December Will Make or Break These Contenders

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December Will Make or Break These Contenders
Three of the four teams in last season's conference championship games are on track to miss the postseason.

 

Four teams that finished with five victories or fewer in 2007 are in playoff contention.

We all saw this coming in August, right?

Compared to last year, the NFL standings have a new look as the final month of the regular season begins. If the season ended today, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay would be the only defending division champions. The demise of San Diego, Green Bay and New England along with the rise of doormats such as Atlanta and Baltimore has added to the intrigue.

With four weeks remaining, here is a divisional primer for the rest of the regular season in the NFC and AFC.

 

NFC East

Projected winner: New York Giants (11-1)

In the playoff hunt: Dallas (8-4), Washington (7-5), Philadelphia (6-5-1)

Biggest remaining games: Giants at Cowboys (Dec. 14) — The Giants rolled against Dallas in early November, but this rematch should be much more competitive with Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo back under center; Eagles at Redskins (Dec. 21) — If Washington and Philadelphia are still in playoff contention by then, the loser of this game may fall out of it.

Players to watch:Without a strong finish, Eagles QB Donovan McNabb's 10-season run in Philadelphia could be over. McNabb will have to excel despite a brutal schedule that includes games against the Giants and Cowboys. Dallas OLB DeMarcus Ware is on pace for a 20-sack season, making him a legitimate NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

Coaches under pressure: Anything short of a Super Bowl appearance may not be good enough for Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who has offensive coordinator Jason Garrett waiting in the wings to replace head coach Wade Phillips. The Eagles are 30-29-1 since reaching Super Bowl XXXIX under Andy Reid, whose team had a 59-21 mark between 2000 and 2005.

Key injuries:The Giants can't count on WR Plaxico Burress (leg) to play again in 2008 after Friday night's shooting incident. New York has proven it can win without him, but Burress was QB Eli Manning's best downfield threat. The toe injury suffered by Cowboys RB Marion Barber during a Thanksgiving Day rout of Seattle could force him to miss at least Sunday's game at Pittsburgh. With backup Felix Jones (toe) already on injured reserve, fellow rookie Tashard Choice may be pushed into a starting role against the NFL's top-ranked run defense. The Eagles have major problems at right guard, where Max Jean-Gilles (ankle) has joined two-time Pro Bowl selection Shawn Andrews (back) on the sideline. Washington RB Clinton Portis and WR Santana Moss have been slowed during the second half of the season and could be wearing down.

Something you may not know: The NFC East has sent three teams to the playoffs for two consecutive seasons. That hasn't happened elsewhere since the NFL adopted an eight-division format in 2002.

 

NFC South

Projected winner: Tampa Bay (9-3) has a more favorable remaining schedule than Carolina (9-3). The Bucs can complete an 8-0 home record by winning their final two games against San Diego and Oakland. Carolina plays its final two contests on the road, including a Dec. 21 match-up against the Giants.

In the hunt: Atlanta (8-4)

On life support: New Orleans (6-6)

Biggest remaining games:Bucs at Panthers (Dec. 8) — The winner has sole possession of first place; Bucs at Falcons (Dec. 14) — Atlanta needs this win to remain alive in the division race and for tiebreaker purposes against other NFC South playoff contenders.

Players to watch:Enjoy Saints QB Drew Brees' brilliant season now because the Saints probably aren't making the playoffs after Sunday's 23-20 loss at Tampa Bay. As he did during Carolina's deep playoff run in 2005, WR Steve Smith is surging in the second half of the season. He has 18 catches for 336 yards in the past three games.

Coaches under pressure: None. Carolina's John Fox has quashed speculation about his job security with the Panthers rebounding from an awful 2007 campaign.

Key injuries:After three consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons, Bucs WR Joey Galloway (foot) has only 12 catches this year. A healthy Galloway would give Tampa Bay a much-needed deep threat. The return of RB Cadillac Williams (knee) should improve the Bucs' running game. Atlanta's offensive line would be bolstered by the potential return of rookie LT Sam Baker (back).

Something you may not know: No team has won consecutive NFC South titles since the division's inception in 2002.

NFC North

Projected winner: Minnesota (7-5)

In the playoff hunt: Chicago (6-6)

On life support: Green Bay (5-7)

Wait til next year: Detroit (0-12)

Biggest remaining game: Lions at Packers (Dec. 28) — This could be Detroit's last chance to avoid the NFL's first 0-16 season.

