No playoff races are decided in early November. For the Dolphins and Colts, however, just seeing themselves in strong contention for a wild-card spot has to be very satisfying.
For the rest of us, it sure is surprising. And one of them will be 5-3 after they meet in Indianapolis on Sunday.
"Don't read about yourself, don't pat yourself on the back, respect the process of a Wednesday, a Thursday, a Friday and a Saturday on how to prepare," interim coach Bruce Arians said of his message to the team. "They don't change from week to week. As long as you respect the process, you don't get caught in those peaks and valleys of I'm good, I'm bad, I'm good, I'm bad."
The Colts (4-3) have looked pretty good since being routed by the Jets in their fifth game. Granted they have beaten Tennessee and Cleveland in close contests, but the maturity they have shown as the schedule progresses has been impressive.
Top overall draft pick Andrew Luck credits that balanced approach Arians spoke of.
"I think you realize who cares if the playoffs started today? They don't," Luck said. "It doesn't matter what your record is now. It matters what it is after that last week. Realize it's a week-by-week thing. We are not looking ahead to anything. It's the Dolphins."
The vastly improved Dolphins (4-3).
Miami was blown out in its opener at Houston, but has been in every game since, with both losses coming in overtime. The three-game winning streak has been built on all phases, with special teams laying down the hammer on the Jets last Sunday.
Now, they are in position to make a playoff drive, beginning at Indy.
"It's always fun," coach Joe Philbin said. "I told the players, 'There's nothing better in the National Football League than coming to work in November and December and ... having meaningful games.' It's a lot of fun. It gets your juices going as it should."
Also Sunday, Pittsburgh is at the New York Giants; Dallas at Atlanta; Buffalo at Houston; Chicago at Tennessee; Arizona at Green Bay; Denver at Cincinnati; Baltimore at Cleveland; Minnesota at Seattle; Carolina at Washington; Detroit at Jacksonville; and Tampa Bay at Oakland.
On Monday night, Philadelphia is at New Orleans.
The action began Thursday night with Kansas City (1-6) at San Diego (3-4).
Off this week are New England (5-3), St. Louis (3-5), the New York Jets (3-5) and San Francisco (6-2).
Pittsburgh (4-3) at New York Giants (6-2)
Despite injuries and inconsistencies, the Steelers have won three of their last four and are beginning to make noises in the AFC. Their depth has been tested, but fill-ins such as running back Jonathan Dwyer, tackle Mike Adams and safety Will Allen have come through.
"I think that's just professional football," coach Mike Tomlin said. "I think there's a fine line between being a backup and a Pro Bowler, if you will. Sometimes, it's just about opportunities. I always enjoy seeing guys take advantage of opportunities that the game presents."
This game also presents two quarterbacks from the Class of 2004 who have each won a pair of Super Bowls: Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger and New York's Eli Manning.
"The big thing is I think it's a fair assessment to call both of them winners," Tomlin said. "Both guys have been to the big dance and delivered. That's what this profession is about."
Dallas (3-4) at Atlanta (7-0)
Now here's a novel way to attempt turning around a free-fall: Dallas takes on the league's only unbeaten team, one that looked almighty in handling Philadelphia on the road last week.
The Cowboys are destroying themselves with turnovers (minus-11, worst in the NFC, with a conference-high 19 giveaways) and mental mistakes ranging from wrong pass routes to missed blocking assignments and blown coverages. It's gotten ugly.
In Atlanta, it keeps getting prettier, with the Falcons off to their best start. Tight end Tony Gonzalez, who claims this is the final year of a Hall of Fame caliber career, needs one TD catch to reach 100. His quarterback, Matt Ryan has not lost in 28 starts when he compiles a 100-plus passer rating, including 5-0 this season.
And coach Mike Smith earned a franchise-record 50th win last week.
Buffalo (3-4) at Houston (6-1)
The Bills should have been thankful for the bye with the way they have been playing. The Texans should have said "no, thanks."
Houston has been the AFC's most balanced team so far, and its defense excels in most every area, from pressuring the quarterback to blocking passes to stopping the run to forcing turnovers. No one has protected the ball better, either, with just six giveaways.
Returning to the home of the conference's best team is Mario Williams, the former Texans defensive end who signed the richest contract in NFL history for a player on his side of the ball: $100 million over six years. Buffalo hasn't gotten much on its return, although Williams has performed better lately, and Williams remains bitter over what he says was lack of interest in keeping him by the Texans.
"Obviously there was plenty of time for things to be done and it was not," he said. "That is fine with me. I just wish everybody else that runs their mouth, says this and that, knew the whole story about it before making a decision about me - just abandoning the fans, the team and everything else. That is not my role. I am not that type of guy."
Chicago (6-1) at Tennessee (3-5)
Titans RB Chris Johnson has been revitalized recently, but now faces the stingiest run defense in the NFL. Chicago also has a ball-hawking secondary and has a league-high 16 interceptions (tied with the Giants) and 23 take-aways. Among those picks are six returned for TDs, the most of any team in NFL history through seven games. Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman are the first teammates with two interceptions for TDs apiece.
By contrast, Tennessee has forced only eight turnovers.
