By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - There are just six weeks to go before the end of the National Football League regular season and once again the Green Bay Packers are looming as the team to beat.
The reigning Super Bowl champions are the only unbeaten team this season, winning their first 10 games to match their best start in almost half a century. Only the defensive-minded San Francisco 49ers (9-1) are close to them, leaving the two teams on a possible collision course in the NFC, while the AFC race remains wide open.
The Packers have been pulverizing opponents with an air attack launched by the rocket arm of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has been the standardbearer in the game's most critical position.
Rodgers, who came of age last year in leading Green Bay to the Super Bowl, has been even better in 2011.
After ranking third among quarterbacks last season with 28 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions and a completion percentage of 65.7, Rodgers has already hit for 28 TDs so far this season, with only three interceptions while connecting on 72.9 percent.
Rodgers, who turns 28 next month, is on pace for a record-setting season while the Packers lead the NFL in scoring although there are some questions about their defense.
Green Bay's defense ranks second-last in yards allowed and last against the pass, giving a glimmer of hope to their pursuers.
The 49ers have had smoother ride, thanks in part to weaker competition in their NFC West division. How they cope against tougher opponents remains to be seen.
They are one of the NFL's surprise teams this season as rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh has instilled confidence with an old-school approach focusing on running the ball on offense and stopping the run on defense.
San Francisco ranks number one in fewest points allowed and in fewest rushing yards yielded. Relying on hard-running Frank Gore, they rank sixth in rushing and have not lost since a Week Two 27-24 defeat by the Dallas Cowboys.
Other NFC teams with hopes of making a run through the postseason include the NFC South leading New Orleans Saints (7-3), Detroit Lions (7-3), Chicago Bears (7-3), Atlanta Falcons (6-4) and NFC East co-leaders Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants (6-4).
As Green Bay showed last year by charging to the Super Bowl after qualifying for the playoffs on the last weekend as a wild card, timing is everything.
There is no obvious frontrunner in the AFC with the New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Texans all with three losses, and the Cincinnati Bengals and Oakland Raiders another game back in the chase.
The New York Jets (5-5), have reached the AFC title game the last two seasons, but have been inconsistent this time, however they have a relatively smooth run home so could still figure in the playoffs.
New England's elite quarterback Tom Brady has been terrorizing opponents again with his pinpoint passing, but the Patriots have been struggling to improve a defense that ranks second worst against the pass.
The Ravens have won all their difficult games, but have fallen to the underwhelming Titans, Jaguars and Seahawks, keeping them within reach of the pack.
Houston has the league's top-ranked defense, and an impressive ground attack, but have lost regular quarterback Matt Schaub and will be tested in the stretch run with back-up Matt Leinart directing the offense.
Pittsburgh, last year's beaten Super Bowl finalists, have been inconsistent this campaign, showing some signs of age in their defense, and have lost both their games against NFC North rival Ravens putting them at a disadvantage in any tiebreakers.
It all comes down to who can put it all together for a hot run when it counts most with visions of hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy driving them all to the finish line.
(Editing by Julian Linden)