And down the stretch they come in NFL season
And down the stretch they come.
The Cowboys already are in the playoffs. The Patriots and Seahawks almost certainly will qualify soon, too. Believe it or not, Raiders fans, your team is about to end its 13-season drought.
As for the rest, well, the scramble is on. Here's what's ahead in the frantic final four weeks of an already unpredictable season:
It would seem that the wild cards will come out of the West, by far the best division in football. Whether it's Denver, Kansas City or Oakland, those teams will provide quite a test for the North or South winner in the first round of the postseason.
Whoever wins the West almost certainly will have a first-round bye, too. After the Chiefs' win Thursday night and their sweep of Oakland - plus a win over Denver in their pocket - they hold most of the cards in the division.
''It just shows how good our division is,'' Raiders quarterback Derek Carr says. ''I think it's a cool thing, to be honest. I think it's awesome. Competition brings the best out of everybody. It's been like that all year. We've all been right there with each other and we've all been pushing each other. It's fun, man.''
Defending Super Bowl champ Denver (8-4) has the toughest road with games against Tennessee, New England, Kansas City and Oakland.
The other bye figures to go to the Patriots - no surprise there. It would be the seventh straight year New England was off for the first weekend of the playoffs.
The other two divisions are murky, with the South a tossup.
Houston has led the division all season, but is in the midst of a major swoon, its offense unreliable, its defense banged-up. Indianapolis has Andrew Luck back, and he could be a difference maker, but losing its best defender, linebacker D'Qwell Jackson to a four-game suspension, is damaging to a mediocre unit.
Tennessee, a team to watch out for in 2017, must play Denver and Kansas City before finishing with the Jaguars and Texans.
''This is a four-game playoff'' to get to the playoffs, Texans coach Bill O'Brien says.
Houston, Indy and Tennessee all are 6-6. Will 8-8 be good enough to sneak off with the South - and then get hammered by a wild-card team?
As for dropping the hammer, that's the operating standard for the North, best personified by the Ravens and Steelers. Both are 7-5, both are hitting stride, and both face off Christmas night. Can't wait.
Dallas has so separated itself from the rest of the conference that not only can it secure the East title with a win at the Giants on Sunday night, it also can nail down home-field advantage throughout the playoffs if Detroit and Seattle lose.
''We'll let other people talk about those kinds of things,'' coach Jason Garrett says. ''The best thing this team has done is focus. We focus on one opponent at a time. We focus on one day's preparation at a time. We'll continue to do that.''
Let's pencil in the Cowboys as the top seed, then sit back and watch an intriguing race for the other bye between the Seahawks and Lions.
Detroit (8-4) almost is as much a surprise as Dallas, but it hasn't yet convinced folks it will win the North. Its final three games are at the Giants and Cowboys, then hosting the Packers (6-6) on New Year's Day. Green Bay won the first meeting, and Aaron Rodgers has been playing lights-out football for weeks.
But give Detroit its due: No team has been more impressive in close games, Matthew Stafford is having his best season, and its plus-6 turnover margin is among the NFL leaders.
The Packers, who must navigate through three divisional games to finish the schedule after hosting Seattle on Sunday, look more like a wild-card chaser.
Seattle (8-3-1) might have the league's most talented roster when everyone is healthy. That's hardly the case now, and losing perennial All-Pro safety Earl Thomas for the rest of the season is damaging.
The good news for the Seahawks is their offense, while streaky, has playmakers such as Russell Wilson - also in the midst of an MVP-caliber year - Jimmy Graham and Doug Baldwin, plus, at last, a threat at running back with Thomas Rawls' return to the lineup.
And the Seahawks have little reason to look behind them in the West.
Atlanta (7-5) hadn't been looking in the rearview mirror since it took hold of the South at 4-1. Now it has been caught by Tampa Bay, and the Falcons have thrown away some games, making everyone wonder how much staying power they have.
They do, however, have a huge edge in the remaining schedule. While they face the Rams, 49ers, Panthers and Saints (total record: 14-34), Tampa gets New Orleans twice, Carolina - and Dallas.
The wild-card race is such a jumble that diving deep into tiebreakers on Jan. 1 might be needed to settle things. The Giants (8-4) have the inside track, but also a difficult schedule (Cowboys, Lions, Redskins, Eagles) and a major injury with Jason Pierre-Paul done for 2016.
It's possible the runner-up in the North and South, perhaps even the Cardinals or Vikings if they ever get things straightened out, will be alive beyond Christmas.
The NFL sure must like a ''the more the merrier'' idea.
AP Sports Writer Schuyler Dixon contributed.
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