Tuesday November 24th, 2009

Being two days shy of Thanksgiving means there's only six short weeks left in the NFL's regular season. The clock is ticking, so here are some things you need to know as we stare down the stretch run to the playoffs....

• For the past four years in a row, the NFC East has had the uncanny ability to advance a team to the playoffs after it hit late November hovering around .500. To wit:

-- In 2008, the Eagles were 5-5-1, but made it at 9-6-1 and went all the way to the NFC title game.

-- In 2007, the Redskins were 5-5, then 5-7 in the throes of Sean Taylor's death, before riding a four-game season-ending winning streak to a wild-card berth.

-- In 2006, the Eagles were 5-5 and had just lost Donovan McNabb to a season-ending knee injury before backup Jeff Garcia took over and went 5-1 down the stretch, helping Philadelphia to the NFC East title and a playoff win.

-- And in 2005, the Redskins were 5-6 and going nowhere, then caught fire with Mark Brunell at quarterback and won their last five games to finish 10-6 and earn the NFC's final wild-card slot. They too kept things rolling and earned a playoff win.

Who's our late-November dangerous .500 team this year in the NFC East? With both the Eagles and Giants winning Sunday to improve to 6-4, I say we finally have to look to another division to find the NFC team we shouldn't make the mistake of prematurely burying. Can I get a drumroll please for the 5-5 Falcons?

Atlanta has lost four out of five to drop off the radar screen after a strong 4-1 start. But the Falcons' skid coincided with playing four out of five on the road, and they lost at Dallas, at New Orleans, at Carolina and at the Giants, in overtime. No real shame in any of that. No glory, either. But no disgraceful losses.

And now Atlanta gets to head home for a three-game homestand, and four of its last six at the Georgia Dome, where it is 4-0 this season. I foresee the Falcons winning two out of their next three at home, against the Bucs, Eagles and Saints. And then they get to end the season with a trip to the floundering Jets, home against the Bills, and at struggling Tampa Bay. Those last three opponents are a combined 8-22 at the moment.

Add it all up and a 10-6 finish still looks eminently reachable for Atlanta, which currently stands eighth in the NFC, two spots removed from the six-team playoff field. Atlanta is 4-4 in the NFC, but a 7-5 conference record might just be good enough for the Falcons to snare a wild-card berth and end their mind-boggling streak of 43 years without back-to-back playoff seasons.

• Speaking of the NFC East, with the Cowboys, Eagles and Giants all at least two games over .500, the division looks primed to advance at least two teams to the playoffs for a league-best fifth consecutive year (2005-2009), eighth time this decade, and a whopping 17th time in the past 21 years (1989-09). The NFC East actually featured three playoff teams in both 2006 and 2007, and no other division even comes close to its level of playoff representation in the past two decades.

But a word of caution to the NFC East champion, whomever that might wind up being: In three of the past four seasons, the division winner has lost its playoff opener at home (the Giants in 2008 and 2005, the Cowboys in 2007), with only the 2006 Eagles bucking the trend by winning even one playoff game. In those seasons, a wild-card entry from the division has advanced further than the champion three times (2008 Eagles, 2007 Giants, 2005 Redskins).

• Do you realize that if the AFC playoffs began today, the Jaguars (6-4) would somehow be the No. 5 seed in the postseason, one spot ahead of the defending champion Steelers (6-4)? The Jaguars are a turnaround team that turned around when no one was looking, but here they are, having gone 6-2 after an 0-2 start.

Jacksonville's 5-2 AFC record is the best of the conference's wild-card contenders, and it has won three in a row by a combined margin of just eight points. Maybe the lack of attention for the Jaguars has something to do with this: They've scored 199 points and allowed 235 points, the worst differential (minus-36) of any NFL team with a winning record.

• I happen to think the Broncos are toast in the AFC West, and here's one reason why: Denver is on a four-game losing streak after starting the season 6-0, and it's the ninth time since the 1970 merger the Broncos have dropped at least four straight. The first eight times it happened, Denver didn't recover in time to make the playoffs, and only once finished with a winning record (9-7 in 2006).

Then again, Denver never had a six-game winning streak in any of those other eight seasons, let alone to start the year.

• With Arizona at 7-3 and Pittsburgh at 6-4, last season's Super Bowl loser is out-performing last season's Super Bowl winner for only the third time all decade. And for the second time, the Steelers are involved. In 2006, Seattle went 9-7 and won the NFC West while defending champion Pittsburgh slumped to 8-8 and out of the playoffs. In 2000, the losing Titans returned strong at 13-3, winning the AFC Central, while St. Louis dropped to 10-6 and a wild-card berth in the NFC West.

