- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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The true playoff race started to take shape in Week 11. Contenders stepped forward. Pretenders stepped backward.
Week 12 should follow the same pattern. So far, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's plan of saving a key divisional game until the final five weeks is working, but many of the top divisions are turning into two-way races, and if that is the case, the final five weeks will be spent figuring out seeds.
Only two divisional games are scheduled in Week 12 -- the Tennessee Titans at the Houston Texans and the Monday night game between the San Francisco 49ers at the Arizona Cardinals. That leaves 45 divisional games spread over the final 80 games in the final five weeks.
Still, this is the defining time of the season. Losses by the Miami Dolphins and Texans moved them into the pretender category. The Oakland Raiders were exposed in their road loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the AFC West race keeps everyone except Denver in contention.
1. Going Gonzo in Atlanta: Lost in the Brad Childress firing and Brett Favre controversies was the fact the Green Bay Packers finally took the NFC North away from the Minnesota Vikings. It has been a tough journey since the Packers traded Favre three years ago, but they finally accomplished their goal. Now, the North is a battle between the Packers and the Chicago Bears. One of the things exposed during the Packers' playoff run last year, though, was how elite quarterbacks could successfully attack the safeties and the middle of the Packers' secondary. On Sunday, the Packers face Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan with their safeties banged up. Tight end Tony Gonzalez has been Ryan's key target in the middle of the field in moving the chains, and Roddy White is the league's best third-down receiver with 24 catches for 366 yards. The Falcons create plenty of problems for Green Bay. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers can't play only seven defenders in the tackle box on early downs knowing Ryan will try to pound the ball on the ground with Michael Turner. If Capers commits an eighth defender to try to stop the run, Ryan can work Gonzalez and White into the middle of the field on early downs for yards. It will be interesting to see if Ryan does it from no-huddle sets to limit the Packers' substitutions and further wear down the safeties.
2. Vick in the Windy City: The Michael Vick show moves to Chicago for a game that will challenge Lovie Smith's staff to find ways to contain the league's most exciting story. Giants coach Tom Coughlin came up with a strategy to bother Vick in their loss to Philadelphia on Sunday night. He rushed a defensive back -- mostly safety Deon Grant -- 20 times, forcing two scrambles and two sacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Sending that extra defensive back made Vick uncomfortable enough to complete only six of 16 passes during those plays for only 66 yards. Smith no longer just sits in Cover 2 defenses, and he knows he can't let Vick stay in the pocket and beat him out of three-sets. Expect him to rush an extra defensive back at times. The Bears are second in the league with 25 takeaways. If they can get Vick moving, watch for them to try to strip the ball from Vick. The way he holds the football exposes him to fumbles.
3. Rivers vs. Manning: Philip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers and Peyton Manning of the Colts were the easy selections for midseason MVP honors because they are getting the most out of the least. Rivers leads the league with 3,177 passing yards even though he has been missing Malcolm Floyd, Vincent Jackson, Legedu Naanee, Antonio Gates and Ryan Mathews. Manning is second with 3,059 yards despite missing Dallas Clark, Austin Collie, Anthony Gonzalez and Joseph Addai. Norv Turner has been smart about not rushing injured players back. He hopes Gates, Floyd and Mathews can contribute Sunday, but he knows it's more important to be healthy for the next two games against the Oakland and Kansas City. Getting Jackson on the field for the first time this year also will help Rivers on Sunday. There isn't much new available for Manning. Collie tried to come back from his concussion but was woozy early in Sunday's loss to the Patriots. He's out again. Addai's trying to return from a neck injury, but he isn't completely back. Still, watching two of the best quarterbacks in the game will be a blast.
4. Contender or pretender: Less than a month ago, the New York Giants looked like giants as they ran through a five-game winning streak and a 6-2 start. Injuries on offense have cut the Giants down to size. Worse than their two-game losing streak is what they've lost on offense. The line isn't the same without tackle David Diehl and center Shaun O'Hara. The receiving corps is missing Steve Smith, Hakeem Nicks and Ramses Barden. Eli Manning has to try to beat a 6-4 Jaguars team with Mario Manningham and Derek Hagan as the starters. Manning hasn't helped matters with 16 interceptions and five fumbles. The Jaguars have been opportunistic. They beat the Cowboys when they were down and the Texans when they couldn't stop anyone through the air. Are they catching the Giants at a vulnerable time?
