Nationals

Super Bowl favorites? All guesses are under review

201212021833668053398-p2.jpeg

Super Bowl favorites? All guesses are under review

Unless you're part of the Manning family and hoping for a hometown reunion with Eli, Peyton and their teams in New Orleans, there's little reason now to make Super Bowl reservations.

With a quarter of the schedule remaining, there's no way to pick a favorite for the Lombardi Trophy. Not even the two teams with 11-1 records, the Falcons and Texans, or Eli Manning's Giants or Peyton's Broncos.

While there has been significant separation between the haves and the have-nots in the NFL - three division races are over and only the NFC North has no odds-on choice among the undecided sectors - none of the top teams presents overwhelming credentials for winning it all.

Several teams are trending upward, most notably the Broncos with a seven-game winning streak and the Patriots, who always begin peaking in November and December. Atlanta just about has home-field advantage in the NFC, and Houston would pretty much secure it in the AFC if it wins at New England next Monday night.

So that makes them the top contenders, right?

Not necessarily.

``Well, there's different championships,'' Broncos coach John Fox said. ``Your division is obviously one, everybody aspires to be in the conference championship, but at the end of the day, everybody is looking for that world championship.

``It's a great accomplishment, a tribute to the staff and coaches in that locker room. They did a fantastic job. We still have a whole quarter of the season left. We'll see what happens.''

What has been happening in Denver is encouraging because the Broncos (9-3) have been winning in a variety of ways. Yes, Manning remains the key to a first Super Bowl trip since his current boss, John Elway, retired after the 1998 title season. Throughout his remarkable comeback year after missing 2011 because of neck surgery, Manning has become more comfortable and familiar with his targets, his blockers and his running backs. That bodes well for the winter rush toward the Big Easy.

So does having a solid, physically imposing defense with a dynamic, big-play leader (linebacker Von Miller) and other playmakers.

Throw in strong special teams and it's a nice mixture.

But the Broncos also are a developing team, a much improved one since the beginning of the season, yet still a work in progress. Getting that work done in the next two months could be a rush job.

New England was 5-3 in 2011, then won eight in a row, two playoff games at home, and lost to the Giants for the championship. The Patriots (9-3) are on another roll and it would surprise nobody if they run the table, even though they have Houston and San Francisco coming up.

Tom Brady, the only quarterback with 10 division crowns, is in the MVP conversation again. He has a formidable running game for once, and even with standout tight end Rob Gronkowski injured, Brady doesn't lack for receivers.

Any Patriots issues center on a defense that has been exceedingly inconsistent and, at times, patchwork. New England survived it a year ago, but the other AFC contenders generally are better offensively now than last season.

``As a coach I think we're always going to sit here and tell you that we're trying to improve every week and that's our goal,'' defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said, noting his units have gotten stingier. ``Certainly as the season goes on and people play together longer and are out there with each other longer then hopefully that's what's taking place.''

Houston revived its dominant, ball-hawking defense Sunday at Tennessee and has more balance than any AFC team. It also has little postseason experience, some injury concerns that have tested its depth and very little behind Andre Johnson at wide receiver. Defenses often can shut down one brilliant receiver in the playoffs with double and even triple coverage.

Baltimore (9-3) probably will hold on in the AFC North, but its warts have shown for a while, especially the last two weeks in a tight escape over San Diego and a home loss to undermanned Pittsburgh.

Many pegged San Francisco (8-3-1) as most likely to emerge from the NFC after the Niners manhandled the Bears and outplayed New Orleans with second-year QB Colin Kaepernick emerging. Then they stumbled against the Rams, a team that also outplayed the 49ers in a tie last month.

That powerhouse defense is impressive, but might not be enough to carry San Francisco all the way. Coach Jim Harbaugh has placed his chips on Kaepernick over Alex Smith, hoping the addition of big-play potential and fast feet will complement a nasty D.

With the road to the Super Bowl almost certainly heading through Atlanta, which is 6-0 at home, the Falcons might look like a good bet. Remember, however, that they went 13-3 and were the conference's top seed two years ago, yet went out meekly against Green Bay in their first playoff game.

Until QB Matt Ryan, coach Mike Smith and a previously questionable defense come through in the postseason, there will be serious doubts about the Falcons.

The Packers and Bears need to get healthy to have any shot, but instead they keep seeing more players head to the infirmary. Green Bay has enough passing offense, Chicago has enough rugged defense. As for their other units, who knows? Particularly with so many injuries.

That leaves the juicy prospect that if Peyton Manning can get there, younger brother Eli and the Giants will be waiting. The Giants sprang to life even later in 2011 - in the final two weeks of the season - and have the key elements every contender desires: a winner at quarterback, strong pass rushers, a variety of playmakers and experience.

