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Falcons, Ravens among teams in position for strong finishes

Back in 2005, Jim Mora's Atlanta Falcons jumped to a 6-2 record at the halfway point of the season, seemingly delivering on the promise set forth the year before when they advanced to the NFC title game. Then, in Week 10, a journeyman running back named Samkon Gado and the reeling Green Bay Packers stunned the Falcons 33-25. From that point, Atlanta paved the path for what Josh McDaniels' Broncos did in 2009, finishing 2-6 and out of the playoffs.

We've seen the Chiefs, Buccaneers, Falcons, Bears, Titans, Giants, and a few other teams start quickly. Can they maintain? And who's lying in the weeds?

Looking good

Falcons (6-2): Atlanta is starting to round into shape on defense, and it boasts one of the most balanced offenses in the NFL. After Baltimore -- it's in Atlanta where the Falcons are 17-1 under quarterback Matt Ryan -- Green Bay and New Orleans are the only goliaths on the schedule, although a rematch with Tampa Bay won't be easy.

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Giants (6-2): As good as the Giants have played and as strong as they look on both sides of the ball, they've gotten fat on a pretty soft schedule -- and they've got Dallas on deck to stockpile another W. Even so, the final half of the docket isn't brutal, and New York looks like the real deal -- but the potential is there for a dip.

Ravens (6-2): The defense might not be as imposing at it once was, but things seem to be coming together, especially now that safety Ed Reed is back. Baltimore is about to take a tour through the NFC South and a victory over the Falcons in Atlanta would be a huge statement.

Steelers (6-2): The injuries to C Maurkice Pouncey and Chris Kemoeatu Monday night were not serious, which is good because both have been playing well. The schedule is pretty unrelenting, but the defense will keep Pittsburgh in every game.

Jets (6-2): Escaping with the win at Detroit was one of those games where things bounced their way. That's what happens to help teams get to the playoffs. It might take at least 11 victories to win the AFC East, and that won't come easy. New York has no room to lapse, especially in its upcoming game against Cleveland -- a potential spoiler for a lot of teams.

Packers (6-3): Green Bay weathered a string of injuries and has won three straight. It has a bye to get even healthier before heading to Minnesota on Nov. 21. Winning four of their final seven games should seal a playoff berth, and it might not even take that much.

Saints (6-3): The Falcons were very outspoken about their need to keep winning because even they can see that New Orleans is getting its legs back. It posted two impressive wins before this week's bye and the Saints have a string of winnable games. The Dec. 27 matchup at Atlanta could be huge.

Up or down

Patriots (6-2): There are unexpected, bad losses that come back to haunt teams each season. The 34-14 beating at the hands of Cleveland could be one of those. The Patriots will always be a difficult matchup and won't go on an extended swoon, but if a playoff berth comes down to a game or two, what just happened could determine whether they lose home-field advantage or a postseason spot outright.

Colts (5-3): It's hard not envisioning Indianapolis not making the playoffs, especially with Houston's recent slide. However, the multitude of injuries could simply be too much to overcome in such a competitive conference. The outcomes of two games vs. Tennessee at the end of the season could be the difference.

Titans (5-3): Randy Moss probably won't put the Titans over the top or sink them. Their defense is going to be what's most important -- seeing as though they're the only ones in the AFC South actually playing defense. If they bounce back against Miami this week, that could point them in the right direction. They might need to win six of their final eight to get to the playoffs.

Eagles (5-3): Wins over Atlanta and Indianapolis were impressive, but their losses still beg the question if they can consistently compete with the big boys. They'll find out soon. Though the Redskins aren't a likely playoff team, they've beaten Philly and could be problematic Monday night. An Eagles victory could propel them as they enter a tough patch in the schedule. A loss could send them in the other direction. Nine wins on the season might not be enough to make the playoffs.

Chiefs (5-3): The recent loss to Oakland isn't a deal breaker, but Kansas City is going to have to, at the least, split its final eight games. Oakland isn't going away and San Diego, which K.C. beat already, looks poised to make a run. The Chiefs face Denver twice and Oakland and San Diego again. If they win two of those and split their non-division games (Arizona, Seattle, St. Louis, Tennessee) they should be good.

Raiders (5-4): If the Raiders don't get caught up in their recent run of success, they appear poised to challenge the Chiefs for a playoff berth. The Chargers could be a factor, but if the Raiders beat them in San Diego that season sweep could be the deal breaker.

Bears (5-3): How things shake out with the Vikings this week will be telling because Chicago seems to be flirting with danger. A victory could salt away Minnesota's season and keep Chicago afloat. A loss, which would be the third in four games, compounded with a pretty rugged schedule, could spell doom.

Chargers (4-5), Dolphins (4-4), Buccaneers (5-3), Vikings (3-5), Texans (4-4), the NFC West: San Diego and Tampa Bay need to win at least five games to make it to postseason. Should Minnesota or Houston not close 6-2 or better -- 7-1 seems more likely -- they could both be looking for new coaches after the season. All of these teams are capable of staging such runs, but Miami and Houston have tough schedules and the Texans' defense simply can't be trusted.

As for the NFC West, nobody's a goner, and San Francisco is still in play. That's all that needs to be said about that.

Secondary injury

Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson sustained a concussion in Week 6 on the wicked hit he delivered to Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson that also drew a $50,000 fine. That wasn't the only wound Robinson suffered. He told me Tuesday that he sprained ligaments in his knee, and he's not at full strength.

He gave up a 58-yard touchdown pass to Tampa Bay's Mike Williams on Sunday and took a bad pursuit angle trying to catch him. Robinson, who signed a six-year, $57 million free-agent contract this offseason, will start against the Ravens on Thursday.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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