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Jay Cutler, Alex Smith injuries could reshape NFC race

The road to a playoff bye is rarely a smooth one. The top teams in the NFC were reminded of that in Week 10.

The Atlanta Falcons, Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers, and New York Giants all failed to come away with wins on Sunday. (The 49ers kissed their division sisters.)



A four-part series on player health and safety with reporter Andrea Kremer aired Tuesday through Friday on NFL Network:

Tuesday: Football's safety issues
Wednesday: Virginia Tech's helmet technology, The "Hit System"
Thursday: Inside Darrelle Revis' rehab
Friday: The lack of common safety standards in youth football

» For more information on player health and safety, visit NFLEvolution.com.

Concussions suffered by quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Alex Smith loom especially large. We could see a matchup of backups Colin Kaepernick and Jason Campbell on "Monday Night Football" next week.

With their easy schedule and great play at home, the Falcons can survive their slip-up in New Orleans. The 49ers remain two up in the loss column on Seattle in the NFC West and don't rely on their quarterback play that much. They can live without Smith. The Giants are used to second-half drama. It's what they do.

The Bears are the team to worry about most here. They have the Packers coming fast in the rearview mirror and a brutal schedule coming up, with five straight games against winning teams. Chicago relies on Cutler's big arm to overcome inadequacies on its offensive line. Cutler's concussion hurt the Bears' chances to beat Houston on Sunday night, and it could have repercussions in the NFC playoff race for weeks to come.

So you're saying there's a chance

1. The Cowboys are far from out of the NFC East (despite the appearance of owner Jerry Jones batting eyelashes at Mike Holmgren) after Dallas' win against Philly. Dallas has a chance to be only half a game behind the Giants before New York gets back on the field after its bye week. The Cowboys host the Browns before facing the Redskins on Thanksgiving.

2. The Bengals have looked lousy nearly all season, but they won a game convincingly against the Giants when they absolutely needed to. A record of 4-5 is not out of it in the AFC. You can't rule out a Colts collapse down the stretch, which would mean that 8-8 or 9-7 could be enough for the last Wild Card spot in the AFC this season.

3. The sledding is tougher in the NFC, which is why Saints fans shouldn't go too crazy making Super Bowl plans just yet after beating Atlanta. New Orleans' margin for error remains perilously thin, but at least they are giving their fans something to enjoy this season. Games against the 49ers, Falcons and Giants still loom.

They're real and spectacular

1. Denver's defense is a legitimate weapon. Von Miller just finished one of the most dominant two-game stretches I've ever seen from a pass rusher. Robert Ayers is coming on strong. The Panthers had eight three-and-outs against Denver. The Broncos' front manhandled Carolina.

2. It's probably time to throw Adrian Peterson's hat in the MVP ring. It is totally ridiculous the guy might have a career season after tearing his ACL.

3. The Ravens put up a 50-burger against Oakland. I don't have much to say about it, but fans complain when I don't mention their team after winning. So, thank you Baltimore for appropriately setting the table for Steelers-Ravens next week. Well-timed by NBC!

4. The Seahawks have a good chance to go undefeated at home. Week 16 against the 49ers should be a classic.

The more things change ...

1. Yes, the Patriots have a running game and Chandler Jones. But the more this season wears on, the more their team resembles the 2011 squad. That's a bad thing. This team should have more potential. Then again, the 2011 Patriots were a couple of plays away from winning a title.

2. The Falcons lost another rivalry game to the Saints because they couldn't convert in short-yardage. The difference between this year and last: Mike Smith only tried to run once in three plays against New Orleans. Smith knows the team can't win up front.

Don't panic

1. The Giants are making life hard again. That's what they do. The road to a playoff bye is going to be much tougher, but they have a chance to get healthy during their bye week. The key part here: Do you really trust Dallas to make a run in the second half?

2. This may sound obvious, but tying the Rams is so much better than a loss for the 49ers. Teams always want to "control their fate." The loss column is about controlling fate. San Francisco remains two up on Seattle in the loss column, which is a significant edge past the midway point of the season. Marc Sessler had a great recap of the madness.

3. To all the AFC teams at five or six losses: You are only out of it if you believe the Colts can't stumble down the stretch.

Fork preview

Each week, the Around the League crew sticks a fork in teams we eliminate from true playoff contention. We don't intend this to be predictive, just a statement that their seasons are legitimately over.

Six teams were forked before Week 10. The Philadelphia Eagles are obviously next. It's over. (The Fork Committee will discuss the Raiders, Bills and Jets a little more in-depth. The AFC is bad enough for someone to rise from the ashes.)

Some panic is acceptable

1. Some stereotypes are stereotypes because they are true. Philip Rivers' two fourth-quarter interceptions were brain-farting back breakers. Robert Meachem was essentially benched in this game. Rivers played very well until the final frame, but he contributed greatly to the Chargers' loss.

When Norv Turner nearly has a Dennis Green moment, you know the end is near.

2. I've seen the Jets come back from the dead so many times that I'm hesitant to say it's all over, but the Jets aren't even competitive when they lose. That's four losses by at least 17 points. They have been outscored 58-16 in the last two weeks against the Dolphins and Seahawks.

3. The Dolphins have quietly been showing cracks for a while. The Rams dominated the line of scrimmage against them, but the Dolphins found a way to win. The Colts blew the doors off the Dolphins last week. The Titans led Miami 24-3 at halftime. At the time, Jake Locker was 4-for-14 for 34 yards.

Losing 37-3 to Tennessee dims the expectation level for this Dolphins team.

4. The Lions made strides to get to 4-4, but they are buried deep in the NFC North after losing to the Vikings again. It's hard to see Detroit recovering now, not that Calvin Johnson's fantasy owners mind. (207 yards. Hello!)

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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