The cream of the NFL crop is beginning to reveal itself in Week 6, but there are some fringe contenders that are determined to warrant discussion as serious playoff teams.
This is the critical juncture in the year where one outcome separates a team from being, say, 2-4 or 3-3. This seemingly minor difference looms surprisingly large and will be a tone-setter for the remainder of the 2012 season.
Here is a breakdown of an NFC-dominant quartet that is determined to fight its way into the "contenders" conversation.
Thanks to one of the most infamous calls in NFL history and a phenomenal all-around defense, Seattle has won three of its first five games almost in spite of its rookie quarterback Russell Wilson.
The third-round pick hasn't lived up to the strong hype he generated with a stellar preseason. Part of that can be attributed to inconsistent personnel on the offensive line and a receiving corps that could use one more sure-handed target.
But part of it is being a rookie. As hard as Wilson works, he is still suffering through some expected growing pains under center for the Seahawks.
What is working in favor of Pete Carroll's enthusiastic young bunch is one of the biggest home-field advantages in the NFL.
The New England Patriots will travel to Qwest Field for Sunday afternoon's game, where something will have to give between the Seahawks' elite defense and the Pats' offensive juggernaut led by Tom Brady.
Not only does Seattle have another golden opportunity to show it can shut down another elite QB—with Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers being the first—Wilson has a favorable matchup to show he deserves the job.
Speculation has been rife that prized free-agent acquisition Matt Flynn could take over for Wilson, but he has simply not been healthy enough to warrant serious consideration.
Carroll boldly remains behind Wilson. As long as he plays efficiently enough to push the Seahawks' record to 4-2, there won't be much clamoring for Flynn. That said, Wilson must step up and get it done with a big game against New England.
Prediction: Seahawks 24, Patriots 16
As strange as it seems for a team that seemed to be on such an upswing in 2011, Jim Schwartz's squad is in grave danger of falling to 1-4 in Philadelphia.
Based on what's happened in 2012, though, the Lions' schedule has been pretty brutal. Their losses are on the road to San Francisco (4-1), Minnesota (4-1) and Tennessee, who recently improved to 2-4.
The game against the Titans wasn't a good look for the Detroit defense, but that game could have very well been Jake Locker's coming-out party as Tennessee's franchise QB. However, it's impossible to tell at this point, since he suffered a separated shoulder in the first quarter of the very next game.
Then, consider that Matthew Stafford rallied his team to win the opener against the upstart St. Louis Rams and their tough defense.
In that context, the Lions' season doesn't look so awful. The Eagles have a penchant for turning the ball over, which can offset any shortcomings the Lion defense might have.
Meanwhile, Stafford hasn't played one great game yet from start to finish this season. Coming off of a bye week, the explosive passing attack should be ready to fire on all cylinders.
As B/R's NFC East lead writer Brad Gagnon broke down this week, Eagles No. 1 corner Nnamdi Asomugha has been playing rather poorly. Facing Calvin "Megatron" Johnson certainly won't be much of a confidence-booster.
The two teams atop the NFC North—the Vikings and the Chicago Bears—aren't locks to maintain their hot play by any stretch of the imagination.
As Stafford proved in 2011, he gives the Lions a chance to win any game no matter the hole the defense puts him in.
This is a make-or-break game for Detroit, and they should get it done on the road to rebound from a rocky start.
Prediction: Lions 38, Eagles 23
Stock has plummeted for Cincinnati after an ugly home letdown to the Miami Dolphins.
As Thursday night showed, though, the Bengals clearly look to be the second-best team in the AFC North.
Or they at least deserve to be considered as such.
According to OddsShark.com, they are only one-point favorites on the road against the hapless, winless Cleveland Browns, a team they just beat a mere month ago.
What has plagued the Bengals in recent weeks has been their inability to establish a running game with newly acquired BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Miami has the No. 1 rush defense in the league, which made it all the more difficult in Week 5.
The lack of respect for the Bengals and the growing sentiment that the Browns are somehow meant to break through on Sunday seem unfounded. Cleveland may be without its best defensive lineman Ahtyba Rubin, and won't have Dimitri Patterson starting at corner, either.
Also working against the Browns: Jordan Norwood went on injured reserve after a nine-catch performance versus the Giants, explosive rookie Travis Benjamin is listed as doubtful and rookie QB Brandon Weeden's favorite target in Mohamed Massaquoi is out with a hamstring injury (via ESPN injury report).
If the Bengals truly are a contender, they have no excuse not to blow out the shorthanded, beat up, worst team in football despite the familiarity factor of playing Cleveland once already.
Prediction: Bengals 34, Browns 17
It seems as though the Cowboys are always enigmatic, but this year that is especially the case. They are having a bit of an identity crisis on offense.
With weapons such as Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Kevin Ogletree and tight end Jason Witten, Dallas is almost automatically relegated to a three-wide-receiver set.
The problem is the offensive line hasn't been that great. While Tony Romo can get the ball out to his playmakers quickly, the shoddy blocking doesn't lend itself very well to the running game.
DeMarco Murray burst onto the scene as an unheralded rookie last season. He has struggled, mainly because the Cowboys have underutilized their phenomenal lead-blocking fullback, Lawrence Vickers.
Those three-wide-receiver sets keep Vickers on the sidelines, making it nearly impossible for Murray to wiggle free for big gains.
Dallas has thrown 161 passes and run it just 79 times through four games. They need more power-running plays with Vickers clearing the way for Murray at the second level.
Rainer Sabin of the Dallas Morning News Cowboys blog reports that Vickers played only 11-of-68 snaps in the Monday night loss to Chicago nearly two weeks ago.
In what will be a defining game, the Cowboys travel to Baltimore to take on a team whose problem has uncharacteristically been its defense.The Ravens are playing the ultimate version of bend-but-don't-break, however. They are 24th in total yards allowed per game, but yield just under 18 points, which is seventh-best in the league.
Coming off of a bye, Romo and the immensely talented skill players surrounding him are due to put it all together for the first time.
Also worth noting is that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has the Cowboys giving up the fewest yards per game through the air. For a Baltimore team that is insistent upon letting Joe Flacco throw it twice as much as he hands it to Ray Rice, the Ravens could be in for an upset.
In a highly competitive NFC East division, Dallas finds a way to keep pace by grinding out a victory thanks to Romo's best performance since Week 1. Flacco is shut down by the stellar Cowboys secondary.
Prediction: Cowboys 30, Ravens 27
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