Then again, with no clear favorites in what has been an unusual NFL season, leave open the unprecedented possibility of two wild-card teams making their way to the Superdome in February.

---

Online:http://pro32.ap.org/poll andhttp://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Quick Links

Max Scherzer, Sean Doolittle provide powerful voices during baseball’s search for answers

Max Scherzer, Sean Doolittle provide powerful voices during baseball’s search for answers

Sean Doolittle was willing to talk about it. The topic was union business. He’s focused, detailed and informed when any player-related financial topic is put in front of him. Being prepared is his process in general. Before Doolittle dispatches a thread of tweets, he reads multiple background sources, formulates his thoughts, looks for spaces that may lack clarity when dispatched in public.

On this particular topic, back in spring training when everything was more hopeful, he deferred. He asked if Max Scherzer had talked about the subject broached by a reporter. Told Scherzer had not, Doolittle said he would prefer to wait until Scherzer spoke. They had discussed the idea prior. So, they were working in tandem.

The pair has operated individually when addressing their personal performance or as team spokespeople when discussing the state of the Nationals. In this new setting, when a negotiating battle is underway between the union and league, and a pandemic has hurtled the sport into unprecedented territory, the two have become one of the most prominent duos in the league.

Scherzer dropped the largest statement of the negotiating period when he tweeted last week. A member of the union’s powerful eight-person executive subcommittee, and the best player among that group, Scherzer’s decree the players would not accept a further pay cut rattled the sport. An out-of-town announcer railed against the stance. The league received a large hint of the players’ coming counter-proposal. The union, through Scherzer’s rarely used social media account, had spoken.

CLICK HERE TO SUBSCRIBE TO THE NATIONALS TALK PODCAST

Days later, Doolittle countered his employer when tweeting about the Nationals players’ desire to step in and pay minor-league players in the organization. Doolittle’s Twitter account is often an outlet for his thoughts on topics from social justice to baseball matters to, of course, Star Wars. He uses the medium for consistent and steady interaction with the public. Scherzer operates differently. He stays off social media -- for the most part. He composed just four original tweets in the two years before delivering a missive via screenshot last week.

Soon, both will be gone. Doolittle is in the final year of his contract. Scherzer has one more year on his seven-year, $210 million deal which has evolved into a bargain framed by staggering figures.

Doolittle will be 34 years old on Sept. 26. Scherzer turns 36 years old on July 27th. Their statesmen positions in the game are likely to last beyond their playing careers. Doolittle will walk into a flood of post-career media offers. Scherzer’s future could include being the executive director of the MLBPA. He is the necessary blend of informed, passionate, and obstinate.

Both are voices to be heard in this climate. They understand the landscape in front of and behind them. Managing messages within the union and out in the public eye are divergent projects which simultaneously influence each other. Being the elders -- the viejos -- on the team brings a specific responsibility separate from overall union business. They need to be the house protectors then.

And know they are working in conjunction. An avenue over here for one, an avenue over there for another, making two of the most prominent local voices two of the most powerful across the sport.

Stay connected to the Capitals and Wizards with the MyTeams app. Click here to download for comprehensive coverage of your teams.

MORE NATIONALS NEWS:

Quick Links

Nats reverse plans after Doolittle statement, will pay minor leaguers full stipend

Nats reverse plans after Doolittle statement, will pay minor leaguers full stipend

The Nationals reversed course Monday when the organization decided it will pay minor-league players under contract the full $400 weekly stipend originally agreed to across Major League Baseball in late March.

The Nationals were one of a handful of teams to lower the weekly stipend for minor-league players. Their decision over the weekend was instantly criticized since the total savings was so low and minor-league players already operate with comparatively low incomes.

The optics were particularly bad during this time of economic downturn.

Sunday, Sean Doolittle tweeted that the major-league players in the organization would fill a financial gap created by ownership when it decided to reduce minor-league pay from $400 to $300.

CLICK HERE TO SUBSCRIBE TO THE NATIONALS TALK PODCAST

“After hearing that Nationals minor league players are facing additional pay cuts, the current members of the Washington Nationals Major League Baseball club will be coming together and committing funds to make whole the lost wages from their weekly stipends.

“All of us were minor leaguers at one point in our careers and we know how important the weekly stipends are for them and their families during these uncertain times.

“Minor leaguers are an essential part of our organization and they are bearing the heaviest burden of this situation as their season is likely to be cancelled. We recognize and want to stand with them and show our support.”

Monday, the organization lifted the small burden from the players and decided to fulfill the stipends until the end of June.

Stay connected to the Capitals and Wizards with the MyTeams app. Click here to download for comprehensive coverage of your teams.

MORE NATIONALS NEWS: