The Carolina Panthers and Miami Dolphins learned the hard way last season about not finishing what they started. Unexpected success ended with first-game playoff exits, dimming the lights in one regard but shining them toward a future filled with hope.
Too bad for each they started this season where they left off. Both opened 0-3, seemingly pulling the curtains closed on preseason playoff aspirations and building on the unfinished business of 2008.
Yet, here they are, a game beyond the season's mid-point, trying desperately to get back in the postseason conversation.
The victor of Thursday night's NFL Network game between the Dolphins and Panthers in Charlotte will be 5-5 and squarely in the cross-hairs of wild-card possibilities. In Miami's case, it remains in contention for the AFC East title, courtesy of New England's controversy-filled loss to Indianapolis last Sunday night.
The Dolphins did receive some bad news Wednesday, however, as the team will be forced to put running back Ronnie Brown on injured reserve due to a right foot injury. The move could impact Miami in terms of the depth and versatility it was able to conjure with Brown and Ricky Williams in the backfield.
Still, the Panthers-Dolphins game has taken on far greater magnitude than just a few weeks ago, when Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme seemed stuck in Groundhog Day from his-five interception playoff performance against Arizona and the Dolphins seemed set to rebuild after quarterback Chad Pennington sustained a serious shoulder injury.
"Absolutely, this is a huge game," said Delhomme, who hasn't thrown a pick in the past three games after tossing 13 in the first six contests. "We're two division winners who had double-digit wins last year that didn't start the season the way we wanted to.
"The one thing that's not brought up in our locker room is the playoffs. Because of the way we started, that's something that's so down the line in everybody's minds. We have to worry about one win because wins have been hard to come by. Miami is that one win."
The Panthers and Dolphins aren't the only teams that have put themselves in place for a potential postseason run. Green Bay, Jacksonville, San Francisco, Baltimore, and yes, even Tennessee can't be neglected down the homestretch. Their paths may warrant near perfection if they want to rectify some missteps, but last season alone, four teams advanced to the playoffs with at least five losses. Three of those teams had at least six.
By improving to a game over .500, (5-4) the Packers drew even with Atlanta, Philadelphia and the New York Giants in the wild-card hunt. The difference with Green Bay is that even though it is immersed in a rough patch, each of the other 5-4 teams have losing records over their past five games, with the Giants, who were off last week, dropping four straight.
The Packers play host to San Francisco (4-5), which is still in contention for the NFC West title, although Arizona has a two-game lead and, at 6-3, is playing its best football of the season. A win by Green Bay might not get it that much closer to NFC North leader Minnesota (8-1, two-game sweep and tie-breaker edge over the Packers), but it does enhance its standing in the evolving wild-card chase.
New York and Atlanta square off Sunday in a game that could make the loser's trek to the playoffs far more intimidating than it looked just a game or two ago. The unbeaten Saints hold a four-game lead over the Falcons, who could be without tailback Michael Turner (ankle sprain), and are hoping to remain above .500 as the Panthers and 49ers threaten to even their records.
While the Giants have fallen apart after a 5-0 start, they won't be out of the NFC East title hunt for some time, as the Eagles and Cowboys (6-3) have yet to show they're poised to distance themselves. The Bears (4-5), who play host to the Eagles, aren't out of it yet either, although they seem more unstable than any team in this mosh pit of hopefuls, having dropped four of their last five.
Delhomme explained Carolina's means of regrouping, which could be applied to just about all of these teams.
"Here, everybody anticipated that we would have the same type of year that we had last year, that the running game would click early and things would go the same way," Delhomme said. "We learned things like that just don't happen. We got some injured guys back and slowly but surely, we started playing like we needed to. We were always confident and we didn't do anything different really. We just pushed through it."
Few teams (excluding the undefeated Saints and Colts) are as hot -- or as intriguing -- as the Tennessee Titans. After an 0-6 start, they have won three straight, which coincides with the insertion of Vince Young as the starting quarterback. The defending AFC South champs have no real shot of catching 9-0 Indianapolis for the division lead unless the Colts lose out and the Titans win out (as running back Chris Johnson predicted his team would do).
But with Johnson leading the NFL in rushing and showing no desire to relinquish his perch, the healing Titans are playing with the free-spirit approach that their rough start has allowed them to take during this run.
"As a team, there's not a whole lot of that conversation going around the locker room, but as a position group we've talked about it," Titans center Kevin Mawae said about Tennessee's playoff possibilities. "You look around the league and you already know pretty much who's going to be the four division winners. You look at the other guys who have the opportunities to take those last two (wild-card) spots. If we can go all out and get to 10-6 then we have to know what the tie breakers are but until we win all of them, it doesn't matter what everybody else does. But there is a sense of awareness."
Realistically, the Titans' playoff hopes are slim but they could look less lean with a win Monday against division foe Houston. The 5-4 Texans are coming off a bye and look like a legitimate playoff threat. A victory by the Texans could pretty much stifle the Titans' push and it would throw Houston to the top of a wild-card group that includes Pittsburgh and the loser of the AFC West division battle between surging San Diego and reeling Denver, both 6-3.
Quietly putting itself back in the playoff hunt has been Jacksonville (5-4), which has posted back-to-back victories over the New York Jets and Kansas City. The Jaguars next face the Bills, who could get an emotional spike with the coaching change from Dick Jauron to interim leader Perry Fewell. After facing Buffalo, Jacksonville will get five straight weeks to prove it can handle playoff football because, in order, they meet: San Francisco, Houston, Miami, Indianapolis and New England.
There's no hiding.
That's where the Ravens come in. Despite their inconsistency, they could have something to say about things in the AFC if, frankly, they man up. Having emerged with a 16-0 victory over Cleveland on Monday, the Ravens have a short week before facing the Colts.
Indy is going to be out to prove that its victory over New England on Sunday wasn't because of Bill Belichick's failed fourth-and-2 play deep in Patriots territory, but because the Colts made the stop when New England dared to test them. The Colts feel they were victorious because they executed the necessary plays on offense in order to win. So much of what the Colts did in that classic game has been overshadowed by Belichick's decision that they figure to put one on Baltimore for good measure.
A loss and the Ravens fall to 5-5. With Pittsburgh up twice in the final six games and a trip to Green Bay, that wouldn't leave much margin for error.
The Jets (4-5) have lost five of six and don't seem to have much working in their favor. However, a victory over the Patriots in Foxborough on Sunday could spin things in a completely new direction -- and leave AFC East-leading New England (6-3) just a game up on New York and Miami should the Dolphins defeat the Panthers.
As for the Dolphins, there is no time for them to revert back to how things were a few weeks ago if they want to survive, let alone take things back to the 2008 level. After Carolina, there is Buffalo and then New England, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Houston and Pittsburgh -- all teams in position to make a playoff run.