lose the rest of their games and San Diego would have to win the rest of their games - the Broncos will win the AFC West. Amazing, sort of. They light it up through the air when Jay Cutler's on, and they found a real gem with Eddie Royal, but they can't stop anyone. Of the following teams, who is going to lose to the Broncos in the playoffs: Indy, Pittsburgh, Pats/Jets/Fins, Titans, Ravens?

Answer: None of them.

Atlanta Falcons - Contender
This is the craziest story of the year, by far. People quickly forget just how bad things were in Atlanta last year. They lost their identity, basically, and were almost considered an expansion team after the whole Vick thing unfolded. Now check them out: Matt Ryan has turned out to be the real deal (he's single-handedly responsible for thrusting me into my fantasy football playoffs this year), and they have arguably the best running back in football, Michael Turner. And with a rookie head coach, not only are they competitive, they're in the running to make the playoffs. Carolina's going to win that division, but since the Falcons can run the ball 35, 40 times a game if need be, and since Matt Ryan is more a rookie Roethlisberger than a rookie Eli, they'll be right there.

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