Players to watch: Vikings RB Adrian Peterson not only leads the NFL in rushing, he enters December in much better physical condition than during his rookie season. Expect the scrutiny of Packers QB Aaron Rodgers to increase as Green Bay stumbles toward a losing record while the Brett Favre-led Jets make a postseason push.

Coaches under pressure:Forget about Rod Marinelli keeping his Lions coaching gig. The best he can hope for is winning one game before getting fired. A third consecutive season without a playoff appearance could doom Minnesota's Brad Childress, whose team entered the year with high expectations after an offseason spending spree.

Key injuries: With a sound performance in Sunday night's win against Chicago, Vikings DE Jared Allen showed he can still be effective in December despite a serious shoulder injury. The season-long health problems in Chicago's secondary continued last week with CB Nathan Vasher (hand) landing on injured reserve. The Bears would be best served by bad weather in a string of three straight home games to open December.

Something you may not know: This could be the first season that the NFC North doesn't have a double-digit winner.

 

NFC West

Projected winner: Arizona (7-5)

Wait til next year: San Francisco (4-8), Seattle (2-10), St. Louis (2-10).

Biggest remaining games: Cardinals at Patriots (Dec. 21) — The Cardinals' only December road trip is a biggie. Arizona has lost in all four of its East Coast appearances this season and needs to build some confidence heading into the playoffs where an away game against the Giants or NFC South winner could await in the second round.

Players to watch:Major personnel changes may be coming in San Francisco this offseason, but 49ers QB Shaun Hill can use December to show he's worth keeping as the starter. Hill has proven a major upgrade over J.T. O'Sullivan, leading the 49ers to victory in two of the past four games. Arizona needs to become less one-dimensional on offense for any shot at postseason success. That means RB Tim Hightower must improve on his 2-yard rushing average from the past four games or risk losing his starting spot to former first-stringer Edgerrin James.

Coaches under pressure: San Francisco's Mike Singletary and St. Louis' Jim Haslett are both working on an interim basis. They need strong Decembers for any shot at keeping their head coaching positions in 2009.

Key injuries:The Cardinals are hurting in their secondary with CBs Rod Hood (rib) and Eric Green (knee) ailing. Arizona needs both players back after surrendering 611 passing yards and five touchdowns in consecutive losses to the Giants and Eagles.

Something you may not know: The Cardinals have not hosted a playoff game since 1947. This could be an even worse showing for the NFC West than in 2005 when the Rams, 49ers and Cardinals combined for just 15 wins.

AFC East

Projected winner: New York Jets (8-4)

In the playoff hunt: Miami (7-5), New England (7-5)

On life support: Buffalo (6-6)

Biggest remaining games: Dolphins at Bills in Toronto (Sunday) — Miami catches a break, getting to play a December road game against Buffalo inside a domed stadium. A Dolphins victory would be a huge step toward landing a playoff berth, as Miami's next two opponents are San Francisco (4-8) and Kansas City (2-10); Patriots at Bills (Dec. 28) — This will be a far different situation for New England than the 2007 regular-season finale that capped a 16-0 record. As it stands, the Patriots don't stack up favorably in wild-card tiebreaker scenarios with Baltimore and Indianapolis. That makes defeating Buffalo a must for New England.

Players to watch: QB Matt Cassel's free-agent value would skyrocket if he could lead New England into the playoffs. In what could be his final NFL season (again), the spotlight on Jets QB Brett Favre will continue to grow each week. Miami QB Chad Pennington may earn some NFL Comeback Player of the Year votes for his work with the Dolphins.

Key injuries:Dolphins WR Ted Ginn Jr. has made major strides in his second NFL season, but he will need to produce even more to help Miami compensate for the loss of leading receiver Greg Camarillo (knee). The Patriots are battered defensively, especially at linebacker. Does anyone have Junior Seau's number?

Something you may not know: With three more victories, Miami will become the first team since the 1963 Oakland Raiders to win 10 games after finishing with just one victory the previous season.

 

AFC South

Projected winner: Tennessee (11-1)

In the playoff hunt: Indianapolis (8-4)

Wait til next year: Jacksonville (4-7), Houston (4-7)

Biggest remaining games: Steelers at Titans (Dec. 21) — This game should be pivotal in determining which AFC teams receive first-round playoff byes; Titans at Colts (Dec. 28) — A rematch of last year's season finale in which Indianapolis' decision to rest its starters helped Tennessee secure a playoff berth. The opposite could happen this year if the Titans have already secured the AFC's top seed and the Colts need to win for a postseason appearance.

