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Six teams you don't want to play down the stretch

If there is a Braveheart II or 300: The Sequel, how about Steelers coach Mike Tomlin as the star?

"We will unleash hell here in December because we have to," Tomlin said after the Steelers lost their third straight game, the most recent to Baltimore. "We won't go in a shell. We'll go into attack mode. That's what's required."

It is on!

As imbalanced as the NFL has shaped up to be over the first two-thirds of the season, now, with five games left, is when some teams are going to make a serious move.

The Colts, Saints and Vikings are pretty much locks to make the playoffs, but a front-runner with a daunting schedule and shaky past (Dallas) could stumble down the stretch. Any type of collapse could open the door for some teams that have yet to establish consistency (Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Green Bay) to, as Tomlin would say, "unleash hell."

Here are some teams that no one might want to see on their schedule down the stretch:

Davis: Rivers is elite

What's happened this season with the incredible play of Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Brett Favre is that when we have the elite quarterback conversation, we're losing sight of the fact that there are others who belong in it. Philip Rivers has to go in that conversation, as far as I'm concerned.

The receivers he throws to are like a basketball team, and he puts the ball in a great spot to let them go get it. But, more than anything, it's his leadership. Rivers rallies his team. Rivers guides his team. Rivers drives his team.

We saw a quinessential Rivers moment in the comeback win over the Giants. He'll always be linked to Eli Manning because of the draft, but it was Rivers who came out on top on that last drive. I think he's an elite-level guy, and the rest of the world is starting to see it.

-- Charles Davis

San Diego (8-3)

Since losing to Denver Oct. 19, the AFC West-leading Chargers have won six straight and put things together on both sides of the ball, outscoring opponents 188-83 along the way. That is a staggering disparity. There are some quality wins against potential playoff teams in Denver, Philadelphia and the New York Giants in that run as well.

The Chargers have arguably one of the top four quarterbacks in the NFL in Philip Rivers, the best tight end in the league (Antonio Gates), two massive and ultra-dangerous wide receivers (Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd), and tailbacks LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles are starting to peak. The Bolts also are playing stout defense. They have 23 turnovers, 28 sacks and the dangerous pass-rushing outside linebacker rotation of Shawne Merriman, Shaun Phillips and Larry English just seems to be getting on track.

There's also history. The Chargers are money in December, going 9-0 the past two seasons. Rivers hasn't lost in 14 starts in December. The schedule is pretty rugged from here on out (Cleveland, Dallas, Cincinnati, Tennessee and Washington), but those teams might fear San Diego more than the other way around.

Philadelphia (7-4)

The Eagles love to fray nerves leading into the final stretch. Last season, quarterback Donovan McNabb had a November to forget, admitting that he didn't know there were ties in the NFL following Philly's 13-13 draw with the Bengals. A week later, he got benched in a blowout loss to Baltimore.

The Eagles just finished the past month 2-3, with three of those games decided by four points or less. They have been tagged by injuries and just don't look primed. All that means is that they likely will dial in and bring the noise. Last season they finished 3-1 and pancaked Dallas in the finale to earn and playoff berth and keep the Cowboys out.

McNabb is playing at a high level and rookie running back LeSean McCoy has filled in admirably for veteran Brian Westbrook (concussion). Playmaker extraordinaire DeSean Jackson (concussion) could be out for a few games, but rookie wideout Jeremy Maclin has gotten hot and McNabb has rediscovered his 2008 late-season/postseason ace in the hole, Jason Avant.

The Eagles' game against Atlanta Sunday will be huge in directing whether their path to the playoffs could be as the NFC East champs or via the Wild Card route. Philadelphia is going to have to be at its steadfast best as the Falcons, Giants, 49ers, Denver, and Dallas -- all playoff contenders -- are in line over the final five games.

New England (7-4)

OK, the Patriots got roughed up by New Orleans in the Saints' house on Monday night. Wasn't good at all. The defense looked sloppy and quarterback Tom Brady got confused and harassed once his team fell behind, and its game plan became predictable. As he said, that's over.

New England, which sits atop the AFC East, might not be as gifted as it's been in the past, but this is a proud team that isn't going to just roll over after missing out on the playoffs last year, despite winning 11 games. Now, for the Patriots to get back in stride, they need to win at Miami first since the road (four losses) hasn't been kind to them this season and the Dolphins, who have playoffs aspirations of their own, seem to always present problems.

