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Separating the contenders (Titans) from the pretenders (Cowboys)


Thanksgiving gave us much to reflect upon, and be thankful for, and somewhere down the list comes the NFL playoff chase. It's setting up to be compelling and down to the wire.

A few things are essentially set -- the Saints and Vikings, for instance, are running away with their divisions while the Colts captured the AFC South on Sunday -- but much remains undecided. With five weeks left in the season, it's as good a time as any to start sorting through the maze.

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We'll break it down by conference into three categories: In, contender, and pretender (and if you don't see a team listed, well, consider it part of an unofficial fourth list: Fugetaboutit). So, without further ado, here's how I see it shaping up:

AFC: In

Indianapolis (11-0), first in AFC South
The Colts are looking like a runaway top seed. They wrapped up the AFC South on Sunday by virtue of their comeback win over Houston and Jacksonville's loss at San Francisco. The only real intrigue now surrounds whether or not they pull off a perfect regular season. Peyton Manning has been unreal, the defense still is not getting enough respect. Look out if Indy gains home-field advantage throughout the playoffs because it would allow Manning to implement his full array of pre-snap histrionics. The Patriots are still capable of beating the Colts in Lucas Oil Stadium should that rematch materialize, but we're getting ahead of ourselves. This week, the Colts face the Titans, who are capable of ending the perfect season, but the road ahead is not very tough. Tony Dungy would always rest stars down the stretch, and I don't expect that to change under Jim Caldwell, but it could make for some interesting roster juggling if they're sitting at 15-0.

Remaining schedule: Tennessee, Denver, at Jacksonville, N.Y. Jets, at Buffalo.

Prediction: No. 1 seed (at 15-1), to meet New England again.

New England (7-3), first in AFC East
The early season hiccups, with Tom Brady rounding back into form and Wes Welker hurt, are behind them. The swagger is back. The defense is good enough. I don't see anyone in the division pushing them, and should they sweep Miami next week, that will end any uncertainty. Monday's game with the Saints is another monster road battle, but that will only make the youngsters on the defense more battle-tested. The Patriots should be getting a running back or two returning from injury down the stretch. Brady will be out for blood in the postseason, and going on the road won't phase them. Bill Belichick is the guy I'd want on my sidelines, without a doubt.

Remaining schedule: at New Orleans (Monday night), at Miami, Carolina, at Buffalo, Jacksonville, at Houston.

Prediction: No. 2 seed, Super Bowl champs.

San Diego (8-3), first in AFC West
The Chargers are one of the hottest teams in the NFL, their quarterback is a stud, the run game is slowly rounding into respectability, and the defense has been able to get more pressure on the passer. I'm still not sold on them as a club that can travel three time zones and win, and I don't foresee a long playoff march. But they should be able to continue their romp to the AFC West title. Short-yardage rushing and injuries to the offensive line are a concern. The Chargers well positioned to host a playoff game, with only the Broncos remotely capable of pushing them out of the top spot in the West, and their final five games aren't exactly a death march.

Remaining schedule: at Cleveland, at Dallas, Cincinnati, at Tennessee, Washington.

Prediction: No. 3 seed, but a club either wild-card team could snuff out.

Cincinnati (8-3), first in AFC North
Some may disagree with me putting them here with the way they've played the last two weeks (loss at Oakland, less-than-convincing win over Cleveland), and they are the Bengals. But it would take an epic, epic fall to land completely out of the playoffs. Their win over the Browns on Sunday gave them a 6-0 mark in the division, which is tiebreaker gold. Their 6-3 record in the conference is tied with the Chargers for third-best, behind the Colts' 7-0 and Jacksonville's 5-2. A 10-win Bengals team would be almost impossible to keep out of playoffs; victories over the very beatable Lions and Chiefs would accomplish that. Add a win over the Jets in the season finale, and they're the AFC North champs.

Remaining Schedule: Detroit, at Minnesota, at San Diego, Kansas City, at N.Y. Jets.

Prediction: AFC North champs, but it's difficult to see them beating a division rival three straight times should they face either the Ravens or Steelers in the playoffs.

