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All sorts of changes in order for this year's playoff picture

I think it's pretty safe to say that, with quarterback Tony Romo out for at least six weeks with a fractured left clavicle, the Cowboys' season is toast. Owner Jerry Jones already is formulating his short list of candidates to replace coach Wade Phillips after the season.

The fact that they weren't winning with Romo makes the scenario even glummer because, to sample former Celtics coach Rick Pitino, "Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman ain't walking through that door."

That leads me to take a glimpse at the potential phenomenon of roughly six new teams -- half the playoff field -- advancing to the postseason. That's where things are headed again, especially with the dysfunction in Dallas, San Diego, Minnesota, Cincinnati and Arizona.

The odd thing is the teams that have generated separation from the pack record-wise (Jets-Patriots; Ravens-Steelers) haven't been able to pull away from their biggest threats to make their ascension point toward a certain postseason berth.

Let's take a look at who could be out and in with 10 weeks to go:

Who's out?

Dallas (1-5): The Cowboys simply aren't a good football team. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett will finally commit to running the ball because Jon Kitna is his quarterback, but it's too late. What's even more troubling is the defense doesn't look good, especially on the back end. And where has OLB Anthony Spencer gone?

Arizona (3-3): The quarterback situation isn't ideal, but the Cardinals aren't playing well on defense, either. They have allowed 160 points -- second worst in the NFC. The NFC West is still open enough for them to get in by default, but Seattle and St. Louis look more promising.

Minnesota (2-4): This is a pretty good team that can still regroup -- especially with the schedule softening after Sunday's game at New England. It has a shot. A loss to the Pats would drop the Vikings to 2-5. That would prompt a likely need for a 7-2 finish to get into the playoffs. Not easy, especially with an injured quarterback who isn't winning and is bringing the drama.

San Diego (2-5): Vincent Jackson's return will come too late, plus, he can't fix everything that is unfolding. When San Diego isn't messing up in the kicking game, it's making other mistakes, like dropping passes. The AFC West is unsettled, but San Diego seems stuck in mud.

Cincinnati (2-4): The Bengals have lost three straight. The offense is sporadic, and the defense has lost its sting, which last season was its strength. The schedule the rest of the way might be the toughest in the NFL. Plus, the Ravens and Steelers look too tough in the AFC North.

Who's in?

Atlanta (5-2): The Falcons haven't shown enough consistency on defense to be viewed as a monstrous threat. However, they are running the ball with ferocity, they are well coached, they've won some tight games with clutch plays and they might have the most dangerous receiver in the NFL in Roddy White.

Seattle (4-2): The Seahawks still have a lot of room for growth, but they compete on every play. The addition of running back Marshawn Lynch will continue to help the offense, and they have the most stable quarterback situation in the division. Pete Carroll is in the early mix for Coach of the Year.

Giants (5-2): Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell will get some looks as a head coach next season if his defense continues to wreak havoc. Eli Manning is playing well, and Big Blue has regained its physicality. The Eagles pose a threat, and Washington is a tough opponent, but the Giants are showing there is more than one good team in New York.

Tennessee (5-2): The Titans are averaging 28 points and are scoring in every which way. They have a two-headed quarterback scenario that actually is healthy, and their defense gets after the quarterback. The Titans could win the division, and it wouldn't be a shock if two wild card teams come from the AFC South.

Chiefs (4-2): I am a believer. Sure, Kansas City hasn't beaten an upper-echelon team, but there aren't any of those left on the schedule. There will be some bumps along the way, and the Raiders can't be dismissed, but the Chiefs are putting points on the board, running the ball better than anyone and playing good enough defense.

Pittsburgh (5-1): Arguably the best team in the NFL, and the Steelers still aren't fully acclimated to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. They must keep playing at a high level, though, because if they don't win the division, one of three teams in the AFC South, including Houston (4-2), could occupy their possible wild card spot.

To note, the Colts, with all of their injuries, could also find themselves on the outside looking in when it's all said and done. A second loss to Houston on Monday would put them in a hole within the division.

