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first_imgNow that Week 9 is in the books, it’s time to assess who the legitimate Super Bowl contenders are in each conference, what they bring to the table and their most important remaining games. AFC San Francisco 49ers The Patriots were convincingly defeated Week 9. The team traveled to Baltimore only to let Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson run all over them and hang 37 points on a defense which many thought was on track to be the greatest ever. Despite the rough showing, the Pats still lead the AFC with an 8-1 record and will almost certainly be one of the two teams to earn a first-round bye.  The team’s remaining schedule includes two games against the Panthers — whose fate likely rests on currently-injured quarterback Cam Newton — and home games against the 49ers and Colts in consecutive weeks. It appears highly unlikely the Saints lose their grip on the NFC South. Looking at the bigger picture in the NFC, it looks as though the winner of the Saints-49ers Week 14 game could claim the No. 1 seed, home-field advantage in the playoffs and the best shot at the Super Bowl. The 49ers are the last undefeated team in the league this season, a remarkable feat regardless of schedule. They’ve won in the mud at Washington and blown out a solid Panthers team. Their best unit is their defense, led by defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, cornerback Richard Sherman and a loaded line. However, they lost star linebacker Kwon Alexander to a season-ending injury in last week’s win over the Cardinals. The 49ers’ offense has also been exceptional, with head coach Kyle Shanahan at the helm of a potent rushing attack. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo had yet to show out this season until he carried the team against the Cardinals with 317 yards and four passing touchdowns. Their recent trade acquisition wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders has already had a massive impact and will likely remain a threat to opposing defenses despite suffering a torn Achilles last December. Baltimore Ravens While quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ knee injury continues to loom over the team, wide receiver Tyreek Hill and running back Damien Williams were able to put the team on their backs for a surprising win at Minnesota in Week 9. Once Mahomes does come back, this offense could be a force to be reckoned with. Their toughest remaining matchups are at New England and Chicago, especially since they both figure to be cold-weather games where the Chiefs’ dynamic passing game may be limited. The rest of the AFC West poses a very minimal threat to the Chiefs, so they will likely end up hosting a playoff game. Whether they get a first-round bye could come down to their tiebreaker over Baltimore by virtue of a head-to-head win in Week 4. New England Patriots The Ravens’ Week 4 loss to the Browns is looking worse with each passing week, though, as the Browns continue to lay one dud after another. Baltimore will have to prove it can back up its win against New England in its remaining games against Houston, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco and Buffalo. This four-game stretch will tell us much more about what to expect from the Ravens come January.  NFC The biggest question for the Saints is how big of a step forward the offense will take now that Brees is back. The formula for winning with Bridgewater will not be as reliable when they face better teams in the playoffs, so Brees will have to prove he is still on his A-game before I feel comfortable concluding the Saints are at the heart of the Super Bowl race. The story of the season for the Saints has been an incredible 5-0 run while future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees was out with a thumb injury. Stellar play from the defense and special teams allowed backup Teddy Bridgewater to play with a lead in most games. The 49ers have a daunting second-half schedule after their stroll to 8-0. They have two games left against the Seahawks and two tough road bouts at Baltimore and New Orleans before taking on the Rams again in Week 16. Coming off the franchise’s biggest win in a few seasons against the Patriots, the Ravens have firmly entrenched themselves as a Super Bowl threat in the AFC. Their offense is the best run-first offense in the league with the threats posed by Jackson, who leads the team in rushing yards over Pro-Bowl running back Mark Ingram. It’s also important not to undersell Jackson’s abilities throwing the ball, as he’s well above the league average in yards per attempt and passer rating. Kansas City Chiefs New Orleans Saints Dario Offstein is a junior writing about sports. His column, “Deep Dive,” runs every other Tuesday.last_img read more

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