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Packers, Saints class of NFL field
Tuesday, December 06, 2011

NEW YORK -- The NFL has reached the quarter pole with its share of thoroughbreds. And its share of pretenders.

With four weeks remaining, the Packers, 49ers and Saints have separated themselves in the NFC, and perhaps in the entire league.

Green Bay and San Francisco already have secured division titles, and New Orleans is almost there.

The elite of the AFC, while not quite so accomplished, are the Ravens, Steelers, Patriots and Texans.

In the middle is a muddle: all kinds of teams with all kinds of strengths -- and weaknesses.

Nine teams sit at 7-5, and one (Giants) at 6-6. All are in the mix to win their division or grab a wild-card spot. Most, if not all of them, are not legitimate championship contenders.

Heading down the stretch, here's who has a shot at making the postseason and doing some damage there:

• The Packers lead the list, naturally, just as they lead the standings at 12-0 and seem headed for an undefeated regular season -- if they decide to chase it. Aaron Rodgers is in the midst of one of the greatest years for any NFL player, quarterback or otherwise. The offense is so dynamic the Packers can outscore the mistakes of their gambling defense, which makes a bunch of them.

• Two years ago, it was New Orleans leading the charmed life. Drew Brees has an even deeper, more dangerous receiving corps and backfield than in 2009, and while the Saints also have issues on defense, they, too, can outscore them. Plus, the Saints understand the pressures of chasing a championship.

• The 49ers have become one of the NFL's surprise success stories. Having clinched their first playoff berth since 2002, the 49ers have the kind of rugged, versatile defense that gives any team a chance.

• Four AFC teams are 9-3 and, barring collapses, are headed to the postseason. New England, Baltimore and the Steelers are the perennials, Houston the newcomer. Unlike the NFC's best, though, each carries some hefty question.

Ed Bouchette's blog on the Steelers and Gerry Dulac's Steelers chats are featured exclusively on PG+, a members-only web site from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Our introduction to PG+ gives you all the details.
First published on December 6, 2011 at 12:00 am