By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) The balance of power clearly has an NFC tilt to it.
There appears to be two super teams in the NFL, and the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks both reside in the NFC West. If either one of those teams is not going to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, the likely candidates to keep them out are Atlanta Falcons (too chokey), the Green Bay Packers (yawn) and the N.Y. Giants (not this time).
But if you look at the other side of the Super Bowl equation, the AFC cupboard appears to be bare.
While the AFC’s Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl last year in an epic battle with the 49ers, there is only one strong AFC team that appears to be climbing as the 2013 season starts. That’s the Bears’ Week 1 opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals.
The rest of the AFC’s upper-level teams are either stagnant or on the way down. A couple of poor teams like the Cleveland Browns and the Kansas City Chiefs, may be a bit better, but they are nowhere near contenders this season.
The Bengals appear to have the look of a team that could be the best in the AFC by the time the season ends. They have a rising quarterback in Andy Dalton and an elite receiver in A.J. Green. They get enough from the ground game to keep opposing defenses honest and the offensive line is dependable.
On the other side of the ball, they have the best defensive tackle duo in Geno Atkins and Domata Peko. Atkins is the superstar, but Peko is solid on his own and a perfect complement. James Harrison will give this unit the extra nastiness that has been missing. The secondary has the talent in Leon Hall, Terence Newman and hard-hitting Reggie Nelson, but still need some improvement.
The Bengals are a legitimate Super Bowl team because they are a dangerous team that is getting better.
The Houston Texans are also somewhat dangerous, but they are stagnant. They have a fine offensive trio in Matt Schaub, Arian Foster and Andre Johnson, but they have been together for years and they have not been able to break through in the postseason. For all of Schaub’s accuracy, his confidence does not appear to be at a championship level in big games.
Defensively, the Texans have J.J. Watt to set the tone and he’s formidable. The return of Brian Cushing helps the linebackers and ex-Bear Danieal Manning has come into his own. But when the Texans play good offensive teams, they lose their traction. They gave up 25 points or more seven times last year.
Many like the Patriots and Broncos to make a Super Bowl run. While both teams play in weak divisions, they both have problems.
It’s easy to glorify the Patriots with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, but the team no longer has its best receiver Wes Welker, and tight end Rob Gronkowski is a superstar waiting for his next injury. The defense is not as bad as it once was, but they are not going to stop good teams at crucial moments. Certainly not on an every-week basis.
Peyton Manning is not a championship quarterback any longer. He has the smarts and the desire, but he no longer has the arm. He can’t zip the ball with sufficient velocity.
Both of those teams are likely to run away with their divisions, but neither one is the real deal.
Could a team like the Indianapolis Colts surprise? They have the ability to get back to the playoffs once again, but second-year quarterback Andrew Luck still has much progress to make before that team can be considered a legitimate Super Bowl threat. Additionally, the defense may play with enthusiasm but it lacks talent.
The Colts are not ready for prime time.
The defending Super Bowl champions are going through a makeover of their own. Not only are defensive mainstays Ray Lewis and Ed Reed out of the picture, Super Bowl hero Anquan Boldin is playing for the Niners. Tight end Dennis Pitta (dislocated and fractured hip) is out for the season.
They won’t contend and neither will the Pittsburgh Steelers.
At the end of the season, the Bengals will show up at snowy MetLife Stadium in New Jersey and attempt to put up a fight against the Seahawks. But the Seahawks will have grown throughout the season from the upper-level competition they have faced.
The AFC representative won’t have a chance this year.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.