- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Last season, the New York Giants flew under the radar before making an improbable run through the playoffs en route to Super Bowl glory. Who fits the dark horse role this season? Let's take a look.
AFC: Miami Dolphins
Talk about coming out of nowhere. The Miami Dolphins were 1-15 a season ago, and their performance cost coach Cam Cameron his job and persuaded owner Wayne Huizenga to sell the team. A year later, the Dolphins are the team that won't go away in the AFC playoff race. At 7-5, the Dolphins are a contender, and their remaining schedule makes them a danger. During the next three weeks, the Dolphins will face teams with a combined record of 12-24 -- Buffalo (6-6), San Francisco (4-8) and Kansas City (2-10). If they win those three games, they could go into the season finale against the Jets with a 10-5 record. With four conference losses compared to the Patriots' five, the Dolphins would win the tiebreaker with New England and end up in the playoffs if both teams finish with 10 wins.
Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum might have earned executive of the year honors by making trades to acquire Brett Favre and Kris Jenkins, but how would it look if a Dolphins team coming off a 1-15 season were to catch New York in the AFC East? The Jets cut Chad Pennington to make room for Favre, but Pennington has quietly put together a nice season. Pennington made it to the playoffs three times with the Jets, but the Jets questioned his arm strength.
So much of the Dolphins' playoff run comes down to Sunday's game against the Bills. The Dolphins get a break because the game is in Toronto rather than Buffalo. The roof will be closed, so the Dolphins won't have to play in the wind and cold weather. That's a big benefit to Pennington, who would have trouble with the winds in Buffalo.
The Dolphins have been fortunate all season. They have played the fourth-easiest schedule in the league. They've gone 5-1 against the NFC West and AFC West and have the chance to go 7-1 against those divisions if they beat the 49ers and Chiefs. First-year coach Tony Sparano has done a great job of motivating his players and adding toughness to the team.
NFC: Atlanta Falcons
No one gave the Falcons a chance in the preseason. Of the four new head coaches in 2008, Mike Smith was the least known. Although insiders have known for years that he was doing a great job for Jack Del Rio as defensive coordinator in Jacksonville, there was little buzz about Smith.
At 8-4, the Falcons are bringing back excitement in the Georgia Dome. The biggest asset is QB Matt Ryan. Passed over by the Dolphins and Rams on draft day, Ryan is more than just the likely winner of rookie of the year. You can make an argument that he's an MVP candidate. Ryan has played like a five-year veteran at quarterback. Since getting the starting job before the start of the regular season, Ryan has shown remarkable leadership and Peyton Manning-like poise running the offense. By midseason, he was able to complete passes to third, fourth and fifth reads. Ryan has no trouble going to the no-huddle offense on the road. He's completed more third-and-longs than perhaps any quarterback in the league. It's hard to believe he's a rookie.
Ryan isn't the only good thing the Falcons have going for them. Michael Turner is among the league leaders in rushing. The offensive line has done a decent job of protecting Ryan and blocking for Turner. On defense, end John Abraham is having a Pro Bowl season rushing the quarterback, and Smith's schemes have kept the Falcons in games.
In the next three weeks, the Falcons will prove whether they are contenders or pretenders. On Sunday, they'll travel to New Orleans, but they'll face a Saints team that won't have halfback Deuce McAllister and defensive end Will Smith (who will start to serve four-game suspensions). On Dec. 14, the Falcons will play a crucial home game against the Tampa Bay Bucs. On Dec. 21, they will travel to Minnesota.
In many ways, this season is a bonus. Ryan showed early that he should make the Falcons a playoff contender annually. To make the playoffs in his first year would give him and the Falcons valuable playoff experience that they can use in the future.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.