Coaches and general managers often divide their seasons into quarters, with the emphasis on the last four games. Look at today's standings, and you can understand why.
Three divisions are all but decided, but five won't be settled for another month. Of course, that's why we invented December -- to reward the strong, eliminate the weak and sort out division winners.
|The Jets lost some of their grip on Sunday. (Getty Images)|
This one goes down to the wire because the Jets, in such a good spot a week ago that some people had them in the Super Bowl, finish the season against Miami. Appropriate. They started with the Fins; now they finish with Part II of the Brett vs. Chad faceoff, and here's hoping it's meaningful.
New England remains in the mix, but the Patriots lost some of their juice when they got torched by Pittsburgh -- their second loss in the past three games and third in the past five. The mystique that was there the past seven seasons all but disappeared in an avalanche of second-half turnovers and 30 consecutive Pittsburgh points. Now you wonder if they can survive another two-week trip to the West Coast.
The smart money is on the Jets, but I don't trust them in their two West Coast games. They're 0-2 there this season, and it wouldn't surprise me if they struggled with either San Francisco or Seattle. Maybe both.
Key game: Miami at N.Y. Jets, Dec. 28.
Advantage: Miami. Look at the schedule: Its next three games are at Buffalo, home to San Francisco and at Kansas City. The Jets counter with road games in San Francisco and Seattle and a home date with Buffalo, a seemingly cozy itinerary. But be advised: Those cross-country trips can be hazardous.
Long shot: New England. It must win back-to-back games at Seattle and at Oakland to hang in there.
|Joe Flacco and the Ravens are making the Steelers sweat. (Getty Images)|
Baltimore counters with home games against Washington and Pittsburgh, with a road game in Dallas. The division, then, could come down to the Dec. 14 game in Baltimore, and the Steelers had better be careful -- first, because the Ravens pushed them to the limit in their Sept. 29 game and, second, because Baltimore is tough at home, losing only to Tennessee in a game it could have -- and maybe should have -- won.
Key game: Pittsburgh at Baltimore, Dec. 14.
Advantage: Pittsburgh by a nose. The schedule is tough, but so are the Steelers, and if you don't believe me, look at the records of their opponents in games the following weekends. They are 3-6.
Long shot: Baltimore.
The Titans can wrap this one up in the next two weeks, and I'd recommend closing the deal now. The schedule is treacherous down the stretch, with Tennessee finishing against Pittsburgh and Indianapolis.
The Colts are three games back and almost surely headed for a wild-card spot, but I wouldn't dismiss them from anything. First of all, they won their past five, so they're gaining momentum. Second, they have a soft schedule the next three weeks, with games against Cincinnati, Detroit and Jacksonville, with a combined record of 5-30-1. They finish with Tennessee at home, and by that time, the Titans may be coasting.
While this division is easy to sort out, it's also worth studying because it has two of the top three teams in the AFC. The job for Tennessee is to keep the momentum it had when it won its first 10. Not only is Indianapolis gaining that momentum now; it should have a healthy Bob Sanders back at just the right time.
Key game: None. The Titans should wrap this up in the next two weeks.
Long shot: Indianapolis. The Colts have wild card written all over them, but I don't see a loss between now and their Dec. 28 season finale with Tennessee. The Titans don't want to go into that game having to win.
Poor San Diego. The Bolts have all this talent and nowhere to play next month except the first tee at Torrey Pines. No, Denver isn't all that impressive, but give the Broncos credit: They won games they had to win. San Diego couldn't, going 1-7 in contests decided by a touchdown or less.
|The Chargers have let too many close games slip away. (Getty Images)|
I credit Mike Shanahan for doing something I didn't think was possible -- namely, winning with a defense that had more holes than the Garden State Parkway. The job for Denver now is straightening out itself at home in preparation for the playoffs. The Broncos lost their past three there, including a 31-10 blowout to Oakland.
Key game: None.
Long shot: None.
The Giants aren't merely the best team in this division. They're the best team in football, and it's not close. They win without Plaxico Burress. They win with Brandon Jacobs. They win without Jeremy Shockey and Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora and Kawika Mitchell and ... I think you get the idea. They just win and win and win. They're playing with the confidence that defines champions, and the only question now is: Can they sustain it through the playoffs?
