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Next week should clear up playoff picture

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Hub Arkush
Publisher and editor

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Posted Nov. 30, 2010 @ 12:41 p.m. ET
By Hub Arkush

The 12 days between this past Thanksgiving and Monday, Dec. 6 just might tell us everything we need to know to project with reasonable certainty which 12 teams will be playoff-bound at the end of the regular season.

It is hard to imagine the three Thanksgiving Day winners — New England, New Orleans and the Jets — not making the playoffs this year. And I suspect the Nov. 28 games between the Packers and Falcons, Jaguars and Giants, Bucs and Ravens, Eagles and Bears, and Chargers and Colts and the Dec. 5 games between the Falcons and Bucs and Steelers and Ravens, followed by the Jets and Patriots on Monday, Dec. 6, should sort out the rest. Of course I'm ignoring the eventual NFC West entrant, but realistically, what difference should that make? Looking specifically at those eight games between Nov. 28 and Dec. 6, when was the last time the scheduling gods gave us so much to be thankful for, and is there really any doubt 11 of those 14 clubs will grab the 11 remaining playoff spots if San Diego can overtake the Chiefs?

Watching the Patriots struggle with the Lions in the first half and then dismantle them in the second half, I found myself wondering more about just how good that club might be in a year or two than how good they are right now. New England's defense seems to keep its opponent in every game, but that is mainly because it features five rookies making significant contributions and mistakes. In the end, I suspect they'll make too many mistakes to get past the AFC title game, where I think their season will end. But with at least two picks in each of the first three rounds of the 2011 draft, and Tom Brady playing the best football of his career, New England could be on the cusp of another dynasty.

Much like the Patriots, the Saints seem to be able to turn their offense on and off like a faucet, but Drew Brees with 15 picks already this year is making a lot more mistakes than last season. New Orleans' defense can look very good in long stretches, but then it will have a second half like it did vs. the Cowboys or throw out clunkers like it did earlier this year vs. the Falcons, Cardinals and Browns. Still, that offense is good enough to make sure the Saints get a chance to defend their title when the final 12 are decided for this year.

I'm still not really sure what to make of the Jets. After barely getting by mediocre-to-bad teams including Detroit, Cleveland and Houston in recent weeks, the Jets were outplayed by the Bengals for 30 minutes and then used an extremely suspect officiating call on a punt play, an end-around and a kickoff return to secure another win. Mark Sanchez has played well for the most part, but has he shown us enough to believe he's ready to compete under the bright lights against Manning, Brady, Roethlisberger and Rivers? As nice a story as LaDainian Tomlinson is, he's really slowed down the last five or six weeks, and defenses that live by the blitz have a tendency to die with it when the stakes are highest. Maybe the Jets are for real, but I suspect we'll know a ton more about them after that next game in New England.

My gut tells me the Falcons and Chargers are the two best teams in the league right now. But between all of the Chargers' injuries and high-profile holdouts they've dealt with, is a trip to Dallas in February just too high a hill to climb?

I expect the Jaguars to fade down the stretch and the Bucs to be also-rans once the Ravens and Falcons have had their way with them. But a split of those two games with winnable challenges at Washington and then at home vs. Detroit and Seattle before finishing at New Orleans would give Tampa a great shot at 11 wins, an almost certain ticket to the playoffs.

So what about the Eagles, Bears, Packers, Giants, Steelers, Ravens and Colts? To me they're the clubs we just don't know enough about yet, but we may know all we need to by the time the final gun sounds on the Jets and Patriots on Monday, Dec. 6.

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