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Who's the best in the AFC?

There are questions that must be answered coming out of every Sunday. We asked our experts for their opinions on the five Burning Questions coming out of Week 6. Also, we want to know what SportsNation thinks.

1. Are the Saints for real?


Eric Allen: The Saints are definitely for real. This team is resilient and does a wonderful job of working within its offensive and defensive framework. This team is rarely out of place on the field. The biggest key to the Saints' season was the offseason signing of quarterback Drew Brees. There wasn't another QB on the market who would have worked as well in this system as Brees has. He came from an offensive system that focused on spreading the ball around, and that's what he's doing in New Orleans.

Merril Hoge: They are definitely for real. They have a lot of phases to their offense. They have a physical phase, which is critical to their success, and an explosive phase that their quarterback handles extremely well. Defensively, I don't know a unit in the game that plays with more discipline than this one. They play with a great deal of poise and make up for their lack of speed by being in the right place to make plays.

Sean Salisbury: Oh yeah, the Saints are definitely for real. The Saints are knocking people around defensively and are using sound principles on offense. It would be very easy for this coaching staff to try to overuse Reggie Bush and risk injuring him or putting him in situations where he isn't going to be most effective. Coach Sean Payton and the rest of his staff have done a fantastic job of putting him in space and making great use of his speed and agility. That is forcing defenses to have to game plan for him and leaving Deuce McAllister and Brees room to do what they do best. This team is one of the best in the NFC.

Mark Schlereth: They have tough road games coming up (Baltimore, at Tampa Bay, at Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, at Atlanta), but there is no question that they are for real. They are playing well in all facets of the game. There were questions coming into the season concerning their ability in the secondary, but they've answered them so far this season.

Joe Theismann: Coming into this season, most people -- myself included -- thought it would be a magical season for the Saints if they finished with seven wins. Now, it might be a disappointment if they finish with fewer than 10 wins with the way they are playing. I had the pleasure of watching this team play in its return to the Superdome, and while most people talked about the emotion keying them to victory, I saw much more. This is a team that is playing exceptional football right now, and New Orleans might have a chance to make some noise come playoff time.

2. Are the Bengals a Super Bowl contender or pretender?

Allen: The Bengals are a pretender, and it's not just because of this week's loss. It's because this team isn't playing with a sense of urgency at all. Before the bye week, the Bengals were spanked by the New England Patriots, so I expected them to come out and play with a lot of heart against the Buccaneers on Sunday. Instead, they came out and played extremely flat football and lost a game they should've won. They have to stop playing soft football and start playing with some emotion or they will only be disappointing themselves.

Hoge: I still believe they are a contender, but they have to become more explosive downfield and get the running game going for me to maintain that belief. They also have to get the defense going strong. This week will be a test to see if those two areas can be worked out and if not they will have to be considered a pretender.

Salisbury: The Bengals aren't a contender anymore because they aren't playing with the emotion necessary to be a contender. This is a team that flat-out got whupped by the Patriots and instead of coming out and giving a butt-whupping to someone else, they played the Tampa Bay game as if it didn't really matter. When you contrast that with the way a team like the Pittsburgh Steelers played after taking a beating, then you realize why the Bengals aren't a contender. The game of football is one that is full of guys playing with pride and emotion. Every guy on the field has to be on at 100 percent, giving his all at all times, and I don't see that with the Bengals all the time. They need to step up their play, or they are going to be in trouble.

Schlereth: The Bengals are still a contender because the AFC isn't that strong. They have to start creating turnovers though because right now this defense is playing way too passively. They must become more aggressive, get after teams and start taking advantage of mistakes.

Theismann: The Bengals aren't a contender because they are a soft football team. This is a team that has all the prerequisites for greatness -- great coach, opportunistic defense, great passing attack, good running back -- but doesn't seem to have the toughness necessary to be a contender. The biggest problem for the Bengals is their running game. This team has to have a good running game to be successful in the long run, and it doesn't seem to have the desire to run the ball. Once the weather gets cold and the passing game isn't nearly as effective, this team will be in a world of trouble.

3. What's wrong with the Redskins?


Allen: The problem with the Redskins is at the quarterback position. They aren't getting any consistency at all right now from Mark Brunell. They don't know what they are going to get from Brunell. Some days, he can complete 20 passes in a row and then there are other days when he's lucky to string together four completions in a row. He has to do a better job giving this team a consistent performance. Right now, he's only hurting Washington with his up-and-down play.

Hoge: The one thing I've noticed about the Skins is they aren't playing defense like they did last season. The defense hasn't stopped the run or gotten after the quarterback consistently. That's a large part of the problem but one that can be fixed. The other problem is this isn't the Brunell of five seasons ago and that's something that can't be fixed.

Salisbury: The Redskins' problem is on the defensive side of the football. They don't seem to be executing their schemes every down. The game against Tennessee was a game in which the defense should've been salivating and looking for an opportunity to put up some great numbers in terms of sacks and interceptions. Instead, the Skins just kind of sat around and didn't play with the fire you should see out of a team this good. The Redskins have to sit down and look in the mirror and see whether they have what it takes to be a playoff squad.

