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The NFL
Jeffri Chadiha
December 04, 2006
Shakeout Time With five weeks left, which teams will emerge from the pack, and which will be left out in the cold come January?
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December 04, 2006

The Nfl

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Shakeout Time
With five weeks left, which teams will emerge from the pack, and which will be left out in the cold come January?

THERE WAS irony in the Steelers' 27--0 loss in Baltimore on Sunday, which dropped them to 4--7 and effectively ended their postseason hopes. It was around this time last year that Pittsburgh began its surge toward the playoffs, finishing the regular season with a 4--1 run that propelled the team to a Super Bowl championship. What the Steelers discovered in recent weeks is that generating such momentum two years in a row isn't easy.

But there are plenty of other teams that could have success in December. Who's ready to break through the glut of six- and seven-win clubs and dash to the postseason? Excluding the teams with eight or more wins—Indianapolis, Baltimore, Chicago, San Diego and New England—here's how SI sees the playoff contenders finishing up.

NFC
COWBOYS (7--4)
Remaining opponents: 25--30
What's to like
Tony Romo is 4--1 since taking over for QB Drew Bledsoe and has invigorated the offense, spreading the ball to all of his receivers. Another unlikely hero: left tackle Marc Colombo. A bust in Chicago, he has yet to give up a sack this season.

What's not to like
The last two years the Cowboys played poorly in the final weeks, losing three of their last five games each year and missing the playoffs. Erratic QB play was partly to blame.

What to expect
Dallas should win the NFC East. Unlike the Giants and the Eagles, the Cowboys have no significant injuries. And they're playing better than any other team in the conference.

GIANTS (6--5)
Remaining opponents: 29--26
What's to like
Over the next few weeks New York should get several players back from injury, including Pro Bowl defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, linebacker Brandon Short and cornerback Sam Madison. Considering the Giants' recent struggles—three straight losses, including Sunday's 24--21 collapse at Tennessee—it's easy to forget how strong the defense was before all those starters went down.

What's not to like
Did you see the pick of Eli Manning that set up the Titans' game-winning field goal? He's had six interceptions and two touchdown passes during New York's three-game skid.

What to expect
In the AFC, the Giants would be finished. In a mediocre NFC they'll likely snatch a wild-card spot.

SAINTS (7--4)
Remaining opponents: 28--27
What's to like
A 5--1 start built confidence, and the Saints lead the league in total offense thanks to Drew Brees's NFL-best 314.8 passing yards per game. Even when they lost three of four before Sunday's 31--13 win over Atlanta, they looked like they could play with anybody.

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