New England is 13-1 over the past three Decembers with the lone loss coming in 2006. The Patriots typically start rounding into their truest form down the stretch, despite facing serious blows at their armor from teams that want to be like them. This might be the most vulnerable Brady-led Patriots team in awhile, but the final docket might not present as rugged a challenge as the November patch, which included games against the Dolphins, Colts, Jets and Saints.

After Miami, the Patriots close with Carolina, Buffalo, Jacksonville and Houston. The Pats should enter the playoffs as the division winner.

Tennessee (5-6)

In New Orleans, they ask, "Who dat say dey goin' beat those Saints?" In Nashville, they're asking, "Who's next?"

There might not be a more feared team in the NFL right now than Tennessee, and that includes the team it faces this weekend, unbeaten and already crowned AFC South champ Indianapolis.

The Titans are red hot, but they're not just a team riding a crest of momentum. Tennessee is playing like everyone expected it to play before losing six straight games to open the season. The maligned defense has held three straight opponents to 17 points. The offensive line has returned to its physically dominant form. Rookie wide receiver Kenny Britt -- the youngest player in the NFL -- is playing ahead of his years.

Then there's running back Chris Johnson and quarterback Vince Young. Last season, Johnson and backup LenDale White formed Smash and Dash. With Johnson rendering White useless and Young doing the same to former starting quarterback Kerry Collins, whose demotion took some serious urging from owner Bud Adams, the Titans now boast Dash and Flash.

Johnson is the best running back in the NFL at the moment, rushing for more than 800 yards in November (he's got a league-leading 1,396 overall). He seems to shake nearly every tackle in the open field and the only person with any chance to catch him once he gets loose is Usain Bolt. Young, meanwhile, has completed 83 of 127 passes for 1,010 yards, four touchdowns with two picks in the five-game surge.

Tennessee likely will have to win out to get to the playoffs and to do so against a pretty tough schedule (Indy, St. Louis, Miami, San Diego, Seattle) could make its turnaround a bigger story than that of the potentially unbeaten New Orleans Saints. The Colts would have at least one loss; that, coming to the Titans.

Green Bay (7-4)

A month ago, the Packers were left for dead. First, former quarterback Brett Favre returned to Lambeau and beat them a second time. Then came a loss to Tampa Bay. Down went outside linebacker Aaron Kampman and cornerback Al Harris.

Up went the Pack.

Green Bay has won three straight, and it's looking every bit as dangerous as a lot of people (yours truly included) figured they'd be before the season. Keying the resurgence (victories over Dallas, San Francisco and Detroit) has been the protection of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. After being sacked 37 times in the first eight games, Rodgers has only been taken down seven times in the past three. In that span, Rodgers has thrown for 881 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions.

The Packers' top-ranked defense also seems to be rounding into form. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers and head coach Mike McCarthy preached patience in the transition from a 4-3 front to the 3-4 and now things seems to be coming into form. Cornerback Charles Woodson (54 tackles, seven picks, two sacks, four forced fumbles) has been beyond sensational in bringing things together.

The Packers have the inside track at a wild-card spot, but they can't let up. Their schedule won't allow them to -- Baltimore, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Arizona.

Pittsburgh (6-5)

The defending Super Bowl champs have lost three straight. Wide receiver Hines Ward questioned quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's decision not to play in a loss to Baltimore last weekend because of a concussion (Ward has apologized multiple times since).

The motivational table (including Tomlin's fire and brimstone) is set.

Roethlisberger should be back for Sunday's game against Oakland. Safety Troy Polamalu should be back in the next few weeks. The Steelers should be back in the playoffs by the end of the month, most likely as a Wild Card since the Bengals are poised to seize the division.

Pittsburgh's defense is always going to give it a chance to be in games, and that is going to allow it to remain in the hunt through the final week. The Steelers also tend to start playing some of their best football late. After the Raiders, Pittsburgh has Cleveland, Green Bay, Baltimore and Miami. Three of those games are at home.

As Tomlin said, the Steelers are going to step up, because they "have to."

They've put themselves in position to where they have no choice.

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