Schlereth: I think right now the biggest issue has been inconsistency in running the ball and stopping the run. Tennessee put it on them running the football and so did the Jaguars. When the Redskins are shutting down the run they can be very good, especially with all the different looks they can give teams. But they can't be an effective defense without stopping the run. They also need someone to start getting a big-time rush on the quarterback.

Theismann: The Redskins don't seem to have a good mix of offensive personnel outside of Clinton Portis. They have a bunch of receivers who are the same type of player. They need a big, dominant player who can take over in the red zone because right now the short passes aren't getting the job done inside the 20. They have to get a guy who can go and attack the ball over a defender because teams are killing them in the red zone. They also need to get better production from Brunell. He does a great job at times, but there are times when his decisions are hurried and he makes poor throws for no reasons.

4. Can the Ravens win without Steve McNair?

Allen: They can without McNair because, for the first time in years, the defense is healthy. The past two weeks, the Ravens lost because they played teams (Broncos and Panthers) that actually have better defenses than they do. But that's not going to happen very often this season. However, they do need to score, and the way for them to do that is by running the ball. This team used to have an aggressive and intimidating running game, but that hasn't been the case this season. The Ravens have to find a way to get Jamal Lewis running downhill again because he's the key to their season.

Hoge: They were struggling to win with him so it's going to be difficult for them to win without him. The running game is non-existent and that is the one common denominator they've had when they've had a great defense. They still have a chance to make plays on the defensive side of the ball and that could be their saving grace, but it's going to be very hard.

Salisbury: It's going to be extremely difficult for the Ravens to win without McNair. It's not that Kyle Boller can't re-create McNair's numbers because he can. They weren't that great. But Boller can't re-create McNair's confidence and leadership. This team believed it could win every game as long as McNair was out there with time left on the clock. He has done a phenomenal job instilling confidence in his teammates, and they believe in everything he does. That's why the Ravens are going to be hard-pressed to replace McNair and win without him.

Schlereth: They can't win without him for an extended period of time. If he's out for awhile they are in trouble. The offense has to become more productive and find a way to run the ball more. McNair gives them the X-factor in terms of leadership and they are going to need that for the long haul.

Theismann: The Ravens are in trouble without McNair. In the past, they were able to get past their quarterback problems with a great defense and running game. Now, they have a great defense but an ineffective rushing attack. This team has to rely on Boller to lead the way, and that's definitely not what the Ravens want to do. They brought in McNair to get away from Boller's ineffective play, so they must get the running game going again. To do that, they might have to think about giving another running back a chance because Lewis doesn't look like the same running back who rushed for 2,000 yards a few seasons ago.

5. Who's the favorite now in the AFC?

Allen: The San Diego Chargers are the best team in the AFC. They would be undefeated if it weren't for some poor coaching decisions in their loss to the Ravens. There aren't many weaknesses on this team. The one weakness teams thought they could exploit at the beginning of the season was quarterback Philip Rivers, but he has turned into a strength. This team is playing excellent, aggressive football and can play any style. If a team wants to try to get into an offensive shootout, the Chargers can oblige, and if an opposing team wants to play a smashmouth game with a lot of running, the Chargers can do that, too. But what separates them from the other teams in the AFC is their defense led by "Lights Out" Shawne Merriman. This defense has played great this season and is one of the best in the league.

Hoge: I've been saying it for weeks and my answer is the same -- the San Diego Chargers. With their abilities they are as good as any team in football. They have the best young quarterback (Rivers), best tight end (Antonio Gates) and best running back (LaDainian Tomlinson). Rivers is making throws that no quarterback would even think of making. I'd put them as the best team in football even ahead of the Bears.

Salisbury: The Chargers are the best team in the AFC right now, and I'll tell you why. They are being led by a young quarterback (Rivers) who is not playing as though he's getting his first starts this season but instead is playing as though he's a 10-year veteran. When he drops back to throw the ball, he drops with confidence, and he's backing it up with the correct throws and check downs. There were some who thought it was a mistake for the Chargers to jettison Drew Brees in the offseason in favor of an unproven commodity, but Rivers has proved the Chargers correct. He's utilizing every piece of talent on the field and looks great. He's the reason the Chargers are the No. 1 team in the AFC.

Schlereth: It's hard to argue with the San Diego Chargers. They are stout defensively and while they haven't played great teams, they've handled their business. There is no other team in the AFC that can handle them. They are better offensively than the Broncos and I'm not thoroughly impressed with the Colts.

Theismann: The Indianapolis Colts are still the favorite in the AFC. They are undefeated and are winning games in different ways. Gone is the team that was soft and could win only in blowouts and in domes, and it has been replaced by a team that can win a smashmouth game late. The credit for that goes to Peyton Manning and offensive coordinator Tom Moore, who have responded extremely well to the departure of former running back Edgerrin James. Instead of trying to do the exact same thing they did in the past, Moore and Manning have changed up their game plans and made the team more deliberate, and we're seeing the results in the record.