We've finally reached the point in the season where we can safely look ahead and start scoreboard-watching without being accused of jumping the gun.
With two games remaining in the regular season, the New England Patriots find themselves in a three-way tie atop the AFC East. The bad news? They're on the short end of the stick in every conceivable tiebreaker, which means they need to win their final two games and hope the Dolphins and Jets each lose at least once down the stretch in order to win the division.
Can it be done?
How the opponents decide to play this out will determine who sneaks into the postseason. The Patriots will host Arizona this weekend and then travel to Buffalo for their season finale. The Bills are always tough at home -- especially in December -- but the Cardinals present the biggest challenge. The Patriots haven't seen this team since 2004 and a lot has changed. At 8-6, Arizona has already wrapped up a playoff berth behind a solid offense led by quarterback Kurt Warner and the outstanding wide receiver duo of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.
"They do a lot of really good things offensively," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "They have a great group of receivers, quarterback, running backs and a real good offensive line. They can move the ball. They can score a bunch of points. Their guys break a lot of tackles and are dangerous with the ball in their hands. Boldin and really all of their receivers, Fitzgerald and (Steve) Breaston, are all good."
Stopping Boldin and Fitzgerald will be the toughest challenge for this banged-up secondary. James Sanders is nursing an abdominal injury, leaving converted cornerback Lewis Sanders in his spot. Everyone needs to do their part, including rookie corner Jonathan Wilhite and veteran Deltha O'Neal.
"It is hard to zero in on one guy because they have all been so productive," Belichick said of Arizona's receiver. "Last week, (Jerheme) Urban, who is really their fourth receiver, took a 5-yard pass and turned it into a 55-yard touchdown.
"They all can do some damage. It is just anytime you play a good offense it comes back to everybody doing their job. You can't just take one thing away because they have too many weapons. Everybody is going to have to take care of their responsibilities and do their job."
Last week, the Patriots proved they can still lower the boom offensively as long as Randy Moss and Wes Welker are healthy. Rushing for more than 200 yards helps, too. However, the defense has been a work in progress all season and the mounting injuries in the secondary aren't making things any better.
This could be the trap game the Patriots fear the most. Arizona has nothing to play for, but could relish being a spoiler in the AFC. Plus, a big win at Gillette Stadium in December against a team fighting for its life would be a good momentum-boost for the Cardinals heading into what should be a tough field in the NFC playoffs.
The scariest part is the Cardinals have the ability to beat teams with big plays, which is a sore spot for the Patriots' defense. The safeties will need to help out the corners in order to defend Boldin and Fitzgerald.
"Just go through and watch the passing game. They are making a lot of big plays," Belichick said. "They get them against everybody. It is not all long passes. It is a lot of catch-and-run plays. They have a good scheme and a good quarterback. They do a lot of things. It is a versatile group of players -- especially, the two receivers Boldin and Fitzgerald -- but I wouldn't want to take anything away from Breaston, or even Urban.
"And their (running) backs have caught about 50 catches with Tim Hightower, the rookie from Richmond. They have a very diversified passing game. It is one that attacks all areas of the field and it is very well executed by the quarterback and all the skill players. It is a lot to get ready for."
--The Patriots' win in Oakland continued their dominance in December.
They're now 22-2 in the final month of the regular season since 2001, which is a full 3 1/2 games better than the San Diego Chargers, who are 19-6 during that same stretch.
Along the way, the Patriots have finished undefeated in December four times (2001, 2003, 2005 and 2007) and is halfway there this season. Two more wins would make it five times in seven years and give them 12 consecutive victories in December.
--Coach Bill Belichick recorded his 100th career coaching victory by beating the Raiders on Sunday.
No. 100 came in his 142nd regular-season game as head coach, and only three coaches in NFL history have won their 100th game with a team in fewer tries -- Oakland's John Madden (136 games), Miami's Don Shula (137) and Cleveland's Paul Brown (138).
Belichick is 100-42 (.704) in the regular season with the Patriots and his 100 regular-season wins are the most in Patriots history. Mike Holovak ranks second with 52 regular-season wins from 1961-68.
--Injured quarterback Tom Brady made an appearance at Gillette Stadium this week as part of a fundraiser, but dodged questions about his surgically repaired knee.
"Belichick never wants us to talk about any of that," Brady said. "We're just going to root. The season is not over. I'm on injured reserve, so I can't do much for the team at this point, other than show my support."
Brady said he's happy when the team wins and is thrilled for Matt Cassel, who has enjoyed tremendous success replacing the two-time Super Bowl MVP.
"He's done incredible," Brady said. "I think he's had a very tough week. He's had a lot of support from his teammates. He's a great person, a great teammate, a great friend, and he's such a mentally tough person. Just the success that I've seen from him and his maturity is exceptional."
--The Patriots will send two players to the Pro Bowl in January. Wide receiver Wes Welker and kicker Stephen Gostkowski earned the nod.
Welker caught 100 passes for the second year in a row while Gostkowski leads the NFL with 30 field goals in 33 attempts.
"It's exciting," Gostkowski said. "You work all year and to get recognized like this is cool, but you can't let it overshadow what's going on right now. We're trying to make the playoffs. I'm sure I'll be able to enjoy it in February, but to let something like that take away from what the team is doing now would be selfish."
--Safety Brandon Meriweather will play a key role in stopping Arizona's dangerous 1-2 punch at wide receiver. With James Sanders nursing an injury, Meriweather is now the most experienced safety in the secondary.
"They're probably one of the best teams that we're going to play, as far as throwing the ball around," Meriweather said. "They've got great receivers."
Meriweather has made strides in his expanded role and leads the team with four interceptions.
"Every area of Brandon's game continues to get better," Belichick said. "He's certainly come a long way as a player in these two seasons and it just continues to get better. He's a really dependable guy, smart, and makes very few errors."
--Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner has played against the Patriots twice, both times during the 2001 season when he was member of the Rams.
Warner first faced the Patriots in Week 10 of the 2001 regular season when the Rams left Foxboro Stadium with a 24-17 victory. Warner saw the Patriots again at the end of the 2001 season in Super Bowl XXXVI when the Patriots won 20-17 to capture their first Super Bowl championship.
--The Patriots have won 14 straight regular-season games over NFC teams dating back to 2005. New England has not lost a regular-season game to an NFC team since Sept. 18, 2005, falling on the road to the Carolina Panthers, 27-17.
The Patriots are 3-0 against NFC competition this season, defeating the San Francisco 49ers 30-21 on Oct. 5, beating the St. Louis Rams 23-16 on Oct. 26 and defeating the Seattle Seahawks 24-21 on Dec. 7.