If you're anything at all like me, you went into the ninth week of the 2011 NFL season desperately in search of some clarity. Clearly the Green Bay Packers are the best team in the league right now, and the Colts, Dolphins, Broncos, Seahawks, Rams and Cardinals are road kill, but are there any legitimate threats to the Pack at the top?
Now I know a little bit more, and the clearest message I got was that the San Francisco 49ers are legitimate Super Bowl contenders. The NFC West is the worst division in football and maybe the worst we've seen in a decade or two, and the fact that the Niners have played only two teams with winning records to date — Cincinnati and Detroit — on their way to a 7-1 start is going to make the record look a little better than it really is. But move past that and consider the other facts.
San Francisco will have to hit a major slump to finish any worse than second in the NFC, with the Giants, Ravens and Steelers the only winning teams on their schedule the rest of the way, which means a week off and at least one home game in the playoffs. Jim Harbaugh is new and fresh and clearly still has plenty to learn, but he is also a really good football coach who already knows how to win and whose players love playing for him. And most importantly, these guys are loaded with talent!
Eleven of the 49ers' 22 starters are first-round draft choices, and seven — Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis, Braylon Edwards, Alex Smith, Justin Smith, Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner — were top-10 picks, with a ninth and a 10th, Anthony Davis and Patrick Willis, having been selected 11th in the first round. All in all, San Francisco has drafted 16 of its 22 starters and P Andy Lee (sixth round), who is among the NFL leaders in punting. The Niners are young but extremely talented. They learn more every week about both how to win and just how good they are, clearly are gaining confidence by the bucketful and may very well be headed for a classic NFC title matchup with Green Bay.
When the New York Jets stop talking and start playing, they actually can be a pretty good football team, and while I've suspected all along the Pats are still the club the Jets have to track down and the Bills are at least a year away, I think we can now say those are facts. What intrigues me most about the Jets is that although they're not as talented as the 49ers, you do have to wonder how good they'd be if head coach Rex Ryan would just tone it down a bit and spend a little more time on coaching of the time that he's currently spending by putting his foot in his mouth and then trying to get it out.
The Cincinnati Bengals are going nowhere fast in spite of their 6-2 start. Other than a tight win over the Bills, who proved this week they're not an upper-echelon team yet, and a close loss to the Niners, Cincinnati actually lost to the Broncos, and their other five wins are over Cleveland, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Seattle and Tennessee, with a combined record of 11-30. How much talent is on that Bengals roster, other than the obvious gifts of A.J. Green and an early nice-work-so-far-but-big-maybe on Andy Dalton? The only first-round picks of their own on the Bengals' roster, besides Green, are Jermaine Gresham, Andre Smith and Leon Hall. As real as the Niners appear to be, the Bengals are simply the product of decent coaching and a fluke of a schedule.
Beyond all that, I think we know now the New York Giants can be a pretty good football team if they just play other good teams, and the Packers' and 49ers' playoff opponents are going to come from a group including the Giants, Eagles, Saints, Falcons, Lions and Bears, with the Bears and Giants most likely the odd men out (although I am writing prior to the Bears-Eagles game). In the AFC, the Patriots will find themselves because they're the Patriots, and the Jets, Steelers, Ravens and Texans appear likely to join them in the AFC playoffs. I have no idea who will come out of the AFC West, nor do I think it matters, because I just don't see any of these clubs playing with the Packers.