Yes, it was another “any given Sunday” in the NFL, as unpredictable as ever.

Still, several games provided a pretty good clue about who will be playing in January and who won’t.

For one, the Redskins came up as a pretender.

After beating the 49ers by 35 points a week ago, they went to the Meadowlands and lost to the Giants by 36, a 71-point negative swing for a team that had the Redskins-mad D.C. area thinking at least playoffs and possibly Super Bowl.

Another pretender: Tampa Bay, 5-1 against weak opposition. The Bucs went to San Francisco and lost 15-10 to the 49ers, who were 1-5 coming in.

Yes, Tampa Bay had backup Chris Simms at quarterback, but the 49ers were playing Ken Dorsey in place of the injured Alex Smith and finished with third-stringer Cody Pickett when Dorsey was hurt.

That game was an example of one early-season trend: dominance by home teams, who are 77-38, a 67 percent winning percentage (that includes the Giants’ “road” win over New Orleans at the Meadowlands, which we’re counting as a home victory). In 2004, home teams won 57 percent of the time.

The NFC East by itself is 14-1 at home, with the one loss by Dallas at home to division rival Washington.

And even San Francisco has been competitive in its own park, where it is 2-2 with wins over the Rams and Bucs and a near-win over the Cowboys. Only the 28-3 loss to unbeaten Indianapolis was one-sided.

A rundown on the playoff races approaching the halfway mark for everyone:



AFC

CONTENDERS (in order of Super Bowl chances): Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Denver, San Diego, Cincinnati, Kansas City, New England, Jacksonville.

OUTSIDE CHANCE: Oakland, Buffalo, Miami.

NO WAY: Houston, Tennessee, Cleveland, Baltimore, New York Jets.

Not quite how it looked before the season, when the Jets and Ravens, now badly banged-up, were rated among the conference favorites and a lot of folks liked the Bills. The Patriots? They are among the contenders because they’re the Patriots and because they seem likely to win the AFC East, where everyone has problems.

The intriguing team is the Chargers, who at 4-4 already have lost as many games as all of last season. Yes, they have two more transcontinental trips – to the Jets and Redskins – to go with two earlier ones, and also must play at Indianapolis and at Kansas City.

But looking at their schedule, is there any reason they should finish worse than 10-6, especially with first-round draft picks Shawne Merriman and Luis Castillo becoming defensive impact players?

“We’ve won the first of a nine-game season,” Marty Schottenheimer said after Sunday’s 28-20 victory over Kansas City. “We have a nine-game regular season and right now we’re 1-0.”

Still, the AFC goes through Indianapolis, which is at New England next Monday night. The Colts, off this week, never win in Foxborough and some of Peyton Manning’s worst games have been there.

They could finally break through this time, en route to Detroit.



NFC

CONTENDERS: Carolina, Atlanta, Dallas, New York Giants, Philadelphia, Seattle, Tampa Bay, Chicago, Washington.

OUTSIDE CHANCE. St. Louis, Detroit.

NO WAY: Minnesota, Green Bay, New Orleans, San Francisco, Arizona.

A couple of things happened Sunday to put the NFC in perspective:

1. Chicago probably clinched the North by beating Detroit. The Bears are not only 4-3, the first time a team in that division has been over .500 since opening day, but have two wins over the Lions, giving them a tiebreaker in a division where 8-8 or less will win. Since there’s no way the Packers or Vikings contend …

2. The Eagles demonstrated a plethora of defensive weaknesses in a 49-21 loss in Denver. Combined with a continued inability to run, they no longer can be considered the best team in the conference.

“An old-fashioned butt-whupping,” said linebacker Jeremiah Trotter after the Eagles cut a 28-0 deficit to 28-21, then melted again on defense as the Broncos finally managed to put the brakes on a second-half collapse.

“What can you say? When you dig a hole too deep, you think you can come back, but then they came right back and made some more big plays.”

Right now, the Eagles probably aren’t as good as the Cowboys and Giants in the East, where everyone is over .500, yet only one team might make the playoffs.

Why?

Just look at the South, where Carolina, Atlanta and Tampa Bay have two losses apiece and easier outside schedules (the NFC North and AFC East) than the teams in the NFC East, who play the AFC and NFC West.

Tampa, with Simms or Tim Rattay, probably isn’t a match for the Falcons or Panthers. But while both NFC wild-card teams were 8-8 last season, a 10-6 non-division winner might miss out this year.

One interesting team is the Giants, who looked like their 1986 Super Bowl counterpart in a 36-0 win over Washington, especially on a defense which had been spotty to awful all season. How much was emotion over the death of Wellington Mara? How much was Washington’s ineptitude? Or was it real improvement, especially the work of young cornerbacks Corey Webster and Curtis DeLoatch?

If the defense is getting better, New York can be scary. The Giants lead the league in scoring at 29.9 points a game, more than two points better than P. Manning and Indianapolis and almost three ahead of San Diego. And Eli Manning will continue to improve.

E. Manning was very average in windy Giants Stadium on Sunday after two straight games in which he engineered fourth-quarter drives, one to tie and one to win. With that defense and Tiki Barber rushing for 206 yards, it didn’t matter.

Manning vs. Manning in the Super Bowl?

“We don’t even talk about it,” Eli said Monday with a laugh. “We really don’t.”


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