AFC: Contenders

Baltimore (6-5), tied for second in AFC North
The Ravens have managed to lose games late on interceptions, dropped passes and missed field goals, and have given Indy and New England all they can handle. They need to re-establish their run dominance and limit the attempts of slumping sophomore QB Joe Flacco. A few more trick plays from the 2008 playbook are in order as well. The defense allowed 11.6 points per game in November (despite facing some quality opponents). Should have beaten the Colts even without Terrell Suggs. New defensive coordinator Greg Mattison seems more in sync with his unit. If offensive coordinator Cam Cameron can spark his attack just a little bit, this team could end up playing deep into January again. Sweeping the Steelers would be vital, but they already have quality conference wins over San Diego and Denver.

Remaining schedule: at Green Bay, Detroit, Chicago, at Pittsburgh, at Oakland.

Prediction: Split with Pittsburgh, and beat Oakland to sneak in as final seed.

Pittsburgh (6-5), tied for second in AFC North
The Steelers have a top-flight offense and top-flight defense, but horrible special teams. This is a team that should have eight or nine wins already. They made two more roster moves last week aimed at improving their coverage units, and they continue to escape disaster with oft-pummeled quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who missed Sunday's crucial showdown with Baltimore after suffering a concussion in Week 11. They could use some more big plays and sacks, but playing most of the season without safety Troy Polamalu will do that. If they manage to split with the Ravens, they're in. Should they get swept by the Ravens things could get dicey. Three remaining home games bode well for them, and the season finale at Miami could be a wild-card showdown. Don't count them out of the division title, either, should the Bengals do a complete nosedive.

Remaining schedule: Oakland, at Cleveland, Green Bay, Baltimore, at Miami.

Prediction: Reigning champs get into playoffs as a wild card and advance a round.

Tennessee (5-6), tied for third in AFC South
The Titans amazingly are only one game off the pace. Vince Young hasn't lost a start in two years, and I've been predicting for weeks that Tennessee will hand the Colts a loss. The Titans are a team no one wants to face right now. They have a super-athletic QB and the single most explosive force in the NFL (Chris Johnson). The defense was always stout against the run even during the 0-6 start, and the secondary has been much improved since the team's bye week. Fear the Titans.

Remaining schedule: at Indianapolis, St. Louis, Miami, San Diego, at Seattle.

Prediction: End up just shy of the playoffs with nine wins.

Miami (5-6), tied for second in AFC East
Injuries keep mounting, which is a cause for concern, and their loss Sunday at Buffalo was devastating. Losing nose tackle Jason Ferguson is another big blow to a club predicated on running the ball and stopping the run. Eliminating turnovers will be a big part of any run the Dolphins might have in them, especially from QB Chad Henne, and as pressure and expectations mount that could be a problem. But they gave the Saints and Pats all they could handle, and you have to love their fight, epitomized by Ricky Williams' ascent. Having to limit the Wildcat some with Ronnie Brown gone will take a toll, which is why I rate the Ravens and Steelers higher. It's all in front of them, though, with a remaining schedule that sees them face many of the teams they're battling for a wild-card spot.

Remaining schedule: New England, at Jacksonville, at Tennessee, Houston, Pittsburgh.

Prediction: Lose to Steelers in Week 17 and fall short of playoffs with nine wins.

AFC: Pretenders

Denver (7-4), second in AFC West
I can't see the Broncos getting beyond nine wins, and a nine-win Broncos team would be in trouble because of losses to Pittsburgh and Baltimore. They had four straight losses before beating the Giants on Thanksgiving, and they have looked awful against suspect opposition. No downfield thrust in the passing game. The defense has slipped from its unreal performance the first six weeks and the pass rush has evaporated. The run game is going nowhere. Even after the Giants win where the Broncos showed life, I don't see them pulling out of it. They could end up dropping a few more games in their division, with good fortune no longer on their side.

Remaining schedule: at Kansas City, at Indianapolis, Oakland, at Philadelphia, Kansas City.

Prediction: Winning at Arrowhead will be tough, and even though they stopped their skid by beating the Giants, they might not win again until they host the Chiefs in the season finale, matching last year's collapse.

