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Bet on the NFL Saints coach Sean Payton likes what he's seeing out his football team and is optimistic things will get even better now that they're getting healthier. As he surveyed the NFL landscape, he's also thankful that New Orleans is 9-3 and just a game behind the NFC South-leading Falcons. That's because those other teams he mentioned are not. Neither are the AFC's Bengals, who made a cameo in last season's playoffs. San Diego, which has owned the AFC West, is a breath from falling from a cliff it started to scale but got pushed back by Oakland and Kansas City.

As a whole, though, the AFC's playoff nucleus of New England, the Jets and Ravens are intact from last season. The Colts, who made it to the Super Bowl, are close to being on life support with the outcome of Thursday's game at Tennessee being a potential deal breaker.

Typically we see five or six new playoff teams each season, which means we see five or six old playoff teams gone from the previous year. The drop-off in the NFC hasn't just been quick -- it's been pretty radical. So let's start there.

Sport betting fans should know that Dallas and Minnesota have finally started to play to their potential, but it's too late. Both teams had to fire their coaches for things to work, and coaches don't get fired unless things aren't working in the first place.

Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said Dallas beat Indianapolis last week that every victory is met with mixed emotions: It's great that they won, but what took so long? The Cowboys won't openly say it, but now they're a spoiler. They play the Eagles twice in the final four games and with them playing the way they're playing, they could ruin Philadelphia's playoff hopes -- deep sixing another 2009 playoff team.

Minnesota, which isn't mathematically eliminated but won't catching the Packers and Bears, could be equally cruel.

NFC North-leading Chicago comes to town Dec. 20, sandwiched between games with the Giants and Eagles. A win over any of those teams, especially the Bears, could be some consolation after failing to build on last season's devastating overtime loss to the Saints in the NFC championship.

With the NFC Wild Card race shaping up like it is with Chicago, Green Bay, Philadelphia, the Giants, Atlanta, and New Orleans, the Packers could be another playoff team that could fail to make it back if it doesn't finish strong, and the NFC-North leading Bears do.

As fate would have it, the two-time NFC West champion Cardinals can't help much of anything, except their self-esteem. The only NFC West game they play is against San Francisco, the only team in the league more disappointing than the Cowboys, Vikings and Bengals. That pretty much sums up the fall of Arizona. They can't even ruin anyone else's day.

In the AFC, San Diego's slow start and the Colts' injuries have opened the door for unusual suspects Kansas City, Oakland and Jacksonville. Those upstarts have a ways to go before their surprise stories could unfold with a playoff berths. Unfortunately for them, their rise likely would be overshadowed by the demise of the Chargers, and especially Indianapolis (I still think the Colts win the AFC South).

Otherwise, the AFC is pretty par for the course. Even the teams pushing for wild-card berths, the Jets and Steelers and Ravens, didn't come out of nowhere like the Rams, Seahawks or Bears.

The race to the finish line is loaded with drama, and once we get there we can start handicapping who won't be back in 2011.


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