The NFL season has become so wacky that even the Arizona Cardinals are thinking about the postseason.
"Making the playoff is not preposterous," safety Pat Tillman said after the Cardinals won their third straight, 34-31 in overtime Sunday in Oakland. "Fortunately, the division we're in, no one has taken charge."
The Cardinals, probably the most hapless franchise in the NFL over the past 50-plus years, have improved to 5-6, tied with the Redskins and Giants for second in the NFC East. Jake Plummer is hot again, David Boston has turned into one of the league's top receivers and coach Dave McGinnis has energized the team.
Even more important, four of the five remaining games are against NFC East opponents and the fifth is at Carolina, currently 1-11. Still, Arizona is only 1-3 in the division - a negative in any tiebreaker - and remains two games behind Philadelphia, the only fairly consistent team in a division likely to send just one team to the postseason.
But, as McGinnis says: "Any hunt you want, we're in."
The Cardinals' win came on a day when other upstarts continued to startle:
- New England moved into the AFC East race by coming back from a 13-0 deficit to beat the Jets, 17-16. That left Tom Brady 7-3 as Drew Bledsoe's replacement.
- Chicago barely got by winless Detroit - Jason Hanson missed three field goals - and is 9-2 going into next week's showdown with Green Bay. The victory guaranteed the Bears' first winning season since 1995.
"People can say it's luck, it's this, it's that, but we're 9-2," running back James Allen said. "It's our year and we believe it."
It seems that in the NFL, every team (even the Cardinals) has its year.
NFC: There are two playoff-like games next week - Chicago at Green Bay and San Francisco at St. Louis. All four will be in the playoffs and the winners are likely to win the Central and West.
Give the Eagles the East unless they stumble. Add one more team from among the Bucs, Redskins, Giants, Cardinals, Saints and Falcons, which will squeak in and get knocked out in its first game.
AFC: The Raiders' loss doesn't hurt too much because it was non-conference and they still lead the West by two games over Seattle, with Denver another half-game back. But it could cost them home field to Pittsburgh. Baltimore will join the Raiders and Steelers in the playoffs, and Miami, the Jets and New England could all make it.
ARIZONA (5-6): Playoffs still dubious. Can the momentum carry over to next season? Bill Bidwill, the owner, is a wild card who usually figures out a way to drag the team back down.
Besides, with off-season movement and cap casualties, there's rarely carryover. Ask the Saints, Colts, Giants, Vikings, Titans. Even the Ravens.
Plummer's playing well, but his career has been erratic. Maybe he's finally found himself - Boston helps and McGinnis is a good coach.
CHICAGO (9-2): The Bears are having one of those seasons when everything goes right even when it's going wrong - David Terrell dropped three passes Sunday, one in the end zone. Will make the playoffs, but how far can a team go with journeyman quarterbacks?
Next week will tell a lot. Chicago already has lost once to Green Bay.
NEW ENGLAND (7-5): The usually dour Bill Belichick was almost giddy after the win in New York, where he had his success as a defensive coordinator for the Giants and Jets.
Why not? The Patriots already have won two more games than all of last season and Tom Brady looks like the next Brian Griese, his predecessor at Michigan. Drew Bledsoe probably will be elsewhere next season.
An 11-5 finish isn't inconceivable. The Pats are at Buffalo and Carolina (combined record 2-21) and have Miami and Cleveland at home. Even 10-6 likely would mean the playoffs.
DETROIT (0-11): The Lions aren't horrible, just bad. They've lost their last eight games by eight points or less - a total of 35 points overall.
Things go wrong - the three misses by Hanson in Chicago; an offside penalty against James Hall when the Bears were about to punt that prolonged Chicago's only touchdown drive.
Charlie Batch is out and 0-16 is looking more realistic. The rest of the schedule: at Tampa Bay; Minnesota; at Pittsburgh; Chicago and Dallas at home. That last game could be a biggie.
"I can't see us going 0-16," running back James Stewart said. "I can't see that happening. I'm going to fight to the bitter end."
DALLAS (3-8): It figured. The Cowboys won their ninth straight against Washington to end the Redskins' improbable run.
Emmitt Smith complained publicly he didn't get the ball enough. So he got it 25 times and ran for 102 yards, looking like the Emmitt of old.
Quincy Carter said watching games on the sideline helped. He had his best game as a pro - 7-of-14 for 130 yards (92 more than he'd thrown for in his career) and his first NFL touchdown pass.
"Maybe we need to play the Redskins all year. We'd be 16-0," Dexter Coakley said.
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