Jacksonville (6-5), second in AFC South
All the numbers say they shouldn't be playoff bound. Going into the weekend, before Sunday's loss at San Francisco, the Jaguars had given up 36 more points than they had scored (Baltimore was plus-66, second-best in the AFC; Pittsburgh was plus-47). They ranked 17th in offensive points scored, 17th in passer rating, and 20th in offensive points allowed. They are very flawed and limited, but Maurice Jones-Drew is a game-breaker, even behind an unsettled offensive line. They have done just enough to defeat some very bad teams (like Buffalo in Week 11). You have to believe the numbers will ultimately bear out down the stretch and the Jaguars will return back to the pack. By the time Week 16 rolls around expect them to be well on the outside looking in, as the meat of their schedule lies directly ahead.

Remaining schedule: Houston, Miami, Indianapolis, at New England, at Cleveland.

Prediction: Lose four of their next five games even if they do play well. No easy outs until facing the Browns, and by then it'll be too late.

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Houston (5-6), tied for third in AFC South
Until they get over the hump, I can't suspend disbelief. They're perpetually average and find ways to lose just when they have a chance to make a real statement. The Texans are just 1-4 in the AFC South after blowing a big lead in Sunday's loss to the Colts. They go to Jacksonville this coming Sunday to face a physical opponent that has given them fits. Forget about a brutal final two games to end the regular season, if they drop their fourth straight game, all within the division, they will be done.

Remaining games: at Jacksonville, Seattle, at St. Louis, at Miami, New England.

Prediction: All the division losses doom them. They might not win another AFC game, and .500 again.

NFC: In

New Orleans (10-0), first in NFC South
The Saints are the class of the conference and another team that could run the table, especially if they get past the Patriots on Monday night. They can slice you with precision passing, run it down your throat to cement games in the fourth quarter, or turn you over and beat you with defense. They have more than enough individual brilliance and a strong coaching staff as well. They can win games in various ways, and have a superior home-field advantage. The play of both the offensive and defensive lines has been elite, and their secondary is starting to get healthy again. The division is theirs, and now they have their eyes on the conference's top seed.

Remaining schedule: New England (Monday night), at Washington, at Atlanta, Dallas, Tampa Bay, at Carolina.

Prediction: They fall short of perfection, but nab the NFC's top seed.

Minnesota (10-1), first in NFC North
So much for the NFC North being deep and fearsome. The Vikings have run away with it, sweeping the Packers to pretty much end any suspense. Brett Favre has been unreal, and the Vikings can now manage his snaps and nurse him along in December given their huge cushion. The Vikings possess a great defense and great run game. Favre is making guys like Sidney Rice and rookie Percy Harvin shine. The punishment on Favre has mounted and we'll see if he hits the wall in the playoffs. Streak of consecutive games played or not, Favre should sit if there's nothing to play for in Week 17. The Giants could end the whole shebang with one hit.

Remaining schedule: at Arizona, Cincinnati, at Carolina, at Chicago, N.Y. Giants.

Prediction: Stumble a time or two down the stretch but cement the NFC's No. 2 seed.

Arizona (7-4), first in NFC West
A product of their woeful division, perhaps, but they're going to be there in January. They survived the slow start and Super Bowl hangover to be in position to run away with the NFC West, even with their heartbreaking loss to Tennessee on Sunday. Stout against the run, very tough front seven, and a passing game that can thrash you. Beanie Wells and the running game is coming along. Another hit to Kurt Warner, of course, could change everything, and that's the fear here. He's an older guy, who, if I'm locked into a playoff spot, is sitting. Last year's playoff run should provide plenty of confidence and the Cardinals have been dominant on the road this season (5-1). They aren't getting enough respect and I would not want to have to face them in the playoffs.

Remaining schedule: Minnesota, at San Francisco, at Detroit, St. Louis, Green Bay.

Prediction: End up 7-1 on the road and the NFC's No. 3 seed.

