Hub Arkush: Super Bowl now a five-horse race?

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CHICAGO — With six weeks remaining in the 2017 NFL season, it’s time to get serious about who’s for real, who the pretenders are and which clubs we should really start to focus on as having a legitimate shot at showing up in Minneapolis in February with a chance to be Super. What got me thinking about this was a quick look back I took at where we were about 4-5 weeks ago and the realization that the landscape has really changed in a very short time.

Remember when the Kansas City Chiefs were 5-0 and sitting atop our PFW Power Rankings? How about when Buffalo was 5-2? Or when Dallas was 5-3, streaking and it looked like Zeke Elliott might play out the year? Denver, recall, jumped out to a 3-1 start, just before the Packers were 4-1 and Miami had fought its way back to 4-2. Seattle was coming on strong, and not too long ago we still thought the Raiders might have a run in them.

All of that has changed, and one of the few givens we still have in the National Football League is that the teams that are hot heading into and throughout December are the teams to watch when the tournament starts.

So here are the latest trends. The two best teams in the league might both be in the AFC, but the NFC is by far the superior conference this year.

While the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers are clearly Super Bowl contenders and the two very heavy favorites to emerge from the AFC, right now AFC wild-card contenders include the 6-4 Titans, the second spot would go to either the 5-5 Ravens or 5-5 Bills, and at 4-6, Jets, Dolphins, Bengals, Texans, Chargers and Raiders are all legitimate threats.

It’s an unfortunate comment on the state of the AFC right now.

What is particularly unimpressive about this AFC motley crew is, other than the Titans — who had won four straight prior to getting pounded by the Steelers last Thursday night — there’s no way to argue any of those clubs are trending in a positive direction.

The Chiefs are still solid favorites to win the West. But after dropped four of five including a pathetic effort Sunday at the Giants coming off their bye, when prior Andy Reid-coached teams had been 16-2, they can’t be taken seriously any longer. While the Jaguars are an impressive 7-3, does anyone really see Blake Bortles beating the Pats or Steelers in the playoffs?

It’s hard to imagine the Week 15 meeting in Pittsburgh between the Steelers and Patriots not being a preview of the AFC title game.

In the NFC, the Eagles, Saints, Panthers, Vikings and Rams are all still teams to be taken very seriously — with only the Seahawks and Falcons appearing to have realistic hopes of knocking one of them out of a playoff spot.

The Lions and Cowboys can still argue the math but their obvious flaws make them more likely imposters than imposing.

And while the Seahawks and Falcons are dangerous birds, there is clearly some mojo missing in Atlanta, and does anyone really see the Seahawks hanging on with that offensive line and both Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor done for the year?

As impressive as the Rams are, it was just this past weekend the Vikings put them in their place, leaving Philly, New Orleans, Minnesota and Carolina in the hunt for top seeds.

The Panthers are the toughest of any of our top teams to figure, with their only losses to the Saints early in the season, to the Eagles in what was probably Philly’s toughest test to date and to the lowly Bears, but it is becoming clearer each week that Philadelphia, New Orleans and Minnesota are the cream of the NFC Crop.

It seems highly unlikely based on the last decade or more of results that with six weeks still to play there are only five teams in the league with a chance to get to the Super Bowl.

But if there is a club out there other than the Patriots, Steelers, Eagles, Saints or Vikings consistently playing well enough to have a chance of getting to LII, I am hard-pressed to see who it would be.

Pro Football Weekly