The New York Jets still lead the AFC East and are likely to win it.
But a team that a week ago was being put in a New York-New York Super Bowl by the local tabloids is now being buried, replaced on the front and back pages by a receiver on the other local team who managed to shoot himself in the leg and get into more hot water doing it.
It's a demonstration of how fickle the NFL (and the Big Apple) can be.
Nonetheless, the Jets demonstrated by losing Sunday to a team that fell at home to Oakland the previous week that while Brett Favre might carry them to the playoffs, they probably aren't ready to advance very far. The same can be said for other presumed contenders: Washington; the entire NFC North; and, yes, New England, a perennial champion currently on the outside looking in and perhaps ready to stay there.
orough by the Steelers. To put it bluntly, Pittsburgh looked like one of the three or four elite teams in the NFL; the Patriots looked like a team that might miss the playoffs for the first time in six years and just the third time this decade.
It's hard to doubt Belichick when he's confident that his team will climb back in the race on a West Coast trip coming up against two teams that should be patsies. His track record is too good to think otherwise.
And everyone must be cognizant of what all coaches and players on marginal playoff teams are reminding anyone who asks: At this time last season, the Giants were one of them, struggling to make the postseason with no indication they could win a Super Bowl.
Nonetheless, no two seasons are the same. And in this one, the teams seem to have positioned themselves into tiers for the final quarter of the regular season.
-Serious Super Bowl teams: New York Giants (10-1); Tennessee (10-1); Pittsburgh (9-3); Dallas (8-4).
-Legitimate Super Bowl contenders: Tampa Bay (9-3); Carolina (9-3); Indianapolis (8-4); New York Jets (8-4).
-Potential playoff teams: Baltimore (8-4); Atlanta (8-4); New England (7-5); Minnesota (7-5); Denver 7-5); Washington (7-5); Miami (7-5); Philadelphia (6-5-1); Arizona (7-5).
4. Everyone else.
Tier One
ee are obviously contenders, Pittsburgh establishing its credentials in New England on Sunday. In fact, the Steelers might well have beaten the Giants in Pittsburgh had they not lost their long snapper. James Harrison, who might be the Defensive Player of the Year, volunteered for the job, then snapped the ball out of the end zone for a tying safety. The Giants took the free kick and went on to score the winning TD.
Tennessee's loss to the Jets was bad and it's hard to tell how much its 47-10 rout over Detroit was a bounceback or simply the result of playing the Lions.
That leaves Dallas.
The Cowboys have won three straight since Tony Romo has returned, the first a low-scoring win in Washington, the last two at home over the Seahawks and 49ers, combined record 6-18. The Cowboys are by no means guaranteed a playoff spot and have a brutal finishing schedule: at Pittsburgh; at home to the Giants; at home to the Ravens; and at Philadelphia.
But they remain on paper the NFL's most talented team, so they should get in. And once they do, they can be trouble - if any team can reprise what the Giants did last season, it's the Cowboys.

Tier Two
to win, as they did to the Broncos. Like the Patriots, they have trips to the Bay Area and Seattle, but the key may be the finale, at home against the Dolphins, who trail them by a game in the division.
The Colts now have five wins in a row and two games they should win coming up. Because of their history, they are everyone's version of a team that could be dangerous in the playoffs.
But none of their five straight wins is by more than six points and the opposition hasn't been the best. It's hard to get excited over a 10-6 victory over the Browns, the first game since Sept. 7, 2003 in which the Colts failed to score an offensive touchdown.
``We still won, but we probably didn't play winning offensive football. You score three points, that's not good enough,'' Peyton Manning acknowledged after the game.
Still, any team with Manning is dangerous in the playoffs.
The Bucs and Panthers are sometimes viewed as bogus contenders. Maybe, but the Tampa Bay defense won a Super Bowl in 2003, and its ``ancients'' still make big plays, as Ronde Barber did against Drew Brees in the 23-20 win over New Orleans. And defense travels - if the Bucs have to play in the Meadowlands, it probably won't affect them as it would an offense-oriented team.
go to Giants Stadium in the next-to-last week, which might be telling if the Giants still have something to play for. Arizona and Washington have been found wanting against the Super Bowl champs.

Tier Three
Yes, these teams can make it.
No, they almost surely won't get to the Super Bowl.
Atlanta and Baltimore are the most interesting - if they get in. But it's hard to see rookie QBs, even two as good as Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco appear to be, holding up in playoff pressure, although Baltimore's defense is playoff ready. Still, the Ravens are another team that flunked the Giants test.
Arizona will have a home game, its first in the postseason since 1947. But the loss at home to the Giants and the Thanksgiving night rout in Philly indicate the Cardinals are a team that benefited from a bad division. OK, no one should have asked them to travel more than 2,000 miles for a Thanksgiving game, but they still seem to be a work in progress.
It's hard to see Denver going anywhere. Unless it rains.
``I've had some success in the past in inclement weather, being able to throw it. I just feel comfortable back there throwing it,'' Jay Cutler said after passing for 357 yards in the Meadowlands rain.
On the other hand, this is a team that lost at home to the Raiders.
The NFC North winner?
now it's Minnesota. Yes, the Vikings have won a couple of strange games from the Giants in recent years. But they don't match up especially well with Tampa or Dallas - they lost 19-13 in Tampa - and it's hard to see them winning two playoff games on the road.
All this can change, of course, as early as next week. Unlike the BCS, voters and computers don't count, only standings.

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