NFC: Contenders

Philadelphia (7-4), second in NFC East
The parts are largely in place, and they've survived some bumps in the road. They don't always look great week in and week out, but are a difficult team to match up with. They have great big-play ability, which is huge, and enough playmakers on defense to keep you honest. The linebacker situation has been a problem with all the injuries, but the front four is stout and the secondary can ball hawk. Best depth in the NFL at the quarterback position, and a schedule that gives them a shot at the other teams around them in the pack. Donovan McNabb is very good, they can burn you in the return game, and Trent Cole is a handful coming off the edge. Concussion to second big playmaker (DeSean Jackson) on offense has to be a concern.

Remaining schedule: at Atlanta, at N.Y. Giants, San Francisco, Denver, at Dallas.

Prediction: They could drop the game at the Meadowlands and still win 11 games. In fact, that's what I'm predicting, as they eliminate Dallas from playoff contention in Week 17 and clinch an NFC East title and the fourth seed. Just something stopping me short of declaring them "in."

Green Bay (7-4), second in NFC North
The Pack is back. Aaron Rodgers is elite, the power running game is clicking more now, but man, injuries are brutal. Can't go with the same offensive line from week to week with all the injuries there, and losing Al Harris and Aaron Kampman is difficult to overcome. Ultimately, not being able to prevail in either game with the Vikings will leave them just short of the postseason, I believe, but this team will remain in position to challenge. Another offseason in the 3-4 defense will be huge, and loading up on linemen early in the draft will serve them well. An excellent foundation is in place.

Remaining schedule: Baltimore, at Chicago, at Pittsburgh, Seattle, at Arizona.

Prediction: Tough time to have to face some hungry AFC North squads, and that shootout with the Cardinals in Week 17 could have everything at stake for the Packers.

N.Y. Giants (6-5), third in NFC East
Eli Manning pretty much always gets to the playoffs, and his supporting cast is just fine. Ahmad Bradshaw's ever-expanding injury issues are a concern, but the young wide receivers are great and they can win shootouts. The secondary will improve as Aaron Ross settles in and the pass rush will be more fierce down the stretch. This is the Giants' time of year, and though it will be a three-headed fight for the division crown, they have Dallas and Philadelphia at home coming off long rest from their Thanksgiving loss to Denver, and just a few weeks removed from the bye. That's a hefty rest period for a bruised team now ready to make its move.

Remaining schedule: Dallas, Philadelphia, at Washington, Carolina, at Minnesota.

Prediction: Giants go in as top wild card, with a Dallas sweep a key. Facing a Vikings team with nothing to play for in Week 17 will be a huge boost, and could determine tiebreakers with the Eagles as to who gets the division.

NFC: Pretenders

Dallas (8-3), first in NFC East
We all know what this team does in December. Historically, Tony Romo has been awful in the season's final month, and the schedule down the stretch is brutal. Teams are taking away Jason Witten, now beat up, and no one else is stepping up on a consistent basis. Even though he's coming off a seven-catch, 145-yard Thanksgiving performance, Miles Austin isn't going to bring it every week. The defense has been better, but the history of late-season collapse is very real and hard to shake. With two other very capable teams in the division right on their heels, and a loss to Green Bay a potential wild-card killer, I don't like their chances. Even in two of their wins, over Washington and Kansas City, the Cowboys were awful and should have lost. I see it all catching up with them in the end.

Remaining schedule: at N.Y. Giants, San Diego, at New Orleans, at Washington, Philadelphia.

Prediction: By the end of this upcoming three-game stretch, they'll be chasing the pack and beating the Redskins on the road won't be easy. They might not win another division game. If it goes down like I think it will, look for heads to roll in Big D this offseason.

Atlanta (6-5), second in NFC South
I envisioned big things for the Falcons this season, but the rise of the Saints has knocked them down a peg, and Matt Ryan's sophomore slump has derailed some plans as well. Now injuries are starting to mount to key positions. Ryan suffered a toe injury on Sunday that knocked him out of the game, and running back Michael Turner re-aggravated his ankle injury. Their uncertain availabilities for this week against Philadelphia and beyond is a huge concern.

Remaining schedule: Philadelphia, New Orleans, at N.Y. Jets, Buffalo, at Tampa Bay.

Prediction: Even if they sweep the Buccaneers and beat the AFC teams left on their schedule, that's nine wins, likely not enough for the postseason.

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