"They're really good at getting the ball out," Titans QB Matt Hasselbeck said of the Bears. "They're really good at getting tips and overthrows. For these guys, they seem to end up as interceptions, and their interceptions seem to end up as interceptions taken to the house. so we've got to be sharp."
Arizona (4-4) at Green Bay (5-3)
Their last meeting was an epic, a 51-45 overtime victory for Arizona in the 2009 playoffs that ended on, of all things, a defensive score.
"It's a sour taste knowing we had the chance to win the game in the end and letting it slip away," said Cardinals guard Daryn Colledge, who was with the Packers then. "The fumble return for a touchdown, that's hard."
That was a rare win for the Cardinals in this series: Green Bay is ahead 44-23-4 and has won six of the last seven regular-season meetings. Adding to Arizona's challenge is its four consecutive defeats in which it couldn't protect the quarterback; it has allowed 39 sacks overall.
Green Bay shares the league lead with the Cardinals with 26 sacks, led by Clay Matthews with nine.
Denver (4-3) at Cincinnati (3-4)
Vintage Peyton Manning has resurfaced in Denver, and the second half of the season could be something special for the Broncos. Only one team with a current winning record, Baltimore on Dec. 16, remains on the schedule.
Manning is 7-0 against Cincinnati with 17 TD passes and three picks. He has thrown for at least three TDs in four of those games. In his first season as a Bronco, Manning has thrown for at least 300 yards and three TDs in each of his last four games, the first player to do so since Steve Young in 1998. Manning also matched his personal best, set in 2009 as a Colt, by throwing for at least 300 yards in five straight games.
Still, this could be a trap game because the Bengals, despite three straight losses, remain a dangerous foe. Coach Marvin Lewis publicly challenged quarterback Andy Dalton and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga to become more vocal leaders this week.
Baltimore (5-2) at Cleveland (2-6)
Following their worst performance of the season, and with injuries hitting them as hard as any opponent, the Ravens were fortunate to have a bye last week. They also might be fortunate to return against the Browns, whom they beat 23-16 on short rest in Week 4.
Baltimore has won nine in a row against Cleveland, but returning star Terrell Suggs, the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year who came back quickly from an offseason torn Achilles tendon, knows the Ravens need to step it up. That's particularly true on defense, where they normally are among the league leaders, but rank 28th overall and 30th against the rush.
"We've got to get back to playing Ravens style football," Suggs said. "But we're not panicking. We're not hitting the panic button. We know we've got to address it, and it needs to get fixed."
Philadelphia (3-4) at New Orleans (2-5), Monday night
The Philly phanatics are up in arms over just about everything concerning the Eagles these days. Sounds as if they're ready to write off the season and get rid of Andy Reid, Michael Vick and the Liberty Bell.
In the Saints, Philadelphians might have met their match for woe-is-us disappointment. Little has gone right in the Big Easy since the league punished Saints coaches, players and management in the bounties scandal that still lingers.
That doesn't mean this will be a snoozer of a prime-time game. On the contrary, the Saints' defense might be the perfect tonic for an Eagles attack that has scored the fewest points (120) in the NFC. And one thing New Orleans still can do is put up points.
Minnesota (5-3) at Seattle (4-4)
Oddly, two of the Vikings' defeats came against a rookie quarterback: Luck and Robert Griffin III. They face another in Russell Wilson, but this game could be decided on the ground.
Minnesota's Adrian Peterson leads the NFC with 775 yards rushing and Seattle's Marshawn Lynch is next at 757.
Each team has been efficient on defense, and with Jared Allen on a sacks streak (six consecutive games) and Chad Greenway leading the league in tackles (81), Minnesota might seem to have an edge. Then again, Seattle is 3-0 at home and stops the run well.
Carolina (1-6) at Washington (3-5)
Spotlighting the quarterbacks is the easy route in examining NFL games, but it is the correct approach for this one. Carolina's Cam Newton, last year's top offensive rookie but struggling in 2012, faces off against Griffin, whose excitement quotient might be higher than Newton's.
Both teams have struggled lately, but if Newton and RG3 are on track, it should make for some highlight reel plays.
"He did a great job in the drop-back game, play-action game, utilized his feet probably as well as anyone has as a rookie coming into the league. He had some big-time numbers and I am very impressed with his play."
That's Redskins coach Mike Shanahan speaking about Newton. He easily could have been discussion his own QB.
Detroit (3-4) at Jacksonville (1-6)
The Lions might have discovered a new threat on offense to balance the passing game in Titus Young. Replacing the injured Nate Burleson opposite star receiver Calvin Johnson, Young took advantage of single coverage while Johnson was double- and even triple-teamed to catch nine balls for 100 yards and two TDs against Seattle.
He could have another field day against a Jacksonville pass defense that ranks 25th in yardage. Even worse for the Jaguars is their No. 32 offense, last in the league in part because of the absence of injured running back Maurice Jones-Drew.
Tampa Bay (3-4) at Oakland (3-4)
Well-rested after a Thursday night blowout victory at Minnesota, the Buccaneers are the third straight opponent for the Raiders that did not play the previous Sunday. Oakland beat Jacksonville and Kansas City after those teams came off byes.
The Josh Freeman-Vincent Jackson passing combination has been superb recently for the Bucs, who have scored at least 28 points in their last three games. The Raiders are familiar with Jackson from his days in San Diego, where he was effective against them.
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