An interesting take on player safety

With the NFL trumpeting the success of its crackdown on violent hits last weekend -- there were none viewed as illegal -- I got an interesting take on the subject from Bengals tackle Andrew Whitworth.

Though offensive and defensive linemen don't take the straight line, full-speed shots delivered by a defensive back to a wide receiver, they do ram their heads together on nearly every play. Offensive linemen also have to bang ram-rodding blitzers while defensive linemen frequently dump their initial blocker just in time to get bulldozed by a fullback or trapping guard.

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"Ours are repeat collisions," Whitworth said. "It's something going on all the time. They might not be as awful as those big hits, but they do happen over and over and they are hard hits."

Whitworth said there is no reason for the NFL to change anything in regards to head blows along the line of scrimmage. However, with all of the studies being done by the NFL regarding concussions and head injuries, he is eager to analyze the results.

The NFL did not specify whether the Head, Neck and Spine Committee's research focused on individual injuries based on position groupings and/or repetitive hits. However, according to the NFL, it has kept a medical database on concussions using information provided by team medical staffs. There also is an ongoing project to study the long-term effects of concussions sustained by NFL players, but results won't be completed for at least another year, according to the league.

As for the NFL cracking down on the harmful hits to players -- like Patriots' safety Brandon Merriweather's shot to Baltimore tight end Todd Heap -- Whitworth said he's all for it.

"The game is getting more physical, and the guys are bigger and stronger, and it's going to continue to get that way," he said. "It's going to continue to be more violent. Taking away the big hits on receivers crossing the middle is needed. The game will continue to be violent, regardless."

Singletary's future in San Francisco

San Francisco owner John York told reporters this week that Mike Singletary is the team's coach -- presumably for the rest of the season -- despite a 1-5 start after predictions they'd win the NFC West. A loss to Denver in London Sunday could change Singletary's status -- Broncos coach Josh McDaniels' seat will start to get blazing hot if Denver loses, too -- but probably not until the end of the season.

I've been told by a league source that the relationship between some members of the York family and with Singletary and some members of his family is very strong, which is a reason why Singletary was awarded the job when Mike Nolan was fired nearly two years ago. Whether those ties keep Singletary employed with the 49ers through the season might not have much bearing. Production, or lack thereof, is the barometer in the NFL.

The feeling is that Singletary -- and other coaches on thin ice (McDaniels, Wade Phillips) -- will make it through the season because of the uncertainty surrounding the labor deal with the NFL and the players union, and because suitable in-house replacements might not make a difference.

All it takes, though, are signs of players quitting or not listening and changes can be made, regardless of the dreaded vote of confidence from ownership.

The second best TE in the AFC

San Diego's Antonio Gates is the best tight end in the game, but a player in his division and in his state is starting to narrow the gap between Gates and everyone else. Oakland's Zach Miller, who had a 43-yard touchdown catch to contribute to the Raiders' 59-14 wipeout of Denver, already has 33 catches for 453 yards and a career-high four touchdowns.

He is coming off a 66-catch season and has been Oakland's leading receiver the past two seasons. Those numbers aren't overly impressive when the team is awful and there are no other threats.

However, with the Raiders (3-4) starting to win some ball games and showing a more diverse offense, Miller's production and consistency -- he's had at least 44 catches since entering the NFL four years ago -- is looking more impressive.

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With Indianapolis' Dallas Clark out for the season, Miller could even generate serious Pro Bowl consideration.

"Teams have been showing me more attention of late, but with us running the ball and with some of the play calling by Coach (Hugh) Jackson, they're still finding ways to get me the ball," Miller said.

Miller frequently is the main target on pass plays.

Miller said Jackson's offensive philosophy is to "throw to score, run to win."

While busting up Denver remains on the Raiders' minds, Miller said winning Sunday against Seattle is paramount, not only because it would improve their record to 4-4 but it also would be their first back-to-back wins since 2008.

"That would be huge for us," he said.

Growth does come one step at a time.

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