Two weeks ago, the New York Giants were squabbling prima donnas and the Baltimore Ravens were headed for the Super Bowl behind Steve McNair – if Cincinnati didn’t beat them to it.

A week ago, the Steelers were done and Ben Roethlisberger had hit the wall. He wasn’t nearly as good as the two quarterbacks taken ahead of him in 2004: Eli Manning and Philip Rivers.

The Saints were a nice story, but a fluke – a team sure to be exposed against MVP-in-the-making Donovan McNabb and the Eagles. Now, after beating Philadelphia, New Orleans will be in Miami in February. Write it down.

No, check that. Carolina is pretty good; so are the Giants, Eagles and Cowboys in the NFC East, and the Seahawks in the West. Chicago is better than good and the maligned NFC is … gasp! … five games better than the “far superior” AFC.

Hey, and we haven’t even mentioned T.O. yet.

Wait a minute. Slow down.

In this era saturated by talk radio, talk television and instant Internet gossip, everyone jumps to instant conclusions, making every week into a definitive NFL snapshot of who’s good, who’s mediocre and who’s bad. How many times do we watch “experts” sounding off with definitive conclusions this week and taking them back the next?

Or ignoring that they even made such pronouncements?

One blog sent this week to Giants fans even hinted (sort of in jest) at more discord after Tiki Barber rushed for 185 yards, a league high this season, in Sunday’s 27-14 win over Atlanta, then said: “We did what we do best, and that is running the football.”

Aha! Tiki is the guy who, after a playoff loss to Carolina last season, said the Giants were outcoached. When Jeremy Shockey said the same thing after a bad loss in Seattle three weeks ago, they became “team turmoil” and Tom Coughlin was on his way out the door.

Hmm, they’ve since beaten the Redskins and Falcons.

So what are the Week 6 conclusions? Let’s take a crack at them here – along with their accompanying realities:

From the NFC:

1. The Saints. They are not a fluke after all! Not with Drew Brees at quarterback, Reggie Bush to open things up for Deuce McAlister, a defense that’s better than expected and the emotion of a city (and a nation) to cheer them on.

But they are the Saints, who have won just one playoff game ever. And they are not as good as …

2. Carolina. The Panthers were the preseason favorite to make the Super Bowl, then started 0-2 without All-Pro receiver Steve Smith. They are 4-0 since he returned, the defense is solid – Julius Peppers is the NFL’s best defensive lineman – Jake Delhomme is the league’s most ignored star quarterback and Keyshawn Johnson is having a banner year.

Let’s face it: They have a history of injuries (middle linebacker Dan Morgan already is out for the season) and their running game is mediocre.

3. Among the Giants, Eagles and Cowboys, only the division winner will make the playoffs. Because of the way the schedule is tilted, they probably will spend the season beating each other and splitting games with the contenders in the South, making for a bunch of 10-6 and 9-7 teams.

This could happen. The Rams and Vikings may end up with wild cards even though they’re not as good as any of the above.

4. The Seahawks. The schedule is easy, they’ll get momentum off their last-second win in St. Louis, and they should get at least a No. 2 seed in the NFC behind Chicago.

Problem is, Shaun Alexander isn’t there right now and wasn’t doing much when he was.

5. The Bears. Because of the East-South round-robin and a dismal division, they are almost guaranteed home-field advantage in the playoffs. This one’s not such a stretch.

But they had home-field advantage last year against the Panthers, who beat them in Chicago. Could happen again.

On to the AFC:

1. The Steelers aren’t quite dead yet, are they? Nor is Roethlisberger a bust. Big Ben is best when he passes only on his own terms. That’s what happened Sunday in Pittsburgh’s 45-7 post-bye-week demolition of the Chiefs, when he was 16-of-19 for 238 yards. The Steelers went back to their proven system, running 42 times for 219 yards, and the defense played like a Super Bowl defense.

Look, the Steelers were desperate against the Chiefs and showed up at their best. They better start doing that every week because they’re still just 2-3 and their longtime leader, Jerome Bettis, is in a TV studio.

2. Steve McNair, who left Sunday’s game with a neck injury, has looked like past Ravens QBs the last two weeks against good Denver and Carolina defenses. That translates to “not very good” for McNair.

Throw those two weeks out. McNair is still better than any QB who’s ever put on a Ravens uniform.

3. Cincinnati, after getting run over by New England, came back rusty from its bye and lost to previously winless Tampa. Could the Bengals’ numerous off-field shenanigans be leading to some on-field stumbles?

On the other hand, Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson really haven’t gotten going, with the exception of the first game.

4. Denver (4-1) has allowed only one touchdown all season, a garbage-time score by New England in a 17-7 win. But the Broncos sleepwalked by winless Oakland on Sunday night and at some point will have to do more than average one touchdown a game. In a four-week stretch starting Oct. 29, the Broncos play the Colts, Steelers and Chargers.

Still, they can win a majority of those games if Jake Plummer wakes up.

5. San Diego (4-1) still has something to prove. Its only impressive win was over Pittsburgh, and its other three are over Oakland, Tennessee and San Francisco, combined record 3-14. The Chargers lost in Baltimore, in part because they tried to sit on a lead.

But an early conclusion: the AFC’s best team.

6. New England (4-1). Weak in the secondary and at wide receiver, and shut down by Denver in its only loss? Never mind. Bill Belichick is a genius who probably straightened things out during this week’s bye.

The Patriots are headed back to the Super Bowl – if Pittsburgh, Denver, Indy or San Diego aren’t.

7. Jacksonville (3-2). If only the Jaguars had won in Indy, as they should have. But they were off this week, so they move up in everyone’s eyes.

But the Jags also gave up 36 points to Washington, which scored just 25 in its next two games.

AP-ES-10-16-06 1914EDT


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