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NFL forecast: Patriots reign in AFC, NFC mostly cloudy

Opening drive

For the most part, the AFC has sorted itself out.

The New England Patriots are the gold standard of the conference (and the league, for that matter). The Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers are at the next level, capable of dominating in multiple phases of the game but not as dominant as the Pats.

After that, it's anyone's guess as to which teams truly belong among the AFC's elite. The Jacksonville Jaguars might, but they'll have to beat the Colts -- or at least give a good showing when the divisional rivals meet on Monday Night Football in Week 7. The San Diego Chargers have taken a big step in that direction after two consecutive victories, but they'll need to do more to lose the stench of an early three-game losing streak. The Baltimore Ravens? Shaky, at best.

However, the questions are much larger in the NFC.

The Dallas Cowboys suddenly look more vulnerable than their 5-1 record suggests. They needed a miracle to beat the 1-4 Buffalo Bills, then, in what some called a Super Bowl XLII preview, they were soundly beaten by the Patriots.

How good are the Cowboys? It's hard to say. Their run defense is solid, but their secondary has some major issues. Tom Brady has carved up every secondary he has faced, but none as easily as Dallas'. Eli Manning had similar success in Week 1. The Cowboys have the No. 2 offense and No. 3 passing game in the league, but their biggest star, quarterback Tony Romo, is just as capable of making disastrous mistakes as he is big plays. He was too often fooled by the variety of irreverent defensive alignments he saw from the Bills and Patriots.

The Green Bay Packers, also 5-1, don't look quite as impressive as they did before losing to the Chicago Bears in Week 5. They redeemed themselves with a Week 6 triumph over the Washington Redskins, but were fortunate to get a late fumble that Charles Woodson returned for the winning touchdown. The Packers have a playoff-quality defense, but their horrendous running game could eventually lead to defensive fatigue as the year wears on. Brett Favre has cooled off since going on an eye-popping tear through the first four weeks of the season, and he has begun making the sort of mindless turnovers that will only add to the burden of Green Bay's defense.

After that is a cluster of 4-2 teams that are intriguing -- the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the New York Giants and the Carolina Panthers -- but don't necessarily have the look of a legitimate Super Bowl team.

For as well as Jeff Garcia has played, the Buccaneers still rank near the bottom of the NFL in total offense and passing offense. They have taken hard injury hits at running back and on the offensive line. Their defense is good, but could be much better at stopping the run.

The Giants' offensive consistency is a question mark (see "Monday night takes" below) and running back Brandon Jacobs looks too fragile. They have a strong pass rush but can still be gashed for big gains against the run.

All that can be said about the Panthers is that the highlight of their season was the performance of 43-year-old quarterback Vinny Testaverde, who was able to lead them to a Week 6 victory against Arizona only four days after arriving in Carolina. Otherwise, the jury remains out on this team.

And let's not even discuss the NFC West, which no one seems interested in winning.

Monday night takes

» I want to believe that Eli Manning has his game in order and is finally ready to show on a consistent basis that he's a top-notch quarterback. He took me to that place with some nice throws, including a pair of touchdowns, on the way to a 303-yard passing night. He did an excellent job of spreading the ball around to his receivers, finding holes in the NFL's 20th-ranked pass defense and changing plays to better deal with what he saw on the other side of the line of scrimmage. But then Manning made me have second thoughts with two ugly passes that were intercepted, and a fumble. If the Giants were playing a stronger opponent than Atlanta, Manning likely wouldn't have gotten away with his miscues. It could very well be that this performance was the best that he has to offer and that it is more realistic to regularly expect him to be solid rather than spectacular.

» You can't help but marvel at Plaxico Burress. The guy has a sprained ankle that is serious enough to keep him from practicing all week. Yet, on game day, he not only plays but turns in the type of performance that should land him a spot in the Pro Bowl. If Randy Moss wasn't having such a spectacular season in New England, there probably would be even more focus on what Burress has done. He caught six passes for 97 yards and a touchdown against the Falcons, boosting his season totals to 30 receptions for 507 yards and eight touchdowns (tying him with Moss for the league lead). He has a better yards-per-catch average than Moss (16.9 to 15.3) and his longest scoring reception covered 60 yards, compared to Moss' 51. Burress and Manning have done plenty to dispel the widely held view that a quarterback and receiver need all of the practice time they can get to develop timing and chemistry. For that matter, Moss didn't have much of a training camp with Tom Brady, did he? Maybe, as Testaverde and Steve Smith also reminded us, thorough preparation and frequent repetition could be just a tad overrated.

» Bobby Petrino could very well be over his head as an NFL coach, but his critics on the Falcons' roster lost some credibility with their dreadful play against the Giants. Tight end Alge Crumpler, who has been the most vocal Petrino critic, dropped two passes. In all, there were six dropped balls by Atlanta receivers. If you're going to call out the rookie coach for doing his job poorly, you should at least properly carry out the most fundamental aspects of your own responsibilities. On the other hand, Petrino was hired to put some spark and innovation in the Falcons' passing game, which so far has shown neither.

» Although the home teams have an equal number of wins (one) and two of the worst offenses in the NFL, there was quite a contrast to the crowds at the last two Monday night games. On Oct. 8, Ralph Wilson Stadium was filled to capacity and people were on their feet cheering from start to finish. A week later, the Falcons were showered by boos as they exited the Georgia Dome field at halftime. Through the second half, anger turned to indifference as the number of empty seats steadily grew well into the thousands. Atlanta's defense provided some big plays, but its offense was pathetic. Joey Harrington ran a quick passing game designed to get the ball out of his hand before the Giants' ferocious pass-rushers could get their hands on him. But he failed to make anything happen, even when the Giants turned the ball over. And he was sacked four times, largely because he was indecisive in the pocket.

Randon thoughts

» Here's an idea for the remaining teams on the Bears' schedule: Do not, under any circumstances, kick the ball to Devin Hester. It is not an overstatement to call him the most dangerous kick returner in NFL history. By the way, what took the Bears so long to involve him in their passing game? With Hester catching bombs from Brian Griese, Chicago has a fighting chance to salvage something from this season of frustration.

» I'm not ready to say the New Orleans Saints have turned the corner, because it could be more a case of the Seattle Seahawks making a radical turn in the opposite direction. However, Reggie Bush did demonstrate that he actually can be effective running between the tackles. Do that several more times, Reggie, and you'll convince more than the true believers that you are more than a perimeter runner/receiver.

» Why are the Patriots so much better than the rest of the AFC East? There isn't a single answer, but it does start with the fact they have Brady and the Jets have embattled Chad Pennington, the Dolphins have unproven Cleo Lemon and the Bills have gone more than a week trying to decide whether to go with rookie Trent Edwards or J.P. Losman.

» If you've ever been to a game with an overhead TV camera, watching it buzz back and forth over the field on what looks like a thread, you've no doubt asked yourself, "What if that thing ever falls?" It finally happened in the New Orleans-Seattle game. Fortunately, no one was hurt, although it did put a pretty good scare into Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. I love the shots that the camera provides and I have every confidence that whatever made it fall in Seattle won't happen again ... but I'm still going to wonder if it will and I probably won't be alone on that.

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