Super Bowl champs are back on top in NFC

Jamie Augustinsky

The ’08 NFL season is winding down, and with only four weeks left in the regular season, the playoff race is heating up. Some teams have already effectively locked up their spots, while others are still vying for one of the 12 coveted places in the postseason bracket. Here’s what the NFL is looking like after 13 weeks of gridiron action.

The champs are back

The New York Giants are sitting atop the NFC with an 11-1 record, the best 12-game start in franchise history. The team holds a three-game lead over the Cowboys in the NFC East and defeated division rivals the Washington Redskins 23-7 this weekend. The G-Men were forced to do without star wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who was arrested on weapons charges after accidentally shooting himself in the thigh in the VIP section of a Manhattan club over the weekend. On Tuesday, the team placed Burress on the non-football injury list, but even without him, the Giants are in good shape going into the last quarter of the regular season.

The Tampa Bay Bucs currently hold the second seed in the conference. The NFC South Division leader won its last four games and currently has a 9-3 record. The Minnesota Vikings hold the top spot in the NFC North with a record of 7-5.

The Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons round out the current NFC playoff picture with 9-3 and 8-4 records, respectively.

The 7-5 Arizona Cardinals are in first place in the NFC West, with veteran quarterback Kurt Warner taking the reigns to lead the team. At this point in the season, 37-year-old Warner is holding his best passer rating since his ’01 MVP season with the St. Louis Rams.

Wildcard hunt

The Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons of the NFC South lead the current NFC wildcard picture with 9-3 and 8-4 records, respectively.

Still in the hunt for the postseason are the Chicago Bears, the New Orleans Saints and the three remaining teams in the NFC East: the Dallas Cowboys, the Washington Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles. In the Eagles’ biggest loss of the season against the Baltimore Ravens, quarterback Donovan McNabb was benched at halftime for the first time in his career. He responded by leading his team to a 48-20 route of the Cardinals on Thanksgiving night. With a 6-5-1 record – including being a part of the first NFL tie in six years – the Eagles are trying to make a run for the playoffs to secure the tenure of both McNabb and Head Coach Andy Reid.

Titans reign in AFC

In the AFC, the Tennessee Titans hold the top seed with an 11-1 record. The Titans won their first 10 games before a loss to the New York Jets. Veteran quarterback Kerry Collins has passed for 2,125 yards so far this season, and both he and Warner are getting buzz as possible league MVPs.

The Pittsburgh Steelers lead the AFC North with a 9-3 record.

Collins and Warner aren’t the only two veteran quarterbacks playing for division-leading teams this year. Brett Favre, who was traded to the Jets after coming out of retirement, finds his team with an 8-4 record atop the AFC East. With Pro-Bowl quarterback Tom Brady out for the year, the New England Patriots are still in striking distance, only one game back at 7-5. The Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills are right behind with 7-5 and 6-6 records, respectively, so this division is still wide open with four games left to play.

The Denver Broncos round out the division leaders, as their 7-5 record is enough to hold the top spot of the AFC West.

If the season were to end today, the 8-4 Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens would earn the last two spots on the AFC side of the bracket.

The only other real competitors for the Wild Card spots are teams in the AFC East, as the remaining teams are not in the current playoff picture are all under .500. Look for three teams in this competitive division to make the postseason.

Looking ahead

This weekend, the New York Giants will take on the Philadelphia Eagles in a classic NFC East battle. The Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills will compete in what’s sure to be a critical game in the AFC East, and the Atlanta Falcons will battle the New Orleans Saints in an NFC matchup.

As we saw last year with the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants, once you get into the playoffs, it doesn’t matter what your regular-season record was. Once you gain one of those 12 spots, your record is at 0-0 again, and every game matters.

These next four weeks of play will separate the contenders from the pretenders. Right now, it’s crunch time, and every eligible team is going to fight hard to try to earn its spot in postseason action.