They pulled together after Burress went numbskull on them, and now they can get used to living without him. Burress was a red-zone threat that will be missed, but it didn't seem to affect the Giants this weekend. But stay tuned. I love Amani Toomer and how he played against Washington, but neither he nor Steve Smith scares opponents. The X-factor is Domenik Hixon, and so far, so good.
The rest of the division was supposed to be a scramble, but it looks like a party of one -- with Dallas the invited guest. The Cowboys are rolling again, but beating San Francisco and Seattle at home doesn't register on the Richter scale. The test is what happens this weekend in Pittsburgh, and remember: The Cowboys are 4-7 in December and January under Tony Romo.
Key game: Dallas at Pittsburgh, Dec. 7. Memo to Romo: Duck.
Advantage: New York Giants.
Long shot: None, though Dallas can make it as a wild card. The problem: Look at its schedule. Its last four games are against Pittsburgh, the Giants, Baltimore and Philadelphia, opponents with a combined record of 34-13-1.
This is the most mixed up, muddled-up, shook-up mess this side of Plaxico Burress' weekend. The Vikings are in first place, but they had better not get too comfortable.
|Pat Williams and Kevin Williams will be key for the Vikings. (Getty Images)|
But there is good news for the Bears: They play their next three at home, and none of their opponents has a winning record.
Green Bay is still in the picture, but barely. It's hard to push a club that can't stop anyone, and the envelope, please: In their past two starts, both losses, they hemorrhaged 86 points.
Key game: New York Giants at Minnesota, Dec. 28. The question is: How long does Tom Coughlin stay with his starters? Because the Giants have a first-round bye, I say it's at least a half ... if not longer. But this might be the most meaningful season finale out there.
Advantage: Minnesota, only because the Bears are falling apart.
Long shot: Chicago. The schedule works in its favor. Now Kyle Orton must get back to eliminating mistakes, and the defense must get back to business.
The best race is here. There are three teams that could -- and should -- make the playoffs, and one of them is Atlanta. Mike Smith, take a bow. I don't know how he did it, but in less than a year he took a league doormat and made it not only respectable but formidable.
Nevertheless, the Falcons are a step behind Tampa Bay and Carolina. I love the Bucs because of their defense and because Jeff Garcia is their quarterback. The guy doesn't produce big numbers; he just knows how to win. In fact, since he returned as the team's starter the Bucs are 6-1, and that's no coincidence. But Tampa Bay has a difficult road ahead, starting with its next game. It plays Carolina, and while the Panthers don't have the defense that Tampa Bay does, they do have a home-field advantage here. They're 6-0 in Charlotte, which is consistent with what's going on in the South.
The division is 22-2 in home games, and that's trouble for Tampa Bay because it follows the Panthers' game with a road trip to Atlanta ... on five days' rest, no less. Uh-oh.
Key game: Tampa Bay at Carolina, Dec. 8.
Advantage: Carolina because its next two games are home; Tampa Bay's next two games are on the road. But beware, Panthers fans: Tampa Bay winds up with home games against San Diego and Oakland; the Panthers finish at the Giants and at New Orleans. This thing could be a photo finish.
Long shot: Atlanta. I keep wondering when the bubble bursts. Now I wonder if the Falcons have the ammunition to make a run. If they can beat Tampa Bay on Dec. 14, they might. They finish with Minnesota and St. Louis.
Let's hear it for Ken Whisenhunt. In two years he turned this franchise upside down and put it at the top of the division. I don't care that the Cardinals aren't the best playoff prospect out there; the fact is they ... are ... going ... to ... the ... playoffs, and think about that. For the first time since 1998 and only the second time in the past 25 years the Cardinals will play in January. What's more, their first playoff game will be at home. Say what you want about the Cards on the road, but they're so good in their own building they lost there only once ... to the Giants, no less. I could see these guys advancing to the divisional round of the playoffs, but that's where the road ends because that is where the road turns east, and Arizona is 0-4 in the Eastern Time Zone.
Key game: None. But I want to see how the Cards handle their Dec. 21 date at New England. Sooner or later, they must win the West.