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What's missing for supposed contenders

New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz (80) catches a touchdown pass in front of Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (24) during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011, in East Rutherford, N.J. New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz (80) catches a touchdown pass in front of Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (24) during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
By Barry Wilner
AP Pro Football Writer / November 25, 2011
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What's missing in Indianapolis is obvious: Peyton Manning, and any kind of win.

The missing ingredients with other supposed contenders aren't so obvious. Yet, there are the Eagles, Jets, Chargers and Buccaneers, all winners from 2010 struggling in 2011. Even the Rams were expected to be a rising team in the NFC West after going 7-9 a year ago.

Nope.

The shortcomings are many, from the Meadowlands to Mission Bay.

Let's start in Philadelphia, where the Eagles were crowned champions of the offseason, whatever that's worth, after the lockout. They locked up some of the most prized free agents: Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin, Steve Smith, Cullen Jenkins, even a solid backup quarterback in Vince Young. They pulled off an impressive trade, sending their backup quarterback, Kevin Kolb, who would have sat behind Michael Vick, and got back a second-round draft pick and a good cornerback, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

Then the season started and the parts didn't mesh, especially on defense. Asomugha hasn't looked anything like a shutdown cornerback, let alone an All-Pro. Smith has only 11 receptions. Only Babin has been a standout, if a bit one-dimensional with 10 sacks but not a strong presence against the run.

Most damaging has been an inability to hold fourth-quarter leads or rally when those leads are blown, whether it be the offense, defense or special teams that is flopping. Philly is one of the worst teams in the red zone on both sides of the ball.

"We knew that expectations were going to be great and it was going to be assumed that we would be undefeated, but we knew there was going to be some work to be done," Asomugha said. "Everybody was new, everybody was learning, (and) coaches included. We just needed to be real with ourselves and I think it becomes a bigger issue when you think about what the expectations have been and rightfully so. We try to keep it in perspective between what those expectations have been and what the reality of the situation is. When you bring a team together you have to build them."

The Jets have been built by coach Rex Ryan and GM Mike Tannenbaum for more than two years, but are maddeningly inconsistent. They won their first two, lost three, won three and now have lost two. Plagued by mediocre quarterbacking from Mark Sanchez, who has not progressed in his third season, and a leaky offensive line -- once the team's best unit -- New York's offense has stagnated. The defense no longer is dominant, as the Broncos' 95-yard drive in the final minutes to win last week proved.

"Yeah, I expect us to close out games better. I think that's the biggest criticism," Ryan said. "I don't care when they get the ball in the fourth quarter you've got to close it out, and that's the kind of mentality that you want your defense to have."

Ryan believes the quality of competition causes some teams to unexpectedly struggle.

"Since I've been a head coach, this is a balanced league, and each week the bottom team can beat the top team," he said, "and there's no automatic wins on the schedule."

San Diego used to have virtually automatic wins against Oakland -- 13 in a row until being swept in 2010 by the Raiders -- and a stranglehold on the AFC West. Now, despite what many consider the most talented roster in the division, the Bolts seem to have a few screws loose.

Where once they could rely on quarterback Phillip Rivers and tight end Antonio Gates to lift them out of the mire, both of them have floundered, Gates in great part because of injuries. The Chargers are minus-10 in turnover margin, with Rivers leading the league with 17 interceptions.

They also are extremely undisciplined, with penalties contributing directly to several defeats; San Diego has lost five in a row.

"It's aggravating because we're preparing hard, practicing hard, playing hard," Rivers said. "In the games, we're fighting like crazy to win. There are no excuses, though. We just have to do it."

That they haven't after the fastest start in Norv Turner's regime doesn't bode well for the coaching staff.

Tampa Bay is one of the league's youngest rosters, and with that comes fragility. Only St. Louis among NFC teams is worse in the red zone on offense, and has been significantly outscored in the first half (152-77) of games. What looked like a breakthrough 2010 for QB Josh Freeman, RB LaGarrette Blount and WR Mike Williams has not developed into a playoff-bound 2011.

Plus, the Bucs' defense has yielded more than 300 yards more than the offense has gained on the ground.

Yet coach Raheem Morris still is talking playoffs; Tampa needs to win out to match its 10-6 mark of last year.

"I said early on our goal is to win the division," Morris said. We came out hot (3-1 and 4-2), hit a little sinkhole right here, and now it's time to come running out of that thing."

The Rams have been running on empty from the outset, disappointing because of the improvement they showed last year. Injuries have devastated them everywhere, and they have the league's worst run defense.

So while San Francisco surged under new coach Jim Harbaugh, St. Louis slid, even with more modest expectations.

But even those ambitions can't be reached when there are so many missing ingredients.

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AP Pro Football Writer Rob Maaddi in Philadelphia contributed to this story.

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