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Sunday, December 17, 2017

Ranking the top 12 Super Bowl contenders

Ben Roethlisberger

As we move into the month of December and enter the final four games of the regular season, the leaders are starting to separate themselves from the rest of the NFL pack. We have a pretty good idea of who’s going to be in the playoffs. Now we have to start separating the legitimate Super Bowl contenders from the rest of the league.

Here are the top 12 contenders to bring home a Super Bowl title this NFL season.

12) Tennessee Titans

One can’t ignore the Titans, who have reeled off six wins in their last seven games. However, there are a few cautionary signs about them. Only one of the wins during their recent stretch — a 23-20 victory over the Baltimore Ravens — was over a potential playoff team. Their loss was a blowout defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers. For the season, they have allowed more points than they’ve scored, which may be representative of where they’re really at. Still, at 8-4 — and powered by a strong backfield pairing in DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry — they can’t be completely dismissed.

11) Baltimore Ravens

They say defense wins championships, and by that adage alone, the Ravens have to be considered. They have allowed the third-fewest points in the NFL, though they’ll likely feel the loss of cornerback Jimmy Smith. The Ravens will more or less go as far as quarterback Joe Flacco and the offense can take them. It’s worth noting that Flacco has been a Super Bowl winner, though he had more weapons around him at that point in his career. If they can get competent play from Flacco, they have a real chance to do damage. Their issue is they just have to score enough points.

10) Atlanta Falcons

It’s far too soon to dismiss the reigning NFC champions. The talent that nearly won this team a Super Bowl a year ago is still in place, even if they haven’t been quite as good this season. The combination of Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Devonta Freeman is an extremely dangerous three-pronged attack. The defense remains in the top half in terms of points per game allowed, though they could stand to be a little bit sharper. The trick will be beating elite teams; they’ve knocked off the Seattle Seahawks on the road, but the Minnesota Vikings, Carolina Panthers, and New England Patriots have all gotten the better of them this season. That will obviously have to change, especially in a loaded NFC South.

9) Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks were supposed to fade after losing Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor to season-ending injuries. Instead, they seem to have stabilized, and they delivered an emphatic 24-10 win over the Philadelphia Eagles to re-establish their credentials. Russell Wilson is playing great football, but the key will be ensuring that their injury-riddled defense keeps it together. After all, we didn’t even mention Cliff Avril’s injury. If they can continue to stand tall — and Bobby Wagner will do his best to make sure that happens — the Seahawks are a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

8) Jacksonville Jaguars

Speaking of mean defenses, the Jaguars are helping set the standard in that department. No team in the league has allowed fewer points than Jacksonville, which has been suffocating opponents all season. They even managed to pick off Ben Roethlisberger five times earlier in the season. Jacksonville’s quarterback play is the question. Blake Bortles has been less than convincing at QB. The Jags will have to lean on Leonard Fournette and hope Bortles can keep the mistakes to a minimum. If that happens, they have a real chance to go far in the postseason.

7) Carolina Panthers

This isn’t the same Carolina team as it was two years ago, but the talent is still there. Despite his inconsistency early in the season, Cam Newton is turning things around and has not thrown an interception in his last four games. The Panthers have wins at New England and against Atlanta, and there are a lot of playoff-tested guys on this team. Certain aspects have to be better — their tackling, in particular, was really bad against the New Orleans Saints. Ultimately, though, the game-changing talent is here. Consistency and living up to it will be key.

See Nos. 6-1 on Page 2

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