The NFL is loaded with teams hanging just above or just below .500.
Of those in the just-above category (7-5), only the San Diego Chargers can feel reasonably secure about their postseason chances because their record is good enough to put them in a commanding position in the woeful AFC West. The others, Cleveland and Tennessee, are fighting for their playoff lives.
The seven teams in the just-below category (5-7) -- Carolina, Chicago, Denver, Houston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington -- have to be considered long-shots to play beyond December.
Which brings us to the four teams that are actually .500 (6-6): Arizona, Buffalo, Detroit, and Minnesota.
Their seasons have reached a crossroads. Beyond mathematical possibilities, each approaches the final four weeks of the schedule with what could be termed as varying levels of hope of clinching a wild-card spot.
Let's take a closer look.
With Kurt Warner at quarterback, the Cardinals are always competitive. His four successive games with multiple touchdown passes are the most he has had since 2001, when he had six to finish an NFL MVP season in St. Louis. That's the good news. The bad news is that both of Warner's top receivers, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, are injured and could miss the Week 14 divisional showdown against Seattle. The Cards are getting better play from tight ends Leonard Pope, Ben Patrick, and Troy Bienemann, but it is likely asking too much for them to pick up the big-play slack left by the absences of Fitzgerald and Boldin. After Seattle, the Cardinals' schedule doesn't look all that daunting with games against New Orleans, Atlanta (3-9), and St. Louis (3-9).
Hope level: Semi-realistic. Given their long list of injuries, especially on defense, it's remarkable that the Bills even find themselves in a position to compete for the playoffs. They did an amazing job of stuffing the run in their Week 13 win at Washington, forcing Jason Campbell into mistakes as he tried to carry the Redskins' offensive load.
Rookie Trent Edwards gives them a more efficient and reliable quarterback than J.P. Losman, although he needs to do a much a better job of getting them into the end zone. The Bills should be getting back their best offensive weapon, rookie running back Marshawn Lynch, from an ankle injury. Fred Jackson gives them another explosive presence in their backfield. They should have no trouble handling the pathetic Miami Dolphins in Week 14. After that, they travel to Cleveland, where they are unlikely to get away with winning with mostly field goals and safeties as they have in their last two victories.
Hope level: Unrealistic. The Lions are unraveling. It isn't just that they have suffered four losses in a row. It's that they have seemingly lost interest in their season. They no longer have the offensive spark that carried them to an impressive start in the first half of the season. Their offensive line continues to offer minimal protection for Jon Kitna. And now they could be without standout receiver Roy Williams (knee) for the rest of the season.
Their defense is still covered with the cleat marks of Minnesota running backs Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor. The sad truth is that the Lions' players don't seem to have a whole lot of fight or desire to make a playoff run. Safety Kenoy Kennedy said it best after the 42-10 loss to the Vikings: "…it seemed like they wanted it more than we did." The schedule doesn't help the Lions' cause. Three of their remaining opponents have winning records, including the 11-1 Cowboys in Week 14 and the 10-2 Packers in Week 17.
Hope level: Very realistic. The Vikings' three-game winning streak is not a mirage. They are playing well in a variety of areas. They have excellent depth at running back, as evidenced by Taylor's ability to carry the rushing load while Peterson sat out Weeks 11 and 12 with a sore knee.
Peterson's return gives them the chance to dominate on the ground. They have a playmaking defense. And they're getting more and more efficient play from quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, who in his last three games had completed 77.6 percent of his passes for 504 yards and three touchdowns while throwing two interceptions. "He's gaining the trust of the guys, and guys are believing in him," fullback Tony Richardson said. "The main thing is we're fighting for him." That fight is helped by a remaining schedule that does not include an opponent with a winning record.
MONDAY NIGHT TAKES
» A week ago, I mentioned in this space that perhaps too much was being made of the so-called "blueprint" that Philadelphia had provided New England's remaining opponents by giving the Patriots all they could handle in Week 12. I said that because at the time, I thought the Steelers were the only team left on their schedule capable of duplicating the Eagles' hard-hitting, blitz-heavy defensive approach that took Tom Brady out of his comfort zone and disrupted the routes and pass-catching ability of his receivers. I was wrong. The Ravens carried it out to perfection. If I'm the Patriots, I'm worried about the Steelers being every bit as effective with a similar approach in Week 14. Conventional wisdom was that Bill Belichick and his coaching staff would find ways to counter duplications of the Eagles' scheme. Conventional wisdom was wrong, too.
» As I watched Willis McGahee trample Patriot defenders for 138 yards and a touchdown, I couldn't help but wonder where that player was for most of his time in Buffalo.
It's one thing to be frustrated over a loss and angry about certain calls. But saying that the league is doing all it can to make sure the Patriots win it all is silly and reckless. Are we to believe that every controversial officiating decision that doesn't go the Ravens' way -- such as the review of Phil Dawson's missed-turned-made field goal that helped lead to an overtime loss to Cleveland -- is done because the NFL favors Baltimore's opposition? That makes no more sense than the notion that the Pats are being unfairly helped. By the way, I seem to recall a couple of extremely debatable calls that went against New England in its Week 9 game against the Colts. Oh, yes, and is the league that supposedly wants the Pats to win another Super Bowl the same one that punished them severely for breaking the rules in the "Spygate" affair?
» Jon Gruden's affinity for quarterbacks is well documented. He seemingly collects them the way some people collect stamps. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Bucs' coach has won games with 12 different starting quarterbacks, more than any active coach. The Chargers' Norv Turner and the Ravens' Brian Billick are tied for second at 10.
» It's conceivable that Cam Cameron could be one-and-done as coach of the Dolphins. Their 0-12 record certainly gives team owner Wayne Huizenga enough reason to at least consider pulling the plug on his rookie coach after the season. But the bigger concern for Cameron is that there is no sign that things will get even marginally better through the final four weeks of the season. Not after the Dolphins' 40-13 loss to the New York Jets, another bottom-feeder in the league.
It didn't seem possible, but Miami's offensive line has gone from bad to worse, which is only going to compound the mistakes of rookie quarterback John Beck going forward. The Dolphins' battered defense also is in a shambles. Right now, an 0-16 finish for Miami seems more probable than the Patriots going 16-0.
» When do the Houston Texans finally go from a young, struggling team to a legitimate playoff contender? They have been hit with injuries, but their bigger problems are the killer mistakes that their players continually make. Rather than producing big plays, the Texans take turns blundering at the worst possible time, such as Michael Boulware's holding penalty which nullified Andre' Davis' fumble recovery in the Week 13 loss to Tennessee.
"I feel, talent-wise, we have as much as the teams we're losing to," frustrated defensive end N.D. Kalu told reporters in Houston. "We have great coaches. We work hard. It just seems like when we have time to make that special play, nobody is really making it at the right time."
» Don't be too quick to dismiss Seattle's defensive success against the Eagles in Week 13 as a case of the Seahawks merely benefitting from the ineptitude of quarterback A.J. Feeley. Linebacker Lofa Tatupu was not just fortunate to be in the right place at the right time when he came up with three of Feeley's four interceptions, including the one that sealed the Seahawks' 28-24 victory. As safety Brian Russell pointed out, Tatupu earned every pick by applying his thorough study of videotape, tremendous instincts, and coverage skills.
"He knew the routes," Russell said. "He's as good as any linebacker I've ever seen, let alone played with, as far as covering those underneath routes. And he really sealed the game for us in the end. The guy's just a great playmaker."
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