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Uprising of newcomers leaves faltering playoff teams in the dust

Saints coach Sean Payton likes what he's seeing out his football team and is optimistic things will get even better now that they're getting healthier. As he surveyed the NFL landscape, he's also thankful that New Orleans is 9-3 and just a game behind the NFC South-leading Falcons.

"Look at all the NFC teams that got to the divisional round (of the playoffs) last season; Dallas, Minnesota, Arizona," he mused. "I'm just glad we're still part of the (playoff discussion)."

The playoff picture

By virtue of their loss to Pittsburgh on Sunday night, Ray Lewis and the Ravens went from a No. 2 seed to No. 6. Of course, that would be if the playoffs started today. **More ...**

That's because those other teams he mentioned are not. Neither are the AFC's Bengals, who made a cameo in last season's playoffs. San Diego, which has owned the AFC West, is a breath from falling from a cliff it started to scale but got pushed back by Oakland and Kansas City.

As a whole, though, the AFC's playoff nucleus of New England, the Jets and Ravens are intact from last season. The Colts, who made it to the Super Bowl, are close to being on life support with the outcome of Thursday's game at Tennessee being a potential deal breaker.

"It just goes to show you how quickly things can change," Payton said.

Typically we see five or six new playoff teams each season, which means we see five or six old playoff teams gone from the previous year. The drop-off in the NFC hasn't just been quick -- it's been pretty radical. So let's start there.

Dallas and Minnesota have finally started to play to their potential, but it's too late. Both teams had to fire their coaches for things to work, and coaches don't get fired unless things aren't working in the first place.

I spoke to Cowboys tight end Jason Witten after Dallas beat Indianapolis last week, and he told me that every victory is met with mixed emotions: It's great that they won, but what took so long? The Cowboys won't openly say it, but now they're a spoiler. They play the Eagles twice in the final four games and with them playing the way they're playing, they could ruin Philadelphia's playoff hopes -- deep sixing another 2009 playoff team.

Minnesota, which isn't mathematically eliminated but won't catching the Packers and Bears, could be equally cruel.

NFC North-leading Chicago comes to town Dec. 20, sandwiched between games with the Giants and Eagles. A win over any of those teams, especially the Bears, could be some consolation after failing to build on last season's devastating overtime loss to the Saints in the NFC championship.

With the NFC Wild Card race shaping up like it is with Chicago, Green Bay, Philadelphia, the Giants, Atlanta, and New Orleans, the Packers could be another playoff team that could fail to make it back if it doesn't finish strong, and the NFC-North leading Bears do.

Fitzgerald reaches top

It's been a rough year for Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona, but on Sunday he became the Cardinals' all-time leader. Find out what it was for on our Milestone Tracker.

As fate would have it, the two-time NFC West champion Cardinals can't help much of anything, except their self-esteem. The only NFC West game they play is against San Francisco, the only team in the league more disappointing than the Cowboys, Vikings and Bengals. That pretty much sums up the fall of Arizona. They can't even ruin anyone else's day.

In the AFC, San Diego's slow start and the Colts' injuries have opened the door for unusual suspects Kansas City, Oakland and Jacksonville. Those upstarts have a ways to go before their surprise stories could unfold with a playoff berths. Unfortunately for them, their rise likely would be overshadowed by the demise of the Chargers, and especially Indianapolis (I still think the Colts win the AFC South).

Otherwise, the AFC is pretty par for the course. Even the teams pushing for wild-card berths, the Jets and Steelers and Ravens, didn't come out of nowhere like the Rams, Seahawks or Bears.

The race to the finish line is loaded with drama, and once we get there we can start handicapping who won't be back in 2011.

What's up with Leinart?

With Derek Anderson and Max Hall down and out, and John Skelton set to start for Arizona against Denver on Sunday, I can't help but wonder what is up with former Cardinals first-round pick Matt Leinart. Well, as much as we'd like to say he'd be better than anything Arizona has right now -- I've said it, and I'm still saying it -- he's still Houston's third-team quarterback.

Leinart is not in Matt Schaub's league, but he's still sitting behind Dan Orlovsky. That shouldn't be taken as a slight. Orlovsky was in the system well before Leinart arrived after getting cut at the end of preseason, and Orlovsky knew how to run Houston's offense. Leinart barely does, since he spends all of every practice running scout team.

I spoke with Texans quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp about Leinart and his perspective was probably somewhat bias, but I know Knapp well, so I'm sure it was also soemwhat honest.

"You can't question his work ethic," Knapp said, making me think he's setting me up like people do by explaining the not-so-pretty girl's strengths before laying bare the drawback. "He's jumped into things head first. Three times a week he's with me at 6:45 (in the morning) to learn our plays and go over video. He stays after. He's doing what he needs to do."

Knapp said Leinart also has welcomed some tinkering to his mechanics. One of the commonly known drawbacks to Leinart's game was his lack of anticipation and his tendency to pat the ball and telegraph his throws.

By all accounts, Leinart is doing okay -- but he's still behind Orlovsky. Where some people might misread Leinart, and it wasn't just Knapp telling me this, is that Leinart is so laid-back and easy going, you have no idea if his teammates and coaches can tell if he's really into it. There doesn't seem to be a lack of urgency and if there is, some people might not be able to tell.

That trait has befallen many players before Leinart, especially at a position where a sense of urgency and leadership are crucial.

Leinart was one of the first players on the field before the Texans lost to Philadelphia last Thursday, and we spoke for a few minutes. Good guy, who clearly wants to be good and will do what it takes to get another shot.

As part of our conversation, he seemed somewhat uncertain, capping his remarks about biding his time with, "one of these days… one of these years."

Enhancing Warner's HOF credentials

In putting a new twist on the Cardinals' awful quarterback situation, an NFL assistant coach told me what's transpiring now should make everyone aware just how good retired quarterback Kurt Warner was.

Instead of citing Warner's stats, the coach explained how Warner was able to mask the deficiencies of the offensive line that are now being widely exposed. Warner's ability to read defenses and get rid of the ball quickly hid the line's inability to protect.

"I never thought that line was very good, but now what you see, it's worse than a lot of us thought," the coach said.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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