The NFL

December 04, 2006

Shakeout Time
With five weeks left, which teams will emerge from the pack, and which will be left out in the cold come January?

THERE WAS irony in the Steelers' 27--0 loss in Baltimore on Sunday, which dropped them to 4--7 and effectively ended their postseason hopes. It was around this time last year that Pittsburgh began its surge toward the playoffs, finishing the regular season with a 4--1 run that propelled the team to a Super Bowl championship. What the Steelers discovered in recent weeks is that generating such momentum two years in a row isn't easy.

But there are plenty of other teams that could have success in December. Who's ready to break through the glut of six- and seven-win clubs and dash to the postseason? Excluding the teams with eight or more wins—Indianapolis, Baltimore, Chicago, San Diego and New England—here's how SI sees the playoff contenders finishing up.

NFC
COWBOYS (7--4)
Remaining opponents: 25--30
What's to like
Tony Romo is 4--1 since taking over for QB Drew Bledsoe and has invigorated the offense, spreading the ball to all of his receivers. Another unlikely hero: left tackle Marc Colombo. A bust in Chicago, he has yet to give up a sack this season.

What's not to like
The last two years the Cowboys played poorly in the final weeks, losing three of their last five games each year and missing the playoffs. Erratic QB play was partly to blame.

What to expect
Dallas should win the NFC East. Unlike the Giants and the Eagles, the Cowboys have no significant injuries. And they're playing better than any other team in the conference.

GIANTS (6--5)
Remaining opponents: 29--26
What's to like
Over the next few weeks New York should get several players back from injury, including Pro Bowl defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, linebacker Brandon Short and cornerback Sam Madison. Considering the Giants' recent struggles—three straight losses, including Sunday's 24--21 collapse at Tennessee—it's easy to forget how strong the defense was before all those starters went down.

What's not to like
Did you see the pick of Eli Manning that set up the Titans' game-winning field goal? He's had six interceptions and two touchdown passes during New York's three-game skid.

What to expect
In the AFC, the Giants would be finished. In a mediocre NFC they'll likely snatch a wild-card spot.

SAINTS (7--4)
Remaining opponents: 28--27
What's to like
A 5--1 start built confidence, and the Saints lead the league in total offense thanks to Drew Brees's NFL-best 314.8 passing yards per game. Even when they lost three of four before Sunday's 31--13 win over Atlanta, they looked like they could play with anybody.

What's not to like
New Orleans is last in the NFC in turnover margin at minus-9.

What to expect
The Saints have some difficult games in the final weeks—on the road against the Cowboys and the Giants, a season-ending date at home with the Panthers at the Superdome—but they're tough enough to win at least one of those, while dispatching the 49ers and the Redskins at home, to join the Giants as an NFC wild card.

PANTHERS (6--5)
Remaining opponents: 27--28
What's to like
The defense is finally living up to its preseason billing. Defensive end Julius Peppers (11 sacks) has been tremendous all season, and now he's getting help from unheralded players such as second-year outside linebacker Thomas Davis and middle linebacker Chris Draft. The Panthers had 17 sacks through eight games, then tacked on 11 in their next three.

What's not to like
The offense is suddenly struggling to move the ball. Carolina has generated only 28 points in its last two games. Aside from Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith, nobody scares the opposing defense.

What to expect
The most resilient team in the NFL, the Panthers will rally to win the NFC South. But they still haven't come close to resembling the Super Bowl team many thought they were.

SEAHAWKS (7--4)
Remaining opponents: 26--29
What's to like
For the first time this season the reigning NFC champs have their top weapons on offense. The absences of running back Shaun Alexander (sidelined six games with a broken left foot) and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (four games with a sprained right knee) explain the offense's lack of continuity.

What's not to like
The defense has given up 28 or more points five times and allowed 49ers running back Frank Gore to carve it up for 212 rushing yards.

What to expect
With a soft schedule left, the Seahawks will win the NFC West, but another Super Bowl appearance is a reach.

AFC JETS (6--5)
Remaining opponents: 21--34
What's to like
Rookie coach Eric Mangini has inspired a limited team to reach for the playoffs.

What's not to like
Motivation can't make up for all the Jets' deficiencies. The attack lacks playmakers, and the defense doesn't have the right personnel to effectively run the 3--4 employed by Mangini and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton.

What to expect
While the remaining schedule looks easy, the Jets are too young and inconsistent to get to the postseason.

BENGALS (6--5)
Remaining opponents: 32--23
What's to like
Cincinnati has suffered from poor offensive line calls and weak pass protection, but those problems should be resolved in the next few weeks with the return of left tackle Levi Jones, center Rich Braham and right guard Bobbie Williams from assorted ailments. Wideout Chad Johnson is on a tear, averaging eight catches and 191 yards over the last three games.

What's not to like
The Bengals rank second to last in the NFL in total defense, having given up 365 or more yards to six opponents. The low point: yielding 42 second-half points to San Diego in a 49--41 home loss.

What to expect
They won't catch the Ravens in the AFC North, but the Bengals have the firepower to handle a tough late-season schedule (including road trips to Indianapolis and Denver) and earn a wild card.

JAGUARS (6--5)
Remaining opponents: 34--21
What's to like
The offense has more energy under quarterback David Garrard than it did with Byron Leftwich. The new QB's mobility and improvisational skills allow him to make plays despite the lack of a real receiving threat.

What's not to like
Of Jacksonville's five losses, four have come against teams with losing records. It's safe to say this team plays down to its competition.

What to expect
The Jaguars haven't shown enough consistency to be taken seriously down the stretch, especially with December games against the Colts, Patriots and Chiefs.

CHIEFS (7--4)
Remaining opponents: 29--26
What's to like
A defense that was mostly horrible under former coach Dick Vermeil has quietly been a major contributor to the team's success under Herm Edwards, who installed the Cover Two scheme. Kansas City ranks ninth in the NFL in scoring defense (18.6 points per game). The unit gets a big boost from a ball-control attack centered on Pro Bowl running back Larry Johnson.

What's not to like
These Chiefs don't have a lot of big-game experience to rely on down the stretch. Kansas City has qualified for the playoffs just once in the past eight years.

What to expect
Despite the retirement of All-Pro left tackle Willie Roaf before the season and the loss of starting quarterback Trent Green for eight games with a concussion, K.C. keeps rallying and hanging on as a playoff contender. That tenacity will be rewarded with a wild card.

BRONCOS (7--4)
Remaining opponents: 29--26
What's to like
The defense has given up more than one TD in only three games this year.

What's not to like
The offense has been stagnant, and there's no reason to think rookie quarterback Jay Cutler—who's replacing embattled starter Jake Plummer—is an immediate fix. Plus, for a player who's never thrown an NFL pass, Cutler isn't going to get much help: The once-powerful running is hit-or-miss, and wideout Javon Walker is the lone playmaker.

What to expect
The Broncos are fading fast. With instability at quarterback, they won't catch the Chargers and the Chiefs in the AFC West.

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PHOTOLARRY MAURER/WIREIMAGE.COM (ALEXANDER)UP FOR GRABS Alexander (37), Brees (9) and Chad Johnson will have their hands full in the drive to the playoffs. PHOTOPAUL ABELL US PRESSWIRE (BREES)[See caption above] PHOTORON SCHWANE/AP (JOHNSON)[See caption above] PHOTOJEFF FISHBEIN/WIREIMAGE.COM (PEPPERS)HOT STUFF Peppers has led a defensive resurgence that puts Carolina in playoff contention.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)