Clear at top with Giants, but rest of NFC playoff picture is cloudy

The Giants are the class of the NFC, if not the NFL. They are winning and doing so with style and brute force. Their place in the playoffs is a near certainty, as is the likelihood it won't have to traverse the country in the postseason as the visiting team as it did en route to winning last season's Super Bowl.

The physicality of the Giants' running game and dominance of their defensive front is frightening. Eli Manning's maturity after winning the Super Bowl in 2007 has been impressive. But could New York be peaking too soon?

That might be the only question surrounding the legitmacy of the Giants. All the other "contenders" in the NFC have multiple questions. And they have only a month and a half to answer them.

An NFC playoff primer with six weeks left in the regular season:


N.Y. Giants (9-1, first NFC East): Their final six games are as tough as any in the NFL and getting through that gauntlet unscathed would be even more impressive than what they've done so far. Unless there are injuries to key players, there might not need to be any reason to fret should the Giants slip. They split their final six games last season and finished at 10-6 before their four-game, postseason march to a championship.

Carolina (8-2, first NFC South): Quarterback Jake Delhomme followed up a four-interception game against dreadful Oakland with a 98-yard performance at home against winless Detroit. The Panthers won both games. Carolina is the anti-Giants when it comes to splash, but in allowing an NFC-low 155 points and possessing a strong running game led by DeAngelo Williams, the Panthers are poised to make a serious push into the postseason, unless Delhomme holds them back.

Arizona (7-3, first NFC West): The Cardinals are going to win the NFC West by default. It's a shame that in one of the few successful runs by this franchise, it comes when San Francisco, Seattle and St. Louis are among the league's worst teams. Then again, that's good news for the Cardinals, who have four intra-divisional victories. Even so, quarterback Kurt Warner is lighting the league up and could emerge as the its MVP. What is being overlooked and could end up legitimizing the Cardinals is their allowance of a respectable 23 points a game and a run defense that ranks seventh in the NFL.

In good standing

Tampa Bay (7-3, second NFC South): Though tailback Earnest Graham, placed on injured reserve this week, averaged 56 rushing yards per game, his toughness, unselfishness and effectiveness in tandem with Warrick Dunn was key to the Bucs' run game. Cadillac Williams, out for more than a year with a knee injury, is going to have to produce. Tampa Bay can't rely solely on its passing attack because that is not its persona. Fullback B.J. Askew's return last week could prove a huge boost to the running game because he is one of the better lead blockers in the league.

On a fine line

Washington (6-4, tied for second NFC East): Two straight losses have the once-promising Redskins reeling. Their inability to score points has finally caught up to them. Coach Jim Zorn has to regain confidence in quarterback Jason Campbell and Campbell has to do something to earn it. The offensive line has to regain its swagger in protection as well. The proof if Washington can improve on both counts comes in two of the next three weeks against the NFC East-leading Giants and Baltimore. If the Redskins can't snap out of their funk, Dallas could replace them as a wild-card favorite.

Dallas (6-4, tied for second NFC East): Quarterback Tony Romo is getting healthy and cornerback Terence Newman's return from a sport hernia adds incredible toughness and insurance. Dallas could make some headway against San Francisco and Seattle the next two weeks before having to earn a playoff berth over a rugged four-game stretch. Besides staying healthy, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett can't forget about tailback Marion Barber, as he seemingly did during the team's midseason slide. Don't underestimate how the return of guard Kyle Kosier vastly improves Dallas' run blocking and pass protection. Terrell Owens said it after Dallas's recent victory over Washington and the evidence backed him up.

Atlanta (6-4, third NFC South): Coach Mike Smith and his staff have done as an effective job at hiding the team's weaknesses, especially on defense, as they have in maximizing strengths. Now is when flawed teams tend to get exposed. It's also when focused teams can withstand the challenge. Atlanta has to be perfect on defense and it is about to face three teams that can inflict damage. Then again, Carolina, San Diego and New Orleans can be beat. That could make the Dec. 14 game vs. visiting Tampa Bay the Falcons' most important in years. If things are in order by then or after that game, Atlanta closes with Minnesota and St. Louis. Things would have to fall in line for the Falcons to get to postseason, but they've already accomplished things no one expected, so nothing can be ruled out.

Green Bay (5-5, tied for first NFC North): Everything seemingly points to the Packers being the best of the three teams tied atop the NFC North because they have the best quarterback in Aaron Rodgers. Then again, Green Bay -- until last week when Ryan Grant ran for 145 of the Packers' 200 rushing yards -- hasn't run the ball as well as the Vikings and Bears have, which, in the elements these teams are about to play in, is huge.

Slim chance

Philadelphia (5-4-1, fourth NFC East): The Eagles aren't officially out of it, but they don't seem very much into it. They haven't all season. Philadelphia hasn't won a game in the NFC East and they face every other playoff-caliber opponent again, so losing isn't an option (either is tying). The next three games against Baltimore, Arizona and the Giants -- if it takes that long -- will chart their course.

New Orleans (5-5, fourth NFC South): The Saints would have to gain the consistency they haven't had all season. Potential suspensions for violating the league's banned-substance policy could send running back Deuce McAlister and defensive end Will Smith to the sidelines (Charles Grant , the Saints' defensive end who is also facing a suspension, is already done for the season after being placed on injured reserve). Those losses would effectively end what has been a disappointing season.

Minnesota (5-5, tied for first NFC North): Minnesota, which has split with Green Bay and lost to Chicago once, seems to have the hardest road of the three North teams at the top. The Vikings have non-conference games remaining against Jacksonville, Atlanta, Arizona and the Giants. A potential haymaker to the Vikings: possible four-game suspensions for defensive tackles Kevin and Pat Williams for violating the league's banned-substance policy. They are in the midst of the appeal process, but if those perennial Pro Bowlers are out for a month, Minnesota could be in serious trouble.

Chicago (5-5, tied for first NFC North): Defense wins championships and the Bears know that more than most teams. Chicago ranks 19th or worse in most major defensive categories. Facing St. Louis this weekend should allow the Bears to regain their footing, but then comes a four-game stretch of potentially winnable -- and loseable -- games, the last against Green Bay, which dropped 37 points on Chicago last Sunday.

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