• If the playoffs began today, the 12-team postseason would feature six new teams and six repeat qualifiers from last year. In the AFC, the new teams would be the Bengals, Jaguars and Patriots (who didn't make the playoffs last year, even if it feels like they did). In the NFC, the newbies would be the Saints, Cowboys and Packers. Of those six, all of them have made the postseason at least once since 2005.

In the AFC, the playoff repeaters would be the very familiar Colts, Chargers and Steelers. In the NFC, the Vikings, Cardinals and Eagles would return for another crack at winning a ring.

• If it seems like the Colts, Patriots and Steelers are always in the AFC playoffs, it's with good reason. If at least two of them make this year's Super Bowl tournament, it would be the ninth consecutive season that that happened. The 2000 season was the last time the AFC field included just one of those three perennial powerhouses (the Colts made it that year, but not New England or Pittsburgh).

And get this: The last time none of the AFC's Big Three made it to the postseason? Way back in 1991, the most recent season the Colts, Patriots and Steelers all had losing records in the same year. This season will mark the 18th consecutive year that someone out of the Colts-Patriots-Steelers triumvirate will be playoff bound.

• As Bill Parcells loves to remind us from time to time -- no matter his NFL address of the moment -- you are what your record says you are. You don't get an asterisk for close losses, near misses or shouldas, wouldas, couldas. But ... when you consider the 10-0 Colts have won their last four games by a combined 10 points, while the 7-3 Patriots have lost their three games by a combined 11 points -- and two of those were against the Jets and Broncos when they were red-hot -- should we really convince ourselves there's a legitimate three-game gap between Indianapolis and New England? I'd say the one point that separated these two rivals in Week 10's 35-34 instant classic in Indy sounds more like it.

• Don't look now, but last year's turnaround teams are turning around yet again. Miami, Baltimore and Atlanta went a combined 10-38 in 2007, then took the NFL by storm last season, with each of them going 11-5 and making the playoffs under rookie head coaches.

But that's so last year in the NFL. The Dolphins, Ravens and Falcons are all 5-5 this season and would finish out of the playoffs if the season ended today. Their combined 15-15 record means they have to go 18-0 from here on out in order to match last year's 33-15 mark.

I don't like their chances.

• Almost anyone's MVP ballot includes the names of Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Brett Favre, and they're all deserving candidates playing the game's premier position. But ho-hum. If you want a wildly unconventional pick that puts the V into valuable, how could you find a starker example than Steelers safety Troy Polamalu?

But he's missed five games with knee injuries, you say? That's exactly our point. When Polamalu has been sidelined, the 6-4 defending Super Bowl champion Steelers have lost at Chicago, at Cincinnati, and at Kansas City, with another loss at home against the Bengals when he was injured and had to leave the game after Cincinnati's opening possession.

When he both started and finished the game, Pittsburgh is 3-0. When he has appeared in a game, the Steelers are 4-1, as opposed to their 2-3 record without him. Now that's value that doesn't require any overstatement.

• The Bengals suffered their first road loss of the year Sunday at Oakland, and that cost the NFL the chance to have four teams start a season 5-0 on the road for the first time ever. Obviously the Saints and Colts are undefeated away from home, but the real surprise is that the 7-3 Cardinals are 5-0 on the road after going just 3-5 in that department last season, getting blown out by at least 21 points four different times.

The Cardinals have a decent shot to run the table on the road this year. Their remaining road games are at Tennessee (4-6), at San Francisco (4-6) and at Detroit (2-8). Those teams are a combined 7-7 at home.

• Was it mere coincidence that Chicago's Jay Culter and Denver's Kyle Orton both threw for 171 yards with one interception on Sunday, with both losing crucial games at home? The Bears and Broncos are a combined 10-10 this season and both look headed for non-playoff years despite Chicago starting 3-1 and Denver getting off to that 6-0 burst. All of which renders the NFL's biggest head-to-head trade of starting quarterbacks in years as much ado about very little.

• Lastly, I'm struck by the realization that Detroit, Dallas and Denver are the only three NFL cities that begin with D, and all three are hosting Thanksgiving games for the first time ever in the same year. There must be some larger meaning to that. Let's see if they all win on Thursday playing some mean D-fense.

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