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Once struggling, NFL powers now surging into contention

Four off the floor, back in the hunt

Houston Texans running back Arian Foster runs with the ball during the third quarter against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday in Houston. The 6-1 Texans and 6-0 are the only teams in the league that have truly set themselves apart, record-wise.
Houston Texans running back Arian Foster runs with the ball during the third quarter against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday in Houston. The 6-1 Texans and 6-0 are the only teams in the league that have truly set themselves apart, record-wise.

For those fans who dived headfirst onto the panic button, displacing their Cheeseheads or Terrible Towels in the process, this might be a good time to re-evaluate your teams.

Break out the Mile High Salutes, too. Maybe even the Who Dats.

Closing in on the halfway mark of the NFL season, only two teams have broken free from the crowd: Atlanta and Houston. Climbing back into the pack is, well, the Pack; Green Bay is looking more like the offensive juggernaut many expected, scoring enough points to offset defensive woes.

Also emerging from early-season morass and chaos are the Steelers, who even when banged-up give full effort and, if they get healthier this year — a big if for an aging team in transition — could be a tough out.

As for the Broncos, whose early-season schedule was a gantlet of formidable opponents (24-14 combined record, including matchups with the Falcons and Texans), as Peyton Manning gets more comfortable in Denver, the opposition will get more fearful of what he can do to them.

The Saints make the least-convincing argument that they are ready to become a factor in the playoff race. Their two victories after four season-opening stumbles have been tight affairs against mediocre opponents. The holes on defense virtually guarantee there will be no Big Easy wins.

One thing all four clubs have in common that, in today's NFL often is a deciding factor: Super Bowl winners at quarterback.

Unquestionably, the team to fear among these four is Green Bay, even with defensive leader Charles Woodson sidelined for the next month or so.

"We'd also welcome any doubters or any naysayers to continue to say what they've been saying, because I think it's really brought us together the last couple of weeks," Aaron Rodgers said.

They'll need to keep doing so with both the Bears and Vikings looking strong in the NFC North. But having found a rhythm in the passing game, and if they can get steadier protection for Rodgers, the Packers (4-3) are capable of another championship run.

Ditto in Pittsburgh, although the challenge might be steeper for the Steelers (3-3).

No longer a run-first offense — injuries have played a big part — the Steelers need to solidify their blocking before they can think about a return to glory. Ben Roethlisberger can keep plays alive with the best of them, but any QB who gets hit as much as he does, even if he doesn't go down, will feel it as the schedule progresses.

What the Steelers have shown is tremendous resilience, however. They've discovered depth on offense and if they can do the same on defense, they can stick with the Ravens, who they play twice in three weeks later on.

"We're just trying to stack wins, that's what we do here," center Maurkice Pouncey said. "It's a long season. We didn't get off to the start we wanted, but that's behind us and now we're ready to get on a roll."

The outlook in Denver should no longer be rocky. Manning has begun to resemble the old Peyton, not an old Peyton. He's developing a symbiotic relationship with Damaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, albeit nothing like he had with Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne — at least not yet.

Denver's defense is decent, nothing more, but does have prime playmakers in Von Miller, Champ Bailey, Tracy Porter and Elvis Dumervil.

Best yet, after the dangerous Saints, the Broncos (3-3) have few contenders remaining on their schedule. Instead, they get Carolina, Cleveland, Tampa Bay and the rest of the AFC West, which is pretty weak.

"To be a great team in this league, you have to string some wins together and you have to be consistent," Decker said. "That is our focus as well, trying to get on a streak."

To build that streak, they need to handle the Saints, whose offense, as always, has been superb and the reason they've won two straight after four losses. As for the defense, well, maybe the return from suspension of Joe Vitt, ostensibly the linebackers coordinator but now the interim head coach, will help.

Something had better improve: New Orleans is dead last in total defense. Indeed, it's also 32nd in run offense.

But there's this: Drew Brees and the No. 1 passing attack in an ever more passing league.

"You just need to be as meticulous in every detail as possible, you have to take advantage of every opportunity you get," Brees said. "And we've got to make sure that we're in a position where we need to finish."

Finish better than they started, for sure.

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