Time to look at Giants, Lions, Dolphins, Bucs
The Cowboys and Raiders have drawn many of the headlines this season, with good reason.
So have the Browns and 49ers, for all the wrong reasons.
With that much attention paid to those four clubs, four other teams haven't exactly been center stage. Yet the Giants, Lions, Dolphins and Buccaneers deserve consideration when discussions turn to January and the playoffs.
No, all four might not get there. Hey, they might all fall short, though that's unlikely.
''The five weeks will tell,'' Giants running back Rashad Jennings says. ''Every single week is going to tell you something. But we feel good where we are at. We know we have a good team.
''We have the players to take us where we want to go, but we have to execute the little details and find ways to end up on the `W' side of the board throughout the season. That statement still stays true.''
Their stories are worth telling.
NEW YORK GIANTS (8-3)
The only team to beat Dallas thus far, the Giants are on a six-game tear. Their high-priced defense is coming on, particularly the pass rush with Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon living up to their contracts, and Landon Collins perhaps the NFL's most improved player.
While the running game has been spotty and the offensive line banged-up, Eli Manning has a way of making the offense do just enough. In Odell Beckham Jr., they have one of the league's true game changers.
The remaining schedule is difficult, starting Sunday in Pittsburgh.
PLAYOFF PROSPECTS: Very good. If healthy, they might be better than every NFC division winner except Dallas come New Year's Day.
DETROIT LIONS (7-4)
No team plays on the edge in 2016 more than the Lions. Every Detroit game has been decided by seven points or fewer, with either Matthew Stafford or Matt Prater needing to lift the Lions to victory in the final moments.
Another team with a weak running game, the Lions are getting a career season from their quarterback. With one more winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime, Stafford will become the first quarterback with eight of those in a season.
Detroit's defense is middle of the pack, a major reason those rallies have been needed. The rest of the schedule is challenging, with visits to Dallas and New York among them. The finale at home against the Packers could be critical.
PLAYOFF PROSPECTS: Good in a mediocre division.
When the Dolphins were 1-4, the only victory against Cleveland, their fans must have been wondering why Adam Gase was such a hot coaching prospect.
Maybe they know now. Previous Miami teams might have folded and earned a high draft pick. This version, helped by the weird schedule the NFL put together (four straight home games with a bye in there), turned it around.
They've developed a knack for coming back and winning close games as the offensive line got healthier and Gase committed to Jay Ajayi and the running game. Most impressive were consecutive road wins over San Diego and Los Angeles even when the Dolphins didn't play their best.
''I wouldn't say I'm surprised, but I'm proud of the way the guys have banded together,'' QB Ryan Tannehill says. ''Times were tough early on in this year; things weren't going well. We really stuck together, kept pressing forward and came together as a team. We found a way to win in a bunch of games. This team knows how to win now. I feel like no matter what happens going forward, we can always try to find a way to win, because we've done it before.''
PLAYOFF PROSPECTS: Difficult because they must beat out Denver or Kansas City for a wild card. But doable.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
This one is a surprise. The Bucs have taken advantage of Carolina's struggles and New Orleans' inconsistencies. Tampa is improving, as strong defensive performances in wins over the Chiefs and Seahawks show.
Last year's top overall draft pick, Jameis Winston, is maturing as a pro quarterback, making good decisions and combining with stud receiver Mike Evans. The return of 2015 All-Pro running back Doug Martin from hamstring issues has been a huge boost.
''When Jameis takes care of the football, we're tough,'' coach Dirk Koetter says. ''The main thing we're doing better in the last few weeks is we're getting turnovers and we're not turning it over as much.''
PLAYOFF PROSPECTS: Unlikely, but watch out next year.
AP Sports Writers Fred Goodall, Steven Wine, Tom Canavan and Noah Trister contributed.
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