Dominant Patriots separating from pack

Posted Dec. 14, 2010 @ 3:35 p.m.
Posted By Hub Arkush

It was just two weeks ago that I promised you in this space the games of Weeks 13 and 14 would give us some clarity as to what we really have in the NFL's 2010 season, and I think we all know now exactly what we have.

The New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints are the four best teams in the NFL, in that order. Short of a very strange turn of events, the Patriots and Steelers will be seeded No. 1 and No. 2 in the AFC playoffs, and that will set up perfectly for the conference's two best teams to meet in the AFC title game in New England.

The NFC is a bit more problematic. While I'm sure the Falcons and Saints are the top two teams right now and will both be in the playoffs, and that the Falcons will be the No. 1 seed, I expect the Saints to lose two of their last three, and with the mess behind them in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and Green Bay, it's still impossible to project whom the Saints will have to go through to get to a title game, or who will have to go through Atlanta.

But at the moment, it's really all about the Patriots. Stacking 45-3 and 36-7 victories back-to-back over the New York Jets and Chicago Bears, two teams that were in "Top Gun" contention heading into the Weeks 13-14 gauntlet, there is no doubt the Patriots are the cream of the crop. If you want to argue, take a look back four weeks ago to their rout of No. 2 Pittsburgh and consecutive 23-20 wins in Weeks Six and Seven over Baltimore and at San Diego, and then save your breath.

Tom Brady is playing at a level equal to or above his record-setting 2007, which was a 16-0, 50-TD-pass, MVP season. Add to that there is no team in the NFL that presents a defense with more weapons to defend than BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead, Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Brandon Tate, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and the fact that no coach in the NFL is in Bill Belichick's league when it comes to preparing his team for a specific opponent. The Patriots appear unstoppable.

Most impressive right now is that when they went to Pittsburgh in Week 10, they were just outscoring people. What's happened over the last month is the defense, which features significant contributions from as many as eight different rookies, has improved by leaps and bounds. Both the Jets' and Bears' offenses have been suspect at various times, but they've both been good enough to win nine games, and the Pats held them to a combined 10 points.

Much like the Patriots are the best team in the NFL, the Steelers' defense is far and away the best in the league at what it does. It's more than just ranking first vs. the run, fourth in average gain yielded per pass play and second in points allowed. In their Week 14 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, whose own defense has been challenged all year and is 28th in the NFL in points allowed, the "Steel Curtain" "D" outscored its own offense 14-9 in the 23-7 victory.

Everything you need to know about Atlanta is that, over the last three seasons, they're 19-1 at home with Matt Ryan at QB, and "Matty Ice" isn't going anywhere. Michael Turner will be heading to the Pro Bowl again, Roddy White is the leading receiver in the game and the defense, while not flashy, has been surprisingly stout and is actually seventh in the league in points allowed. If they don't lose at home, and they're the No. 1 seed in the NFC, what is going to keep them out of the Super Bowl?

On the other side of the ledger, the Jets and Bears have been exposed as pretenders, nice teams but works in progress that won't fit at playoff time. The Eagles and Giants need to get healthy before they receive their final grades, and Joe Flacco  doesn't appear ready at QB to win big games for Baltimore. And the one team that might scare the big boys at playoff time, San Diego, still needs a lot of help just to make the playoffs.

The way the Patriots are playing right now, perhaps nothing else matters anyway.