Picking the best is as easy as AFC

The AFC is going to win the Super Bowl, that much we know. If Miami can beat the Bears in Chicago by 18 points ... and New England can beat the Bears despite five turnovers ... and Tennessee can rally from a 21-0 fourth-quarter deficit to defeat the New York Giants ... and the AFC North can come within six Cleveland Browns points of sweeping New Orleans, then the AFC looks like a lock to win its sixth Super Bowl in seven seasons.

The only question is, which AFC team will it be?

Baltimore is 9-2 after a 27-0 rout of the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers, a result that seemed to represent the changing of the guards as they hand off the baton and pass the torch that lights the dawning of a new era.

Or something like that.

San Diego is also 9-2 after spotting Oakland a 14-7 lead, then riding a pair of LTDs -- new shorthand for LaDainian Tomlinson-influenced touchdowns -- for a 21-14 victory.

New England is 8-3 after handing the ball five times to Chicago on turnovers -- three times inside the Bears' 15-yard line -- and still winning, 17-13.

If Chicago is the best team in the NFC, then the NFC had best start looking ahead to September 2007. The Bears are 7-0 against conference rivals but an unimpressive 2-2 against the AFC East. Chicago lost at home to Miami, 31-13, and lost at New England one week after taking a 3-0 lead over the New York Jets into the fourth quarter. The Bears eventually left New Jersey with an uninspiring, unconvincing 10-0 triumph.

The Titans over the Giants?

That was the question before kickoff, taken off the board after the third quarter, then raised again, doubt morphing quickly into sheer disbelief, as the Giants took a 21-0 lead into the fourth quarter and lost, 24-21, to a team that began Sunday tied for the AFC's second-worst record.

The Vince Young who tore through the Giants for a touchdown run and two touchdown passes in the final 9:35 looked hauntingly familiar, especially in this time zone, reprising the Rose Bowl role that turned USC defenders into shuddering, backpedaling, missed-tackle dummies.

It was the NFL's biggest fourth-quarter comeback by a rookie quarterback and the biggest fourth-quarter comeback in Titans history, besting the 15-point rally against Cincinnati in 1987 that predated the Titans, back when the franchise was known as the Houston Oilers.

Again, an Eli Manning interception got the snowball rolling against the Giants. New York led, 21-0, with less than 13 minutes to go before "Pacman" Jones picked off a Manning pass, setting up Young's first scoring pass nine plays later.

At 21-21, Jones intercepted another Manning pass at midfield. With 23 seconds on the clock, Tennessee's Rob Bironas converted a 49-yard field goal, and the Giants, once 6-2, had lost their third straight, falling a game behind 7-4 Dallas in the NFC East standings.

Dallas, of course, muddies the AFC-Over-All theme, the Cowboys ending Indianapolis' undefeated season with a 21-14 triumph in Week 11. But that result, like ink blots or tea leaves, has been interpreted different ways by each conference.

NFC perspective: Hope at last!

AFC perspective: The monkey's off the Colts' backs! Without the pressure of having to win all their regular-season games, they are now freed to win all their postseason games!

Or something like that.

At the very least, the Colts were freed to resume beating up on onetime NFC contenders. Sunday, Indianapolis hammered Philadelphia, 45-21. The Eagles were playing without Donovan McNabb and lost for the fifth time in six games after opening the season 4-1.

How one-sided was it? The Colts, seriously concerned about their ability to run the ball during the AFC playoffs, gave the ball 24 times to rookie Joseph Addai against the Eagles. Addai began the game with three professional touchdowns. He now has seven, along with his first 171-yard rushing day in the NFL.

The league's top four teams -- Indianapolis, Baltimore, San Diego, New England -- reside in the AFC. Maybe the top five, or six, depending on how one feels about the Kansas City Chiefs after their Thanksgiving victory over Denver and the Broncos once they make their overdue move to Jay Cutler at quarterback.

The hottest teams in the NFL are the Ravens and Chargers, both on five-game winning streaks. This is notable in that Baltimore is 5-0 since Brian Billick took over play-calling duties -- Jim Fassel, obviously, was the problem -- and San Diego is on a 5-0 run with Marty Schottenheimer still as head coach.

Baltimore's 5-0 stretch includes victories over New Orleans and Atlanta (remember when they were NFC Super Bowl contenders?) and Cincinnati and Pittsburgh (remember when they were AFC Super Bowl contenders?). And none was more impressive than the 27-point triumph over the Steelers, considering the game realistically represented the last gasp for the reigning champions.

Pittsburgh lost six of it first eight games, a wasted half-season written off under the heading, "The Trials and Travails of Poor Ben Roethlisberger." Then, a two-week hiccup of life -- consecutive victories over New Orleans and Cleveland.

Heading into Baltimore, the '06 Steelers were beginning to recall the '05 Steelers, who were 7-5 and proceeded to run the table.

The Ravens, however, toppled the table and pulled the Steelers' chairs out from under them. They sacked Roethlisberger nine times, tying a team record, and dealt Pittsburgh its worst defeat in nine years. They also picked off a pair of passes, continuing a league-wide trend that explains why Pittsburgh is 4-7.

In 10 appearances this season, Roethlisberger is averaging 1.9 interceptions per start.

The baton and the torch weren't the only things Roethlisberger passed to the Ravens on Sunday.



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