5. Contender or pretender II: Bucs coach Raheem Morris stirred things up when he said the Bucs were the best team in the NFC before a game against the Arizona Cardinals. Well, they are 7-3 heading into Sunday's game in Baltimore. A win over the Ravens would make everyone embrace them as a contender and erase the memories of blowout losses at home to Pittsburgh and New Orleans. Morris uses as many as 11 rookies on this young team. But they are playing a Ravens team that is healthy, confident and getting better each week.
6. Having third-strings around their necks: The Dolphins and the Titans have to survive tough road games with third-string quarterbacks. Third-stringer Tyler Thigpen was shut out in his last start against the Bears and could be in trouble going cross-country to face the Raiders. Dolphins coaches have been criticized for running the ball only 13 times in the Bears loss. What has happened to the Dolphins' running attack? If they can't find it against the Raiders, the Dolphins will be 5-6 and playing out the schedule. Jeff Fisher takes rookie third-stringer Rusty Smith to Houston in a game of survival. Fisher has given up on Vince Young, who's done for the season with a thumb injury and done in Fisher's eyes as a Titan. All Fisher can hope is that Smith, a sixth-round pick, can do what undrafted rookie QB Max Hall did for the Arizona Cardinals in an upset win over the New Orleans Saints in his first start. The Titans know they can't go to the playoffs with Smith as their quarterback, but if they can get a win against Houston, they can hope Kerry Collins is healthy enough to save them through a three-game homestand that follows.
7. A western showdown? The nation doesn't seem to care much about NFC West and AFC West games. Homeland Security might as well let these divisions breeze through security, because they aren't threats on the road. The two divisions are 7-33 on the road. The Chiefs take their running offense to Seattle to face a Seahawks team dealing with injuries. Two weeks ago, Pete Carroll came to an understanding with quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and opened up the passing offense. Hasselbeck has responded with back-to-back 300-yard games. The Chiefs come in with the league's best running offense and a hot receiver, Dwayne Bowe.
8. Ghosts that haunt the Carolina Panthers: Everything has gone wrong for John Fox and the Panthers. The roster went young when Fox was in the last year of his contract and thinking short term. Matt Moore didn't work out as the starting quarterback, and Jimmy Clausen has been sacked by a concussion and a conservative game plan. The running game has missed DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns could add to the embarrassments of the season. Julius Peppers came back to Charlotte to beat the Panthers after leaving them during the offseason. Now that Browns quarterback Colt McCoy is expected to miss the game with a high ankle sprain, Browns coach Eric Mangini is going to turn to former Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme to put the nail in the coffin of a horrible season for the Panthers. The only good news is that he's not doing it in front of the home crowd. The game is in Cleveland.
9. Interim or full time: Vikings owner Zygi Wilf made a multimillion-dollar investment in the future, firing Brad Childress, who is owed $6.6 million, and giving Leslie Frazier six games to see whether he can be the long-term answer as the head coach. The Vikings visit the Washington Redskins on Sunday. Favre will be given more of a free hand running the offense now that Childress is gone. It will be interesting to see whether the Vikings respond after the firing of a coach who turned off the players. Redskins coach Mike Shanahan has had his own issues with players, but Washington is 5-5 and Donovan McNabb is coming off one of his best games of the season.
10. Bottom feeders: The Steelers played a .570 schedule during their first 10 games, the sixth toughest in the league. They finish with the second-easiest schedule, starting with Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin must make sure the Steelers don't have a trap game against a 2-8 Bills team that has won two in a row. The Steelers play the Ravens next week, a game that has been on players' minds since their Week 4 loss at Pittsburgh. Before the season, the Monday night game between the 49ers and Cardinals looked promising because the 49ers, on paper, looked like a playoff team. Now Mike Singletary is fighting to keep his job with a team that has underachieved. Singletary started Troy Smith, but defenders have figured out how to stop him. He has been sacked 11 times in the past two games. A year ago, the 49ers and Cardinals were battling for first place. Now, they are 3-7 and battling for third. Finally, the Broncos, coming off a horrible Monday night loss to the Chargers, play host to Rams rookie quarterback Sam Bradford, who is trying to win his first road game. Injuries have prevented to Broncos from using the nickel defense for the past three games, and now safety Brian Dawkins is having trouble in coverage. Since a 6-0 start last year, the Broncos have lost 13 of their past 18 games.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Week 12 will sort out the pretenders and contenders, writes John Clayton.