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Buckle your NFL seatbelt

By Dave Diamond

One month. Four games. And nothing else matters for the nine or so teams competing for the final two playoff spots in the NFL.

We have reached the final quarter, literally, as four games of the sixteen game schedule remain. Every division winner has at least a two game lead so it should be wildcard madness from here on out. And by should be, I mean some division leader is bound to choke. Still, it is time to pull out the crystal ball and make some bold predictions: who will earn the right to play in January?

Why not start with the AFC? There are better teams, better games left to play, and a far more likely Super Bowl Champion in the mix than the other conference can offer.

The crystal ball is rolling, just like the Chargers, rolling straight to a conference championship game. But now I see a figure, tall with a worried look and wearing glasses. Must be San Diego head coach Marty Schottenheimer during the playoffs. Mr. Conservative taking the most explosive team in football to the promise land? They might cancel each other out.

Indeed, with perennial chokers Indianapolis and San Diego leading the way, perhaps the three and four seeds, Baltimore and New England, can make a run for a title. That is, if Baltimore can hold off Cincinnati. The crystal ball doesn't want to seem over confident, but the Ravens have a tough game in Kansas City this week and the Bengals are rolling. A one game lead with three to play? The Bengals will take those odds.

As for the AFC wildcard spots...wait a minute, my crystal ball shows hell freezing over. Oh I know what happened, it sees the Jets making the playoffs. Well, I agree.

Call Eric Mangini Houdini if you want, but whatever he did to make the Jets believe they can pull off a playoff season has worked miraculously. All other wild-card teams have tough schedules, in fact, all of them must play either the Colts or Chargers. The Jets do not have another winning team on their schedule and seem to be playing their best football right now. It will take ten wins to get in, and the Jets can get it done.

The other spot should go to whoever finishes second in the North.. Denver is in trouble with rookie Jay Cutler at quarterback. Kansas City is a better team, and Jacksonville just does not have it this year. However, if the Jets take control, the Ravens and Bengals should take two spots. Crystal Ball says: Colts, Chargers, Ravens, Patriots, Bengals, Jets.

Ah, the NFC, where the elite meet to diminish. I never thought this conference could be weaker than it was two years ago, when the Eagles ran over everybody else en route to a Super Bowl loss. Two 8-8 teams won first round games that year, and the same nuttiness could happen again. My crystal ball shows a lot of x's.

They go right next to the teams you see leading each division right now. The only spots for grabs here are the two wildcards, and I wouldn't want to be the crystal ball in this case, because this is no easy pick.

All season I said the Giants would make the playoffs even if they didn't play a couple of games, but surprise, surprise. Four teams sit at 6-6, and two of them will make it. A sports editor around here was left wondering before Philadelphia beat Carolina last Monday just how the Eagles, without Donovan McNabb and Jevon Kearse, have backed into the playoff race. Who knows.

But my crystal ball watched Jeff Garcia pick apart the Panthers, and that performance was enough to show that the Eagles can still contend. Considering they go on the road for Washington, the Giants and Dallas before finishing the season against Atlanta, the Eagles can make it with a couple of wins.

It would be crazy to say that the Giants are a third place team, with all that talent, so my crystal ball will stick with them...for now.

The last spot is another story. My preseason pick as Super Bowl Champion was Carolina, and call me selfish, but I refuse to believe that my preseason favorite won't even make the playoffs.

Sorry crystal ball, but I'm sticking with that no matter how many times Jake Delhomme throws a key interception. Crystal ball says: Chicago, New Orleans, Seattle, Dallas, Giants, and sadly, the Eagles. But I refuse to believe it.

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