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Even top NFL teams have taken steps back

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The Seahawks still might repeat as Super Bowl champions, and they could wind up facing the Broncos again.

The 49ers might appear in their fourth straight NFC title game.

Yet all of those contenders - and a few other NFL teams who either won't be going to the playoffs or don't deserve to - clearly have taken a step back this season.

That doesn't mean the final five weeks of the schedule won't allow for a turnaround, particularly if these teams get healthier. As of now, though, there is little to fear from those three members of the 2013 Final Four compared to a year ago.

Which is the exact opposite of what fans are seeing from the Patriots, who following all the angst of the first month of the season have not been beaten since.

And while New England bludgeons opponents on a weekly basis, the Seahawks, Broncos, and 49ers make you scratch your head.

San Francisco, for example, struggles to beat the Rams, Giants and Redskins, none of whom will sniff a winning record this year.

The Niners aren't dynamic in the passing game despite a strong crew of receivers - and this is, after all, a passing league. Their upcoming schedule is intimidating, beginning with Thursday night against Seattle.

Coach Jim Harbaugh doesn't seem too concerned by the faults of his inconsistent 49ers (7-4).

''We turned the ball over and some teams will hang their heads when that happens,'' he said after the Niners squeezed past Washington 17-13.

''But that's not what this team's about. This team's about each other. They're about the team, the team, the team, not into criticizing each other. We're not into bad-mouthing each other, talking about each other. We're into lifting each other up. Guys just kept playing and fighting. That's what good teams do.''

Make no mistake, the 49ers are a good team. They simply haven't measured up yet to their recent editions.

For the current Seahawks to measure up to last season, of course, they'd need to become the first repeat Super Bowl winner since New England in 2003-04. They are capable, but only if, like San Francisco, they solve some issues in the passing game. And, stunningly considering how dominant the Seahawks were a year ago, there are issues on defense.

Seattle has only 16 sacks and six picks, hardly overwhelming numbers. Many .500 teams, and some below the break-even mark, would be identified with such stats.

And when Seattle (7-4) can't run the ball effectively, it suffers mightily.

Not quite the description of the 2013 Seahawks.

Again, like with the Niners, no panic is setting in, nor should it be following their 19-3 win over NFC leader Arizona - even if these Seahawks aren't as formidable.

''It's a special win, because we did it together,'' standout safety Earl Thomas said. ''For the first time this year, I think we played for pure reasons with no motives attached.

''And that's what you love about this team - we can put our egos to the side, we can admit when we're wrong, but we got to stay true. We have different personalities, but the thing I love about this week was it was up and down, we had tough battles with each other, but it turned into something beautiful.''

It hasn't been as beautiful in Denver for Peyton Manning & Co. this season as the last. They needed a bigtime rally to overcome Miami 39-36 on Sunday to finish off a mediocre November in which they went 2-2.

The offensive line is a mess, and the defense that looked so promising halfway through the schedule now appears vulnerable. Injuries have slowed Denver (8-3) in all facets, and the coaches have little confidence in rookie kicker Brandon McManus.

But the Broncos recognize that everything still is in front of them, even if they aren't the almost unstoppable group that won last season's conference crown.

''You hit it right on the head with the hammer,'' linebacker Von Miller said of pulling out a difficult game against a solid opponent. ''It shows what type of guys we've got in the locker room and what type of character we've got. We just kept fighting. We kept fighting the week before, but this week we were able to make some plays and pull out the win.''

And keep marching forward, no matter how tentatively.


AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton contributed to this story.


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