The second half of the NFL schedule began with a whimper for several teams that the standings say are championship contenders.
Mediocrity doesn't mean your season ends before New Year's Day in NFL 2014. No example is better than New Orleans.
The Saints should be very thankful they play in the Big Easy - no, not the city, but the NFC South.
Despite blowing a game to San Francisco in overtime Sunday, the Saints' first home loss with Sean Payton working the sideline since 2011 (he was suspended in 2012), they seem destined to win their division. That would mean hosting a wild-card round game even if they have a .500 or worse record; how fitting would it be if the Seahawks became the visitor, a reversal of 2010?
But can you depend on these Saints (4-5) in a big spot? Not with their penchant for giveaways and a defense that struggles against the pass. Oh, and don't forget their inability to close out an opponent.
''It's a tough way to lose. It's kind of like, every time we lose, it's like that. It's heartbreaking, but you have to move on,'' cornerback Corey White said. ''You don't want to get used to losing at all. It's harder each time because we're always right there.
''We're not your ordinary 4-5 team, per se. We could easily be 7-2 right now. Teams know that. If we just find a way to finish those games, we'll be fine. We're going to try to get in these playoffs, win the division, anyway we can, and we're going to find a way to get it together, and we're going to find a way to win close games like that. And when we do that, we're going to be better - way better.''
Pardon our skepticism.
Same thing for the Dolphins and Bills, who lost statement games Sunday and now can only wave at New England atop the AFC East. They play each other Thursday night, and the loser probably can begin planning its offseason moves.
Quite possibly the winner, too, because the upcoming schedules are not particularly kind for Miami or Buffalo.
''That's what our focus has to be on, playing as well as we possibly can Thursday night at 8:30,'' Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said Monday, his team's late-game meltdown at Detroit still fresh. ''If we take care of business there, some of that other stuff will take care of itself.''
Possibly, but with a jumbled offensive line now that outstanding tackle Branden Albert is gone, are the Dolphins trustworthy?
As for the Bills, their red zone offense can be awful, which figures to doom them when they face Denver, Green Bay and New England in December.
''I don't think we're in a position right now to really concern ourselves with that,'' coach Doug Marrone said of the playoff races. ''Our position, as we move forward into this third quarter, is that we're 0-1 and our focus is now on getting over this thing and going out and playing a divisional opponent, which holds a little more weight when it comes down to everything else.''
The Bungles, uh, Bengals, are in the muddle, uh, middle of the AFC North race - all four teams are two games above .500. The problems in Cincinnati center on injuries, a sporadic offense when it isn't self-destructive, and a defense that can't handle the run.
There's also some history here: Cincinnati has not won a playoff game since the 1990 season and is 0-5 under coach Marvin Lewis in the postseason.
Dependable? Don't think so.
The most perplexing of the unreliable contenders is Pittsburgh. The Steelers looked like world beaters during a three-game string of wins in which they outscored the opposition 124-80. Ben Roethlisberger was unstoppable, setting an NFL mark with six TD passes in consecutive weeks.
Then, a 20-13 stinker against the Jets, who were mired in an eight-game slide.
''It's the NFL,'' receiver Lance Moore said. ''If you don't show up ready to play your type of game, you're going to lose. Our last game was a perfect example of that. We're hot. We came in high and mighty and a team came in and played better than us.''
Not exactly comforting for fans of those unreliable contenders as the stretch drive begins.
AP Sports Writers Brett Martel, Steven Wine, John Wawrow and Will Graves contributed to this story.
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