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Formerly terrible trio looks to play spoiler down the stretch

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So much attention was paid to big losses by the Eagles and Cowboys last week that fans may have overlooked the teams that defeated them. Focus on the two lightning-rod NFC East teams overshadowed the fact that both the Seahawks and Cardinals have shown flashes of playing very good football this season.

In the past four weeks, the Seahawks and Cardinals both have home games against the NFC West-leading 49ers before ending the regular season against each other. Can one of them run the table? With both those teams sitting at 5-7, would it even be enough to make the playoffs?

There have been two examples in recent years of teams fighting back from similar holes.

In 2007, the Redskins won their final four games to finish 9-7 and earn a wild-card berth. Along the way, they beat Minnesota to knock the Vikings out of the hunt. In 2008, the Chargers were in even worse shape at 4-8, and they ran the table to capture the AFC West with an 8-8 record. They beat Denver in the final game of the regular season to knock out the Broncos.

The Seahawks and Cardinals are young teams playing hard. Another club that fits this description is the Dolphins, who have won four of their past five after an 0-7 start. It's hard to think any of these teams will make the playoffs, but they are serious spoilers who will still play a role in determining which teams do reach the postseason. Let's take a closer look:

Cardinals

If any of these teams has a chance to make the playoffs, it's the Cardinals. They have three home games left on the schedule, and they are the type of team that can go on a hot streak after last week's win over Dallas. The overtime victory should really give that team a lot of confidence. More importantly, the defense has allowed 86 points in its past five games, a little more than 17 points per game. The Cards have allowed chunks of yardage, but they're stingy with the points allowed, and that's the key. One thing they must do is reverse the turnover trend -- they are minus-8 on the season.

The Cardinals play at Cincinnati in Week 16. They are the kind of team that can beat the Bengals because they can handle the Bengals' passing attack, which could also be hampered in the December weather in Cincinnati.

Arizona has already won four of five. I see them finishing 7-9, but don't be surprised if they spoil the Bengals' playoff run.

Seahawks

Seattle plays the 49ers and Rams at home, the Bears and Cardinals on the road. There's a chance that the Week 16 game against the 49ers will be played when San Francisco might be inclined to take its foot off the pedal and rest starters for the playoffs. The spoiler game is at Chicago in Week 15. The Seahawks could go into Soldier Field and knock the Bears out of a wild-card spot.

Seattle has beaten some good teams -- the Ravens and Giants, in particular -- this season. The challenge is going to be improving the offense, especially with two or three offensive linemen injured and WR Sidney Rice out for the season. I don't know if they can win all four, but if I'm Chicago, I'm looking at that game and saying, "That's one I wish I didn't have to play."

Dolphins

In the deep AFC, there is no chance that Miami can make the playoffs with an 8-8 record. They'd have a hard time winning out anyway, mainly due to a Week 16 game at New England. But with Philadelphia at home this week and then at Buffalo in Week 15, Miami can build on its recent success. The Dolphins host the rival Jets to end the season, and the outcome of that game will certainly have a major bearing on the playoff picture.

Since recovering from a terrible start, the Dolphins' defense is playing really well. Miami ranks fifth in fewest points allowed. The Dolphins will no doubt look back at close losses to Cleveland and Denver and wonder what might have been. Regardless, the Jets will not be looking forward to facing Tony Sparano's squad in Week 17.

NFL Odysseys

» Wide receiver Laurent Robinson had a total of four touchdown receptions in his first four NFL seasons (Falcons, 2007-08; Rams, 2009-10). In less than one full season with the Cowboys, he already has seven TD grabs.

» T.J. Yates of the Texans is the first player ever from the University of North Carolina to start an NFL game at quarterback. (Note: Former UNC football and basketball star Ronald Curry did throw two option passes for the Raiders several years ago, but that's as close as he got to starting at QB.)

» Speaking of Yates, the Falcons under coach Mike Smith entered this season 8-0 against rookie quarterbacks. They upped that to 10-0 this season, beating Cam Newton and Christian Ponder ... before losing Sunday to Yates.

» With 30 yards receiving in Pittsburgh's win over the Bengals, WR Hines Ward is now at 12,021 yards for his career, making him just the 12th player in NFL history to top the 12,000-yard mark.

» The Texans have held six consecutive opponents to 14 points or less and have done it nine times this season. Number of games they held the opponent to 14 or less last year? One. Does that qualify defensive coordinator Wade Phillips for coach of the year?

» Through 12 games in 2011, the Panthers have scored 290 points, 94 more than they scored all of last season (196).

Game of the week: Giants-Cowboys

The first meeting in this series was a 31-31 tie back in 1960 -- the only game Cowboys didn't lose in their inaugural season. It's been a great rivalry ever since. This one, on Sunday night, certainly will be a mammoth ratings event.

One of these teams will make playoffs as the NFC East champ. The other might squeak in as a wild card but it will be extremely hard.

The matchup features two quarterbacks in Eli Manning and Tony Romo who are often targets of criticism. Manning, who was outstanding last week against Green Bay, owns the NFL's best passer rating in the fourth quarter. He is very smart, checks out of a lot of plays and is more athletic than people think. If you're looking to slow him down, you need a big pass rush that can get him out of rhythm and produce sacks. That's where Dallas LB DeMarcus Ware comes in. Ware is capable of doing this -- he has 15 sacks already this season. Ware lines up mostly on Manning's blind side but will move around often.

On the other side, Romo will need to watch out for DE Jason Pierre-Paul. Romo has 29 TDs and nine interceptions this year. Like Manning, he has been playing without his top receivers. Still, he's averaging 270 yards per game. Romo makes a lot of audibles and takes the clock right down to the end so he's sure about what defenses are trying to do. He's a little more athletic than Manning. Romo is not taking as many chances as in previous years, but he is much better than he gets credit for.

Pierre-Paul lines up anywhere and has been very good at batting down passes coming off the defensive right side. The second-year player is performing at a Pro Bowl level. He is big, strong and fast, and plays hard on every down.

Prediction: Cowboys 31, Giants 30

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