AFC old guard not going anywhere

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:16 AM ET

Could the start of a new decade mean the emergence of some new NFL superpowers?

With due respect to the sensational championship run by the New Orleans Saints last winter, until the accomplished old guard in the AFC shows it is vulnerable, we wonít be holding our breath.

A league that is supposed to be built on parity ó thanks to salary cap concerns ó has been something decidedly less the past 10 seasons.

The New England Patriots (three) and Pittsburgh Steelers (two) won half of the Super Bowls in the recently concluded decade and the Indianapolis Colts have been the most consistent regular-season winners and have one championship to show for it.

The NFC has been far less form following. Only the New York Giants have made more than one Super Bowl appearance in the past decade.

Parity has worked on another level, however: In nine of the past 10 seasons at least one team that has finished last in a season has gone on to capture itís division the following year.

Donít expect any definitive answers as Week 1 of the new season plays out, but we might get some clues.

Back to the AFC, where until the three formidable franchises mentioned above prove they are truly vulnerable (or the San Diego Chargers show some brains in January), weíll go easy on the obits.

First with the Colts, a team that started last season 14-0 then ran the table in the AFC playoffs before falling to New Orleans in the title game.

The Colts are coming off their typically terrible pre-season, which historically has been no cause for concern. It has, however, led to wise-guy wondering whether the Houston Texans are finally ready to make an impact in the NFC South, starting this Sunday.

If there is a fear in Indy, it is the Colts offensive line, especially since Manning isnít getting any younger. Centre Jeff Saturday is questionable for the Colts opener and thatís just the start of Indyís protection concerns.

But in a decade that has brought some special quarterback play on multiple fronts, none have been more resilient than Manning.

Moving northeast to New England, there are offensive line concerns as well, but the Patriots have always overcome that with coaching and schemes. Logan Mankins (holdout) and Canadian Nick Kaczur (injury) are both out, but like Manning, Tom Brady is healthy and can win double-digit games almost on his own. A young and unproven defence has also sounded some warning bells.

In Pittsburgh, the Steelers have issues that go beyond starting the season that go beyond quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missing the first four games due to injury.

The aging defence struggled last season and while healthy needs to return to the form that helped carry them to two Super Bowls.

Reasonable questions all, but even if you take a stand against any or all of this trio, who do you suppose is about to knock them off?

Thereís plenty of love out there for the Jets and Ravens, but until quarterbacks Mark Sanchez and Joe Flacco can consistently prove they are elite offensive producers, weíre not holding our breath.

The Chargers are an interesting concept, especially with rookie running back Ryan Mathews. But losing in the post-season seems to be so ingrained in the Chargersí psyche that itís hard to imagine it changing.

In the league-wide picture, there is a three-way tie for Super Bowl favouritism ó the Colts along with the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints are each at 8.5-1.

Itís hard to argue with either of the NFC choices, especially if you subscribe to the theory that Vikings quarterback Brett Favre has finally lost his edge.

The Cowboys, Ravens and Chargers are co-third choices at 11-1 and have their merits.

Mix them with the proven powers and you have one of the most interesting seasons in a few.

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/longleysunsport


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