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Stretching the Field: Playoff races not taking shape
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The cold months of November and December separate NFL contenders from the wannabes.
If you're not too hung over or debilitated from gorging on Thanksgiving dinner and desserts, take a look at the NFL standings and it appears only the New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks are on the clear-cut path to division titles.
And that's a good thing for even the casual football fan because it means five divisions are still up for grabs and some talented teams will be left out in the cold.
Cincinnati and Baltimore are still jockeying for position in the AFC North and the same holds true between Denver and Kansas City in the AFC West, Dallas and Philadelphia in the NFC East, Detroit, Chicago and Green Bay in the NFC North and New Orleans and Carolina in the NFC South.
The Bengals, Broncos, Chiefs, Cowboys, Lions and Saints also sit atop their respective divisions, so let's take a look at those aiming to overthrow the leaders or even each other.
BALTIMORE - The defending Super Bowl champion Ravens have won two in a row and three of four games after digging themselves out of a three-game losing streak. They held on to defeat rival Pittsburgh Thursday night and didn't have to impress offensively, as Justin Tucker nailed five field goals and the defense did its job early and at the end. Still, the Ravens need Joe Flacco and Ray Rice to get going and create some heat on the Bengals.
PHILADELPHIA - Chip Kelly is coming off his first bye week as an NFL coach and it will be interesting to see how well he prepares with almost two weeks to watch tape, etc. The Eagles performed very well after the bye in the Andy Reid era and are riding the coattails of red-hot QB Nick Foles, the NFC Offensive Player of the Month. Foles was recently named starter (finally) and it helped that Mike Vick said it wouldn't make sense to have a switch under center. A hungry Arizona bunch will visit south Philly Sunday looking to stay hot. More on the hard-charging Cardinals below.
CHICAGO - Quarterback Josh McCown has kept the Bears in position to make a run at the NFC North division, but the Lions appear ready to pounce and the Green Bay Packers still have life despite an 0-4-1 mark since former NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers went down with a broken clavicle. The Bears don't miss starter Jay Cutler, who is still bothered by a high ankle sprain, and have McCown operating an offense that can explode on any given week. He has performed well in place of Cutler, completing 97-of-148 attempts for 1,106 yards, seven touchdowns, one interception and a 100.8 QB rating in the last five games. The Bears could use linebacker Lance Briggs, but he has a shoulder issue.
DENVER & KANSAS CITY - Yes, both powerhouses are tied atop the AFC West, but something has to give when the remaining weeks approach. Reid's Chiefs have lost two in a row since a sizzling 9-0 start and are banged up on defense, which is par for the course for any franchise at this time of year. The Broncos, who will visit the barbecue capital of the world Sunday, have to bounce back from a rough loss at New England. The Broncos blew a 24-0 lead and bowed out in overtime. Peyton Manning just can't get one over on Tom Brady, but can teach Chiefs QB Alex Smith how to succeed on a consistent basis. Manning did so in the first meeting between the QBs a few weeks ago.
SAN FRANCISCO - The 49ers will get another weapon for quarterback Colin Kaepernick on Sunday, when wide receiver Michael Crabtree is expected to return from a torn Achilles suffered in May, but will most likely be limited. St. Louis, though, now has to prepare for Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis and Mario Manningham, as well as Kaepernick and running back Frank Gore. The 49ers played well last November and December to reach the Super Bowl and are hoping a seemingly favorable rest of the schedule pays off. Upcoming games against Seattle and Arizona will play a role in the 49ers' fate.
ARIZONA - The Bruce Arians-led Cardinals have won four in a row, including three straight after the bye, and hammered the Colts, 40-11, on Sunday in the desert. The Cardinals deserve a lot of credit with wins over Detroit, Carolina and Indianapolis, and know they're right in the playoff hunt. However, Arizona could be one of those teams left out come late December. The Cards need quarterback Carson Palmer to keep playing well and he has eight TD passes to two interceptions during the winning streak. It's nice to have a strong defense, especially up front, and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
TEAMS WITH FAINT CHANCES - The New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans, San Diego Chargers, Green Bay Packers, St. Louis Rams.
11/29 12:33:05 ET
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