Scoping out the NFL's second half

Posted: Tuesday, November 02, 2004

In Week 1, the Philadelphia Eagles toyed with the New York Giants, beating them 31-17 in a game that wasn't that close.

About half a season later, those same bedraggled Giants might be the second-best team in the NFC. At least they're among them, one of only three two-loss teams in the conference behind unbeaten Philadelphia, all seemingly light years behind in ability.

No, don't put the Eagles in the Super Bowl yet, although their path looks to be unimpeded as the 2004 season nears the halfway point. The same can't be said in the AFC, where there are several legitimate contenders after New England's 21-game winning streak ended decisively in Pittsburgh.

Still, after eight weeks in another unpredictable season, it's at least starting to become clear who will challenge for the playoffs and who will miss them.

AFC

That New England lost to Pittsburgh wasn't a surprise: the Patriots haven't played very well recently and a long winning streak builds its own internal pressure until things just go ''Pop!'' Bill Belichick's team may play better now that it doesn't have to worry about one loss, although it can't afford to lose players like Corey Dillon and Ty Law for too long.

But Pittsburgh (6-1) certainly looks like a major contender, and it's probably time to consider Ben Roethlisberger one of those rare rookie quarterbacks who can play at a consistently high level. The one thing he hasn't had to do yet is bring his team from behind throw when the opposition knows he's going to throw.

The Patriots could even have a problem in their own division. The Jets, who also had just one loss going into Monday night's game with Miami, did everything but beat them in Foxboro, losing 13-7 but playing them even. The return game is Dec. 26, the next-to-last week of the regular season.

The most intriguing division is the South, where the third-year Texans have joined the Jaguars as challengers to the Colts. All have three losses, and the state of Indianapolis' defense, which must face Minnesota's offense next Monday night, has to be of concern to Tony Dungy, who won't enjoy watching tapes of the debacle in Kansas City.

Even Tennessee (3-5) could get involved if Steve McNair can regain his health, making it a division that could be won at 9-7 and produce no wild-card entries.

Don't give Pittsburgh the North just yet.

The Steelers' one loss is to Baltimore, and the Ravens (4-3) will get Jamal Lewis back from suspension next week. No, Kyle Boller isn't the ideal quarterback, but he played a decent fail-safe game in Philadelphia Sunday. If the Ravens won a Super Bowl with defense, they can still win the division that way and then ....

Who knows?

Don't rule out Kansas City in the West despite a 1-4 start.

The Chiefs scored a total of 101 points in their last two games, both victories, and still have five of their six division games left, including two with San Diego, which is tied with Denver in first place at 5-3. The Broncos have lost badly two straight weeks and no one is quite sure about the Chargers yet, although Drew Brees, with 14 touchdown passes and just three interceptions for the season, seems to be blossoming at quarterback.

Wild cards?

One from the East; the other from either the North or West.

NFC

Everyone talks about the New England's streak, but the Eagles have been almost as good during the same period 20-3 since starting the 2003 season 0-2. With Terrell Owens and Jevon Kearse added, Philadelphia is 7-0 and clearly better than anyone else in the conference and hungry for the title after getting stopped a game short of the Super Bowl the past three seasons.

Everything else is up in the air.

Green Bay started 1-4 with three straight home losses, now has won three straight, and still plays Minnesota twice, giving the Packers reason to believe they can catch the Vikings in the North. The Vikings tend to start fast and finish slowly, but they also tend to at least split with the Packers: They are 13-11 against Green Bay since Brett Favre arrived in 1992.

Detroit (4-3) also is in the mix in the North, although the Lions may be too young. One young player could be the key: Roy Williams has missed two of the last three games, and Detroit lost the two games he missed and won the one he played.

Atlanta (5-2) leads New Orleans by two games in the South and Tampa Bay by three games. Credit Jim Mora for getting the Falcons up for a win in Denver on Sunday after losing 56-10 in Kansas City last week. ''We had the mind-set that we were going to stay focused and learn from the film and put it behind us,'' linebacker Keith Brooking said.

Seattle (4-3) and St. Louis (4-3) have the West to themselves and because they figure to beat up on Arizona and San Francisco, one of them could finish as a wild-card entry.

Figure the Giants will get the other wild card.

They're not going to catch the Eagles in the East: Philadelphia is 14-2 at worst, New York probably will wind up 11-5 or 10-6. But the Giants are the perfect reason why no one can look at a schedule and mark ''Ws'' and ''Ls'' on it: They were favored by a touchdown at home against Detroit and lost; they were underdogs by a touchdown at Minnesota and won.

Yes, things can change, but ...

Barring major injuries, pencil in the Eagles and ....

Who knows?

Dave Goldberg covers the NFL for The Associated Press.



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