Sports Illustrated's Don Banks tackles three questions that matter to fans:
If the NFL gave out awards for sophomores of the year, who would be in line to claim the hardware?
M. David Leeds/Allsport
On offense, it's a no-brainer in favor of a man named Brady. New England QB Tom Brady, the Patriots' second sixth-round pick in 2000, has exploded onto the NFL scene after being on no one's radar screen until Week 3. His story is the stuff of Roy Hobbs, with a touch of Kurt Warner, in that an injury opened the door to stardom.
Brady is 7-3 as a starter in place of Drew Bledsoe, and his 93.4 passer rating is fifth in the league. That's better than any of the celebrated Class of 1999 QBs like Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper and Tim Couch. Brady has 16 TDs, just seven interceptions -- including four of those in one quarter at Denver -- and his 66 percent passing (198-of-302 for 2,082 yards) ranks among the best of the best in the NFL.
Despite playing in just nine games, Gbaja-Biamila has 12 sacks, which ranks second in the league, and has forced three fumbles. But he is a situational player and has just 16 tackles this season. After an injury-shortened rookie season at linebacker, Abraham has 11 sacks (fourth overall) and has forced five fumbles. He has been the key to the Jets' impressive defensive turnaround.
And speaking of turnarounds, no player was more responsible for the Redskins' 0-5 to 5-5 run than Arrington, who has produced like the play-making machine he was at Penn State. Roaming the field with abandon, Arrington has 62 tackles, one huge interception returned for a touchdown, two fumble recoveries and one sack. And he has quickly assumed the role of team leader, almost willing Washington to victory in some situations.
All would be fine picks. But the nod here goes to Urlacher, the heart and soul of a Bears team that is 9-2 and in first place in the NFC Central after the stench of five consecutive losing seasons. Urlacher, last year's defensive rookie of the year and a Pro Bowl selection, hasn't made a ton of huge plays. His 62 tackles and four sacks are on pace to leave him shy of his 2000 totals of 97 tackles and eight sacks.
But he has two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, and already has given the Bears' defense its mystique back. Chicago's defense has allowed just 155 points, third lowest in the league behind Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and the Bears are 7-0 in games decided by seven points or fewer. That's winning with defense, and that's where Urlacher comes in.
What still has to happen for the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens to get into prime position for a repeat?
Brian Billick Tom Pidgeon/Allsport
At 8-4 entering its bye weekend, Baltimore has the same 12-game record it did a year ago, when it finished 12-4, earned the AFC's top wild-card slot and strung together four postseason victories despite having just one home playoff game.
But minus their record-breaking defense of a year ago, the Ravens really can't count on that kind of scenario unfolding once again, and they probably know that. That's why their next game could decide their season. Baltimore currently trails first-place Pittsburgh (9-2) by 1 1/2 games. If they can defeat visiting Pittsburgh on Dec. 16, they will have swept the Steelers this year and will only have to tie them rather than pass them to win the AFC Central.
If the Jets should happen to upset Pittsburgh this week at Heinz Field, the Ravens would only have to down the Steelers to take over first place with three weeks remaining. With three of their last four games at home, the Ravens also still have an excellent shot of earning the AFC's top seed and the accompanying first-round bye and home field advantage. Oakland and Miami (both 8-3) are looking beatable these days, meaning that if Baltimore finishes strong and wins the AFC Central, there's a good chance the No. 1 seed would come with it.
After facing the Steelers, Baltimore gets Cincinnati and Minnesota at home (both are 4-7), with a trip to Tampa Bay (6-5) sandwiched in between. If they can run the table, which certainly seems realistic, that 12-4 would likely bring at least a first-round bye and a divisional-round home game.
And remember, the Ravens are 9-0 in December in head coach Brian Billick's three seasons. Baltimore this year has learned to win the close ones -- in the last six weeks it has won five games, all decided in the fourth quarter -- and it has overcome a rash of turnovers, injuries and inconsistent quarterbacking to do it.
Do the Ravens have another title run in them? It's almost time to find out.
What was the kiss of death in the AFC this season?
Jay Fiedler Eliot Schechter/Allsport
A fast start. Every year we love to trot out those statistics about how teams that start 2-0 are a 63.77777 percent bet to make the playoffs. Well, consider what happened to those probabilities in the AFC this year.
Six AFC teams started the season at 2-0 or better. Those are your six playoff teams, right? Case closed, start printing up the tickets. Today, just one of them has a winning record: Miami, at 8-3.
San Diego was 3-0 but has dropped seven of nine and is 5-7. Cincinnati and Indianapolis were 2-0. They've also lost seven of nine and are 4-7 overall. Jacksonville was 2-0, but has won just once since, and stands 3-8. And lastly, Denver has gone from 2-0 to 6-6.
You can say that the Chargers, Bengals and Jaguars weren't supposed to be very good anyway and it's a point well taken. But teams come out of nowhere to make the playoffs all the time, and a fast getaway is usually part of that equation. As for the Colts and Broncos, they had legitimate designs on the postseason and their struggles have eye-opening.
In the NFC, things were a tad less misleading. Only two teams started 2-0 -- Green Bay and St. Louis -- and both look to be playoff locks. Then again, we didn't exactly see Chicago and San Francisco (both 9-2) coming either, did we?