There will be 9--7 NFC teams in the postseason, but in the AFC it'll probably take a 10--6 record--and even that might not be good enough.
The Winners Club in the NFC is begging for members. There are only five now. The postseason can accommodate six. A 4--4 team, such as Green Bay or St. Louis, is in pretty good shape. Despite all the hand-wringing by their coaches and fans, any of the half-dozen 3--5 teams can get hot and wind up in the playoffs.
Only one NFC team, Philadelphia, has pulled away from the pack, but even the Eagles were exposed by the Steelers on Sunday and shown to be vulnerable against a two-fisted running attack. But who is left to test Philadelphia the way Pittsburgh did? Maybe the Packers on Dec. 5.
The AFC has better teams. The Steelers seem to be a postseason shoo-in. So do the Patriots, especially after they patched together a secondary that held the flashy Rams at bay on Sunday. New England just turned the offense up a notch and went on a scoring spree.
The Eagles, Steelers and Patriots are fairly safe playoff bets at this point, but no one else is. Here's a forecast of how each division race will play out.
AFC East The Patriots could lose at Kansas City and New York and still wind up as the top seed in the conference at 13--3. They seem less prone to upsets than any other team in the league. The 6--2 Jets are flaky. They could lose to anyone left on their schedule, especially now that quarterback Chad Pennington is expected to miss two to four weeks with a bruised throwing shoulder. Watch Buffalo, a 3--5 team that, granted, will have a harder road to the playoffs than some of the 3--5 NFC teams. But the Bills have a tremendous advantage in the bitter winds of their home field because they can run and play defense. Also, Drew Bledsoe has a big enough arm to cut through the gusts.
AFC North It's Pittsburgh and the other guys. Sorry, but I can't take Cleveland or Cincinnati seriously as playoff teams. I don't like the Ravens, either, because of the severity of their schedule, with games on the road against the Jets, Patriots, Colts and Steelers.
AFC South Every team is flawed. Jacksonville quarterback Byron Leftwich is out for at least two weeks. Houston (4--4) could cash in on this misfortune (the Texans play the Jaguars one more time), but its defense has sprung major leaks and was swamped for 31 points by Denver on Sunday. But no one has the defensive problems that Indianapolis does. Sure, Peyton Manning and the boys can put on an impressive offensive show, but having to continually carry the load for the worst defense in the league, statistically and aesthetically, is too much. The schedule is kind, though, with no major offensive fireballs on the slate until San Diego and Denver in the last two games. So I'll give the Colts a ticket to the postseason as division champs.
AFC West The Chiefs were making a major move and had people convinced that it was time to lay the smart money on them as a sleeper pick to win the division. Then came Tampa Bay on Sunday and kerplunk! Now the race is between Denver, which scores a lot, gives up a lot of points and has fans scratching their heads, and San Diego, a team that seems to be a gathering storm. I'll go with the Chargers as division champs, but one note of caution: They still must play in K.C., where they have lost their last seven, and Oakland, where the Raiders won five of the last six meetings.
NFC East Last weekend the Cowboys and the Giants had a chance to pick up a game on Philadelphia, but they both went down, and I can't see them ever making up the lost ground. The Giants are floundering under the weight of Kurt Warner's recent fumbles (eight in the last three games) and sacks (18 in the last three). Tom Coughlin brought gasps from the interview room after Sunday's loss to the Bears when he said he had considered lifting Warner for rookie Eli Manning. You can't handicap New York's immediate future because the Giants have a habit of beating the good teams and losing to the weak ones.
NFC North The story of this division will be written on the medical reports: Brett Favre's sprained thumb versus Randy Moss's bad hamstring. Green Bay has won its last three. The teams meet twice in the next seven weeks. I favor the Pack, but I think both are playoff bound. Not so for Detroit, which is capable of really dreadful performances.
NFC South Looks like Atlanta and the Three Stooges, but I've got a feeling about Tampa Bay. I think the Bucs are one of the 3--5's that will sneak into the playoffs. They've won three of their last four, ever since Brian Griese emerged from the reject pile to become their starter, and Griese is playing the best football of his life. He has completed close to 70% of his passes, with six touchdowns and one pick.
NFC West Against New England the Rams looked hollow. They couldn't figure out a way to exploit a decimated Pats secondary, and they couldn't stop anything. Their defense has gone to hell. I think Seattle will beat them this Sunday. If that happens, the Rams would be 4--5, with a whole bunch of angry rivals snapping at their heels and two of those nasty cold-weather games coming up, at Buffalo and Green Bay. And look what happens if the Seahawks do score their upset over St. Louis: Seattle will have a two-game lead with home tests against Miami, Buffalo and Dallas on the horizon. I've got the Seahawks pegged as the No. 2 playoff seed behind Philly. The rest, I believe, will be a scramble.
Super Bowl It depends on where the Patriots and the Steelers meet in the AFC Championship Game, and what New England's injury situation is at the time. Whichever AFC team it is, I'll pick it to beat the Eagles in the Big One.
With 749 yards at the halfway point, Corey Dillon has already outgained the Pats' leading rusher in 2003.