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Where would the AFC be without the return of Peyton Manning?
John Elway might not have been able to get his Denver Broncos out of the shadows of Tim Tebow. The AFC West might not have had a winning team. A depressed AFC would be lacking even more credibility.
Because of his impact on the Broncos, and the AFC as a whole, Manning highlights my 2012 All-Pro team. Under Tebow, the Broncos were an 8-8 team lucky to make the playoffs. Under Manning, the Broncos are a serious Super Bowl threat.
Face it, the AFC is down. The Houston Texans can lock up the conference's No. 1 seed Sunday, but losses to the New England Patriots and Minnesota Vikings down the stretch make them look vulnerable. Had the Patriots lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars last week, they would have finished 5-5 in nondivisional games. The Baltimore Ravens aren't imposing on defense, and their offense hasn't found a clear identity.The Indianapolis Colts are the only team in the AFC playoff field that didn't make the postseason in 2011, which means the biggest change in the conference came in the form of Manning's arrival in Denver.
Not only can the Broncos clinch the No. 2 seed this week but putting Manning's 34 touchdown passes and 4,355 passing yards on a team with three Pro Bowl defenders and John Fox as coach makes the Broncos true contenders.
That's why Manning is battling Adrian Peterson for MVP votes.
As it turned out, many of my All-Pro picks lined up with Wednesday's Pro Bowl announcement. My offensive line started with six-time Pro Bowler Joe Thomas at left tackle. Jahri Evans of the New Orleans Saints and Mike Iupati of the San Francisco 49ers are dominating guards.
The surprise up front might be Seattle Seahawks center Max Unger, but you sensed he was coming on as a blocker when the Seahawks gave him a contract extension worth more than $6 million per year.
It's been a tough year for centers. Injuries have wiped out a lot of starters. The AFC has a long list of talented centers such as Mike and Maurkice Pouncey, Alex Mack, Chris Myers and Nick Mangold. But Unger plays on a line that opens holes for Marshawn Lynch, who is second to Peterson with 1,490 rushing yards.
Right tackles have a hard time distinguishing themselves -- no right tackle made the Pro Bowl -- but I went with Tyson Clabo of the Atlanta Falcons, who edged out Anthony Davis of the 49ers on my list.
There wasn't much drama in selections for the offensive skill positions. Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson broke Jerry Rice's single-season yardage record and is eyeing the 2,000-yard plateau. I went with Andre Johnson of the Houston Texans over Brandon Marshall of the Chicago Bears in a close call at the other receiver spot because Johnson's 100-catch season has taken the Texans farther than Marshall's presence in Chicago has.
|Calvin Johnson is producing at a historic level in 2012.|
Peterson was the natural choice at running back, but it's fitting that his fullback, Jerome Felton, be honored for his blocking. At tight end, I had to go with Anthony Gonzalez of the Falcons. Part of the reason the Falcons earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC is because of Gonzalez's knack for positioning himself for first-down catches from quarterback Matt Ryan.
On defense, no All-Pro team would be legitimate without three top players from the 2011 draft: defensive end J.J. Watt of the Texans and outside linebackers Von Miller of the Broncos and Aldon Smith of the 49ers.
Meanwhile, Geno Atkins was a beast at defensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals. I paired him up with Vince Wilfork of the Patriots, and the Miami Dolphins' Cameron Wake was an easy choice for the other defensive end spot.
I felt bad breaking up the 49ers' inside linebacker duo of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, but Daryl Washington of the Arizona Cardinals had to get in. Washington is an inside linebacker with nine sacks for a defense that doesn't get recognition because of the Cardinals' bad offense.The toughest call was in the secondary. Both conferences are loaded with great corners, but Chicago's Charles Tillman was a natural selection because he had a career year in coverage and in terms of forcing fumbles. Richard Sherman earned my other nod, emerging as perhaps the best man-to-man corner not named Darrelle Revis. Earl Thomas has established himself as one of the league's best safeties, and Eric Weddle of the San Diego Chargers got the other spot. I was surprised Weddle didn't make the Pro Bowl, but I thought 2012 was his best season.
Picking special teams was easy. Blair Walsh of the Vikings is the best long-distance kicker for accuracy, going 9-for-9 on field goals of 50 or more yards. Thomas Morstead of the Saints has an incredible 44.4-yard net punting average. Jacoby Jones of the Ravens had three touchdown returns, earning my return vote.