It's December, a time for adrenaline rushes and broken hearts in the NFL.

The final month of the regular season begins this weekend and all that's known for certain is only five of the 32 teams have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.

Five other teams can clinch playoff spots with wins this weekend - the Giants and Cardinals in the NFC, the Titans, Steelers and Broncos in the AFC.

This may come as a surprise, but if the regular season was finished, Dallas, at 8-4, would not be in the playoffs. Instead, it would be 8-4 Atlanta because the Falcons would get the tiebreaker based on conference record. Meantime, lesser teams than Dallas, such as Arizona and Minnesota, would be in the playoffs.

There's also a strong possibility it will take an 11-5 record to get a wild-card berth in the NFC.

Super Bowl preview?

Now and then, a matchup comes along that has a realistic chance of being a preview of the Super Bowl. Dallas-Pittsburgh is one of those matchups.

The Cowboys have righted themselves since Tony Romo returned from injury, but now they must overcome a grim part of their history - late-season nosedives. Since the start of the 1997 season, Dallas is 18-36 in December and January, including 0-5 in the playoffs. The Steelers are on a roll. They have the NFL's top defense and they are home.

After Pittsburgh, the Cowboys play the Giants, Ravens and Eagles, a rugged schedule that suggests history could very well repeat itself.

Losing control

The slumping Redskins no longer control their fate, and they'll get no sympathy from the Ravens when the geographic rivals meet in Baltimore tonight.

Washington has lost three of its last four. The Skins are eighth in the NFC, a game behind Atlanta and Dallas for the sixth playoff spot. Their offense has produced just three TDs in the last three losses, and their star running back, Clinton Portis, is banged up. Even with Portis, moving the ball against Baltimore's defense, rated No. 2 in the NFL, won't be easy.

If the Skins are looking for something positive, they are 4-1 on the road and strong finishes have gotten them into the playoffs two of the last three seasons.

Monday night treat

There's a great race going on in the NFC South, with first place up for grabs when Tampa Bay visits Carolina tomorrow night. Both teams are 9-3 even though neither team has an elite quarterback.

The Buccaneers' Jeff Garcia has been accurate with a 67.2 completion percentage and has tossed three interceptions. His passer rating of 92.5 ranks sixth in the NFL. The Panthers' Jake Delhomme has 12 TD passes against nine interceptions and ranks No. 22 with an 81.7 passer rating.

Both teams rely on strong defense and running attacks, so this game should produce some old-fashioned slug-it-out football.

Against the wall

At 6-6 and sitting last in the NFC South, the Saints are desperate for a win. At the start of the season, they probably circled today's game against Atlanta at the Superdome as a win.

But the Falcons are firmly in the thick of the playoff chase a year after finishing 4-12. They have won six of their last eight and are 8-4. Matt Ryan, the rookie quarterback from Penn Charter, continues to emerge as a future star. He completed 17 of 23 passes for two TDs and no interceptions in last week's win at San Diego and ranks No. 8 in the NFL in passer ratings. They may as well hand him the rookie-of-the-year award now.

Here they come

The Colts play Cincinnati today, so there shouldn't be much suspense concerning the outcome.

But a nod should go to the Colts because they have recovered from a 3-4 start with five consecutive wins, all by six or fewer points, to put them into a playoff spot for now. Grit has replaced proliferation as their M.O.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only two other teams have won five in a row by six or fewer points - the 1992 Colts and the '86 Giants.

After the Bengals, the Colts have Detroit, Jacksonville and Tennessee. Almost left for dead after seven games, Indianapolis is now a team most of its AFC opponents hope to avoid in the playoffs.

Packers woes

There have been a couple of close games the slumping Packers might have won with Brett Favre, but it's their defense that will carry most of the blame if they don't make the playoffs.

Green Bay, which is 5-7 and has dangerous Houston at Lambeau Field today, has allowed more points (295) than all but nine teams in the NFL. It's hard to believe this is a team that came within seconds of making it to the Super Bowl last season.