With Thanksgiving only one week away, the heart of the football season has finally arrived. Only one half of the way to Super Bowl XLIII and the 2008-09 NFL season is already saturated with intrigue. The playoff picture has started to formulate in both conferences, and it looks even more surprising than many predicted. Here is a brief rundown of the various playoff races in the NFL.

In the NFC, the Giants have emerged as the team to beat in the NFC East, with a sizeable lead ahead of the Redskins, Cowboys and Eagles* all of whom they have beaten. It all came together for New York during a week-17 loss to New England last season, and the G-men have looked phenomenal since. The Giants are the clear favorite to win the NFC East, but with six weeks left and a now-healthy Tony Romo, don’t count out Dallas especially for a Wild Card spot.

It seems that the NFC North lost more than Brett Favre since last season. With the Bears, Packers and Vikings in a three-way tie at 5-5 and the Lions still to win a game, the storied division has become the definition of mediocrity.

The Kurt Warner-led Arizona Cardinals are quite possibly in the best position of any division leader. The rest of the atrocious NFC West has yet to leave the starting gate, and Arizona holds a four-game lead over the 49ers. However,, with the Cardinals’ history and a difficult remaining schedule, the division is not quite wrapped up.

The closest race in the NFC is in the South. The Panthers hold a one-game edge over the Bucs, but lost at Tampa Bay, 27-3, in week six. Carolina will have its chance for redemption, when the Buccaneers come to town for a crucial rematch on Monday Night Football on Dec. 8. In third place in the NFC South, the Falcons led by rookie sensation Matt Ryan are far from out of the playoff mix, especially if they can beat Carolina in the Georgia Dome this Sunday. Both NFC Wild Card teams will almost definitely hail from the East or the South.

With the exception of the Titans, five playoff spots are still up for grabs in the AFC, and no division better exemplifies that closeness than the AFC East. After an exciting overtime win at New England this past Thursday, the Jets have moved into first place. The Jets, who play at Tennessee this Sunday, are one game ahead of the Patriots and Dolphins. The Pats, behind an improved Matt Cassel, will get a second chance at Ronnie Brown five TDs at N.E. in week three (four rushing, one passing) and the Dolphins this Sunday in Miami. After Monday night’s loss to Cleveland on Phil Dawson’s 56-yard field goal, the once 4-0 Bills fell to 5-5 but not yet out of playoff contention.

With their three losses coming to solid teams, the Steelers are better than their 7-3 record shows. The Ravens are a game behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North and hoping that Rookie QB Joe Flacco can keep them in the race. The Steelers should walk away with tonight’s game against lowly Cincinnati, but the four-week stretch that follows at New England, Dallas, Baltimore and Tennessee should tell us how capable Pittsburgh truly is.

Everyone knew the AFC West would be a two-horse race between Denver and San Diego we just imagined a much better pair of horses. The Chargers a trendy preseason pick to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl are playing themselves out of the playoffs entirely. After going 14-2 in 2006, San Diego controversially fired head coach Marty Schottenheimer. New coach Norv Turner’s job has to be in jeopardy if San Diego doesn’t turn it around.

The undefeated Titans have been the biggest surprise of the season. Tennessee has not won the AFC South since 2002 the last time the Colts did not win the division. Although the Titans hold a four-game lead, Indy has won three games in a row. A nationally televised win this Sunday night in San Diego could propel the Colts through an easy stretch of games, leading up to a week-17 showdown with Tennessee.

(* Denotes a team with a tie something that Eagles QB and Syracuse legend Donovan McNabb did not know existed.)

Starr’s column appears weekly. Starr is a member of the class of 2009.

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