Players to watch: Colts RB Joseph Addai has far more starts with less than 60 yards rushing (six) than 100-yard efforts (one). An Addai resurgence would take some of the pressure off QB Peyton Manning, who has carried the offense on his back during the Colts' five-game winning streak. Despite being a rookie, Titans RB Chris Johnson shows no signs of fatigue as he motors toward a 1,000-yard season. The Titans, though, would be wise to temper Johnson's use down the stretch if home-field advantage in the playoffs is clinched early.

Coaches under pressure:None, as Houston's Gary Kubiak and Jacksonville's Jack Del Rio will be given another season to right their ships. Should Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy retire, top assistant Jim Caldwell will be his replacement.

Key injuries:The Colts just aren't the same defensively without SS Bob Sanders, who is out for the second time this season with a leg injury. Colts C Jeff Saturday (calf) also is gimpy entering December. The extra rest from playing Detroit on Thanksgiving Day will do a world of good for Tennessee's injury-riddled secondary and DE Kyle Vanden Bosch (groin).

Something you may not know: Houston still hasn't made the playoffs after seven seasons, the longest postseason draught for an expansion franchise since Seattle missed out from 1976 to 1982.

 

AFC North

Projected winner: Pittsburgh (9-3).

In the hunt: Baltimore (8-4).

Wait til next year: Cleveland (4-8), Cincinnati (1-10-1).

Biggest remaining games: Steelers at Ravens (Dec. 14) — A rematch from one of the season's most entertaining prime-time games. Pittsburgh won that meeting, 23-20, in overtime; Ravens at Cowboys (Dec. 20) — The NFL's lone Saturday night regular-season game should have playoff implications for both squads. Because it's on NFL Network, not everyone will be able to see it.

Players to watch:Baltimore rookie QB Joe Flacco enters December coming off the best game of his young NFL career, having skewered Cincinnati for 280 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday's 34-3 spanking. But is Flacco ready for a brutal three-game stretch against Washington, Pittsburgh and Dallas? Browns QB Ken Dorsey will have to run out the string in Cleveland with Derek Anderson (knee) and Brady Quinn (finger) sidelined.

Coaches under pressure: Romeo Crennel is a goner in Cleveland just 11 months after receiving a two-year, $8 million contract extension. For most franchises, a three-season slide would lead to termination. But most franchises don't operate like Cincinnati, where Marvin Lewis could be back because of Bengals owner Mike Brown's reticence to fire head coaches.

Key injuries:The Steelers sorely missed RB Willie Parker last season when he was lost in December to a broken leg. Parker enters this December with a bum knee and shoulder but could be ready for a heavier workload this Sunday against Dallas. The Steelers also could use DE Brett Kiesel (knee) down the stretch. Bengals QB Carson Palmer (elbow) will throw next week to determine whether he can play again this season. I know — why bother?

Something you may not know: The AFC North's 2008 non-division games came primarily against the NFC East and AFC East, whose teams have a combined record of 60-35-1.

 

AFC West

Projected winner: Denver (7-5).

Wait til next year: San Diego (4-8), Oakland (3-9), Kansas City (2-10).

Biggest remaining game: Broncos at Chargers (Dec. 28) — Something is terribly wrong if Denver hasn't clinched this division long before then.

Players to watch:No running game, no problem for Broncos QB Jay Cutler. Cutler's passing is the main reason why Denver has won three of its past four outings. If he slumps, the Broncos will slide. Chiefs QB Tyler Thigpen will have the rest of the season to show he deserves the chance to start in 2009.

Coaches under pressure: Even with the Chargers considered the NFL's most disappointing team, it should come as no shock that Chargers general manager A.J. Smith has already guaranteed Norv Turner's return in 2009. Smith entered the season as an ardent Turner supporter and will give him a chance to rebound from a hard-luck campaign. Oakland's Tom Cable has done a decent job under difficult circumstances but that doesn't mean he will keep the position beyond an interim basis. Herm Edwards will probably be given another season to spearhead Kansas City's rebuilding effort.

Key injuries: Denver's defense will get a big boost from the imminent returns of CB Champ Bailey (groin) and LB D.J. Williams (knee).

Something you may not know: Once considered one of the NFL's stronger divisions, the AFC West is set to field three losing teams for the second consecutive season.

This article originally published on FOXSports.com.

For more for Alex's columns, click here.

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