Take notice of Panthers, Cardinals, Steelers
There they go: the Texans and Falcons.
With all the up-and-down performances in the NFL this season, lots of teams are showing consistency lately. That's a good thing - and a bad one.
It's certainly a positive for Carolina, Arizona and Pittsburgh, all of which have pushed their way into the postseason picture.
''When you start stacking chips, it's fun,'' says Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, whose team has moved to 7-4 by stacking four chips in a row.
Arians, who won NFL Coach of the Year honors in 2012 as an interim with Indianapolis while Chuck Pagano was battling leukemia, is squarely in the running for that award this year as Arizona's head man.
''You guys are in there,'' he told reporters. ''You come in that locker room. It's a lot louder; it's a lot more fun. The camaraderie is easy when you're winning. Our guys went through some tough times and built that camaraderie. With camaraderie comes accountability to each other, and that makes it very easy to coach.''
What also makes it easier to coach is when you have a defense no one can run on - the Cardinals ranked second in rushing D heading into their 40-11 demolition of Pagano and the Colts on Sunday. They also have an improving offense as veteran Carson Palmer has stopped turning over the ball.
Three of Arizona's losses have been in the NFC West, so even winning out isn't likely to lift the Cardinals to a division title. And they finish with a trip to Seattle and hosting San Francisco. So projecting them into the playoffs is difficult. But not ludicrous.
''In this league, everybody is so good and things happen so fast,'' Palmer said. ''Teams go from good to bad or bad to good very quickly in this league. It's hard to say that we saw this coming, but we've been working toward this.''
So have the Panthers (8-3), whose string of seven wins has established them as a front-runner for an NFC wild card. With two games remaining against New Orleans (9-2), and with the Saints still facing a trip to Seattle, the folks in Carolina are thinking even bigger thoughts.
Maybe they should be. The defense is top notch from front to back, although a knee injury to end Charles Johnson (8 1/2 sacks) is worrisome. The running game is solid, and Cam Newton is performing as well as he did in his 2011 Offensive Rookie of the Year season. His decision-making and big-play skills have been most noticeable during the winning streak that includes victories over San Francisco and New England.
''I think his confidence level right now is very high,'' said tight end Greg Olsen, who caught the winning TD pass from Newton in Sunday's 20-16 victory at Miami. ''I think he feels really good about what we do in the passing game. I think he feels really good about both the designed runs and his ability to extend plays when things break down.
''That's what just makes him so hard, because he's not a sitting duck back there.''
In this day of runaway offenses, any team that can show the kind of balance on both sides of the ball that Carolina is displaying should be considered a title contender.
Pittsburgh is finding some of that symmetry, too. The Steelers (5-6) began the season 0-4, and their most recent loss was a humiliating 55-31 flop at New England.
After coach Mike Tomlin threatened players with something that always hits home - their jobs - they look much more like what is expected out of the Steel City: a playoff threat.
The Steelers have their first three-game winning streak since 2009 in which each victory was by double digits. Ben Roethlisberger took 36 sacks in the first nine games and has been trapped only once in the last two in 80 dropbacks. The defense has forced seven turnovers in the last two weeks after getting exactly that many takeaways in the first seven games.
''It's not how you drive, it's how you arrive,'' linebacker Jarvis Jones said. ''You can have the roughest starts, but it's about how you finish. We're playing well right now with a lot of room to improve on, and I think we've just got to continue doing what we've been doing. That's playing well and playing disciplined.''
Or exactly what Houston and Atlanta have not managed. Each is 2-9 after winning a division crown in 2012. They have gone from Super Bowl challengers to in the mix for the top overall draft pick.
Just the kind of consistency no one wants any part of.
AP Sports Writers Will Graves, Bob Baum and Steve Reed contributed to this story.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org