Super Bowl Contenders Feature a Changing of the Guard in the NFL

Alexander DiegelCorrespondent IIIOctober 3, 2011

ARLINGTON, TX - OCTOBER 02:  Calvin Johnson #81 of the Detroit Lions pulls in the game-winning touchdown against  Terence Newman #41 of the Dallas Cowboys at Cowboys Stadium on October 2, 2011 in Arlington, Texas. The Lions beat the Cowboys 34-30.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Through four weeks, this has been one of the strangest NFL seasons in recent memory. Your usual Super Bowl contenders are dropping game after game, while the lovable losers keep on winning.  

In the AFC, the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts have dominated the conference for the last decade on their way to six combined titles.

The Colts are winless without Peyton Manning, and may be the leaders in the Andrew Luck sweepstakes. No matter how many yards Tom Brady throws for, the Patriots cannot be taken seriously until the defense steps up. The Steelers are loaded with Pro Bowlers on both sides of the ball, but the offensive line is so bad it may trump all that talent and derail the season.

If you are looking for Super Bowl favorites in the AFC, you have to start with the Baltimore Ravens and San Diego Chargers. They have been to the playoffs year after year, but have continually fallen short to one of the big boys. Both teams made savvy moves in the offseason that may push them over the edge.

The Ravens brought in Pro Bowl linemen Andre Gurode and Bryant McKinnie, while the San Diego Chargers signed hard-hitting veteran Takeo Spikes (the Chargers also brought in former Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders, but he has already been placed on the IR).

The Chargers and Ravens may have the best combination of experience and 2011 production, but you cannot dismiss the Buffalo Bills or Houston Texans. A quarter of the way through the season the Bills lead a division that has been dominated by the Pats and New York Jets.

The Texans just took out the defending AFC Champion Steelers in a win that could be looked back on as the biggest in their franchise’s history. Houston has been hanging around for years but never beat a true power, including their narrow loss to the New Orleans Saints in Week 3.

The Tennessee Titans, Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns have all been competitive and have some serious potential for 2011 and the future.  

In the NFC, we need look no further than the Detroit Lions. Feel-good stories aside, the Lions may be the most complete team in the NFL outside of the defending champion (and NFC North rival) Green Bay Packers. Matt Stafford is finally healthy (knock on wood), while Calvin “Megatron” Johnson and Ndamakong “Chaos En” Suh may be the most unstoppable forces in the NFL.

In the NFC West, the San Francisco 49ers are an overtime loss from joining the Lions and Packers at 4-0. Quarterback Alex Smith is limiting the turnovers that have plagued his entire career as Smith led his team to a 20-point comeback win over perennial Super Bowl contenders in the Philadelphia Eagles.

The man taken first overall ahead of Aaron Rodgers threw for 291 yards against the vaunted Eagles’ secondary with two touchdowns and zero turnovers in what may have been the best game of his career. The 49ers have a strong defense and powerful running game. As long as Smith continues to play efficient football, the team could prove to be a tough out in the playoffs.

The NFL season has been full of comebacks and collapses. However, the biggest surprises could come in the playoffs when a slew of familiar faces are sitting at home, replaced by young and hungry squads eying Vince Lombardi’s trophy.