Contenders or Pretenders, Volume II

Last season, the New York Giants surprised a lot of folks by winning the Superbowl over the New England Patriots, so there's no reason to think this season couldn't have the same surprise and intrigue come playoff time. We continue our ongoing look at which teams are faking it, and which will be a tough out in January.

Carolina Panthers - Contender
D'Angelo Williams and rookie Jonathan Stewart are absolute beasts, bowling balls with legs that bounce off of would-be tacklers. They lead the strength of the team, the running game, and open up opposing defenses for play-action passes to one of the most underrated receivers in football, Steve Smith. Their defense is stacked, with first-time Pro Bowler and University of Miami product Jon Beason roaming the middle and freak of nature Julius Peppers on the D-Line. If they beat the Giants this week, they could earn themselves home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They've finished their regular season home schedule, and they're 8-0. So far.

Indianapolis Colts - Contender
This could be the scariest team in the AFC (besides Pittsburgh, who seems to never lose a close game). Peyton Manning is probably the MVP, so far, and there's still enough juice in Marvin Harrison to at least warrant coverage. There's too many weapons, too many Dallas Clarks, Reggie Waynes, too much experience, and too much of a sense of urgency for the Colts to not gel and continue their winning ways into the playoffs. They won the whole thing two years ago, and they're definitely the under-the-radar pick to go for two in three years.

New England Patriots - Pretender
There's plenty of people who want to anoint Matt Cassell the next big thing, and he's played admirably in Tom Brady's absence in Foxboro. But the Pats are on the outside of the playoffs looking in, and they'll need help to clinch a spot. If all three teams tied for first in the AFC East win this week, the Dolphins and the Jets will play next week to see who wins the division. And even if there's a flukey week (and it's not like we haven't had a lot of those this season...remember, Cleveland handed the Giants their first loss of the year) does anyone really think the Pats can go anywhere? Their defense is old and suspect, and there's not much of a running game to speak of. What's Welker going to catch, 110 balls? 115? It simply won't be enough in the end.

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