Finally, the NFL playoffs are starting to take shape. There are no divisions that are locked in a three-team race (unless you hold Norv Turner-like trust in the 5-7 Chargers out west). Outside of that confusing, media-savvy division, the rest of the NFL is shaking itself out and the last four weeks of the season hold great relevance. Here's the shake out for Week 14:
Atlanta at Carolina
The Atlanta Falcons sit in position for the playoffs, yearning for a Wild Card berth just one year after running away with the NFC South. One of the teams in their way is the Carolina Panthers. Cam Newton is leading the Panther squad in just his first year under center for an NFL team. His transition has been rather seamless when compared to many rookie quarterbacks, as Cam has the Panthers on their first winning streak since October 2009. The Falcons simply cannot afford a loss, but travelling to Carolina will not make things easy. Their will during this late season playoff push will likely be the driving force behind the Falcons and their victory Sunday.
Chicago at Denver
The Tim Tebow show gets yet another visitor Sunday evening as the struggling Bears arrive in Denver. A few weeks ago the Bears were steadily chasing the Packers in the NFC North and the Broncos were making a heavily contested change at quarterback. Now, they own similar records and are taking much different paths to the playoffs. The Broncos are riding a five game winning streak while Chicago has lost two straight and has turned to Caleb Hanie to right the ship. Unfortunately Hanie is not quite the sea captain they were looking for and now, as it has in the past, the Bears will lean on their defense. Matt Forte may also be out for Chicago, making a road game in Denver even more difficult. However, Tebow has yet to face a defense like the Bears, a defense that is designed to stop an offense like the one presented by Denver. Look for Brian Urlacher and their fierce defense to get after the popular quarterback and get back into the playoff discussion.
NY Giants at Dallas
The Philadelphia Eagles were as much of a shoe-in for a division championship before the season as any team has been in recent memory. I think we all know that those predictions faded long ago and now the NFC East is up to New York and Dallas, the cream of the NFC East crop over the past few seasons. Eli Manning is drawing attention through his quality quarterback play, but those raves have produced four losses in as many weeks. Tony Romo, on the other hand, has handled his business against lower quality opponents in driving the Cowboys to the division lead. A victory at home Sunday night would add even more pressure to their New York rival. Ahmad Bradshaw is back and healthy for the Giants, and with him balancing their offense, they will likely even things up in the division lead.
The division leads in almost every division are certainly up for grabs. Only two have been claimed thus far and most will not be set in stone until Week 17 comes to a close. There is only one month until that checkpoint arrives, but with games like these each week, we are nowhere near the end.