Observation deck: Separating the contenders and pretenders

It's that time of year again -- the point at which we start realizing which teams are serious about making a run at the playoffs and which teams have been teasing us all season.

In fact, that's what made this Sunday so interesting. Because it's the first week of December, it's also the first chance we have to start safely predicting which teams have an inside track on a postseason spot. Here's what we learned about those that helped themselves Sunday and those that hurt themselves:

The Winners

1. Tennessee (7-5): The Titans badly needed that win over Houston. They had lost three in a row and were losing ground to Jacksonville in the wild-card race.

2. San Diego (7-5): The Chargers are going to qualify by default. Denver and Kansas City, which the Chargers beat Sunday, just aren't good enough to challenge for the AFC West.

3. Minnesota (6-6): As long as Adrian Peterson is healthy, the Vikings have a shot. Their 42-10 trouncing of Detroit said they are feeling pretty confident right now.

4. Arizona (6-6): The Cardinals have a toughness about them that they have lacked in the past. Just ask Cleveland, which lost 27-21 to Arizona on Sunday.

The Losers

1. Philadelphia (5-7): The Eagles are playing hard enough to win and making just enough mistakes to lose. That's not how you reach the playoffs in a division with two legitimate contenders.

2. Detroit (6-6): After that loss to Minnesota, the Lions can forget about living up to Jon Kitna's promise of 10 wins. With Dallas, San Diego and Green Bay still left on the schedule, they'll be lucky to get seven.

3. Denver (5-7): That 34-20 loss at Oakland was far more lopsided than the score indicates. The Broncos are done.

4. Washington (5-7): The Redskins gave a strong showing after an emotional week. That's why that last-second loss to Buffalo had to be so heartbreaking.

But that's enough about the postseason. Here are 10 other observations from Sunday's action:

1. Russell's debut

Give Oakland credit for creating a solid strategy for getting rookie quarterback JaMarcus Russell some action in its 34-20 win over Denver.

After Josh McCown started, Russell entered early in the second quarter and played two possessions. Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Knapp also gave his young quarterback some plays that allowed him to quickly find a comfort zone. The Raiders ran plenty of play-action and rolled Russell out to keep him away from pressure on most of the seven passes he attempted. Russell wound up completing four of those throws for 56 yards.

The question now is whether the Raiders saw enough to give Russell more action during the remainder of the season. They have liked the progress he's made after missing all of training camp, and coach Lane Kiffin realizes nothing can compensate for real game experience. The problem is that Kiffin wants to win, and right now, the Raiders have two straight AFC West victories after losing 17 consecutive division games. The guess here is that Russell will keep getting limited game action until Kiffin decides to look to next year.

2. Bad break for Browns

Cleveland should have been bitter about the ruling at the end of that 27-21 loss to Arizona. Officials initially said tight end Kellen Winslow was out of bounds when he tried to catch a 37-yard touchdown pass from Derek Anderson with no time left on the clock. After checking the replay, the referees stood by their decision. They simply didn't believe that Cardinals defensive backs Antrel Rolle and Oliver Celestin had forced Winslow out.

I'll argue that one as long as they keep showing that replay. Winslow went up while in bounds, and he still managed to get a foot in bounds when Celestin and Rolle crashed into him. The smart money says Winslow would have gotten two feet down before hitting the sideline. The Browns will be hoping that loss doesn't haunt them as the playoff race heats up.

3. Graham getting it done

Tampa Bay running back Earnest Graham has quietly been one of the most valuable players for his team. The Bucs lost Cadillac Williams to injury. They lost Michael Pittman as well. The consensus was that the passing game would have to carry this offense while a makeshift backfield banged out whatever it could from week to week. But Graham has surprised everybody by enjoying the best season of his four-year career.

After gaining 102 yards in Sunday's 27-23 win over New Orleans, Graham has 631 yards and six touchdowns on the season. There's nothing dynamic about him, either. He's a downhill runner who just keeps grinding out tough yards. He's also on a roll: Graham has had 100 yards rushing in three of his past four games.

4. Eli's redemption (sort of)

It's still hard to make sense of Giants quarterback Eli Manning. Sure, he led the Giants to two scoring drives late in the fourth quarter of their 21-16 win over Chicago, but he still played poorly -- while throwing two interceptions -- during most of the game.

I'm starting to believe he's a good quarterback in hurry-up situations and an unreliable one when his team isn't in panic mode. In other words, he'll never be the player the Giants hoped he would become.

5. Peterson impresses again

Guess it's a mistake to doubt Minnesota's rookie sensation. It looked like the torn lateral collateral ligament in his right knee would be enough to slow him down against Detroit. So much for that logic.

After missing two games because of the injury, while wearing a protective brace on the injured joint, Peterson gained 116 yards on just 15 carries in the Vikings' 42-10 win. Heck, just imagine what he would have done if he had been completely healthy.

6. Big day for LT

Speaking of big-time backs, LaDainian Tomlinson enjoyed a special day during San Diego's 24-10 win over Kansas City. He scored his 111th rushing touchdown and moved past Walter Payton for third in NFL history in that category. It's also becoming more apparent that the Chargers are going to lean on him as they make their playoff run.

With quarterback Philip Rivers struggling and Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates' production suffering as a result (he caught just one pass for minus-1 yards against Kansas City), Tomlinson has a heavy burden. He ran for 177 yards and two touchdowns Sunday.

7. Wayne stating his case

The absence of Marvin Harrison from the Indianapolis offense has allowed Reggie Wayne to prove why he's become the best receiver on that team.

Wayne is enjoying a Pro Bowl season once again, and he came up big in the 28-25 win over Jacksonville with eight receptions, 158 yards and one touchdown. He's starting to build the kind of brilliant chemistry with Peyton Manning that long had been the trademark of Harrison. That he has continued to make big plays while Harrison nurses a knee injury says plenty about how dominant Wayne has become.

8. Sinking Feeley

Philadelphia quarterback A.J. Feeley has to be cursing himself tonight. First, he threw a huge interception in Week 12 that ruined a brilliant effort and thwarted the Eagles' chances of upsetting New England.
Then, he did the same thing Sunday in a 28-24 loss to Seattle.

Feeley didn't put up the numbers he did against the Patriots -- he actually threw four interceptions while completing just 19 of 42 passes -- but it was his errant pass in the fourth quarter that did the most harm. When Seattle linebacker Lofa Tatupu posted his third interception of the day, the Seahawks sealed the win.

The most disturbing part for Eagles fans is what could have been if Feeley had not made those mistakes. They could be 7-5 and in the hunt for an NFC wild-card spot. Instead, they're 5-7 and watching as the end of their season quickly approaches.

9. Good day to be a McCown

Josh and Luke made their parents proud Sunday. Josh McCown led Oakland to its second straight win by completing 14 of 21 passes for 141 yards and three touchdowns. Luke McCown replaced injured starter Jeff Garcia in Tampa Bay's 27-23 win over New Orleans and performed even more impressively: 29-of-37, 313 yards and two touchdowns, including a
6-yard scoring toss to Jerramy Stevens that decided the game. Without any evidence, I'd bet they have never played that well on the same day in the NFL.

10. Bright spot in K.C.

cause there isn't much to smile about in Kansas City these days, Chiefs fans should seek out whatever high points they can find. One is Kolby Smith, a rookie running back whom the Chiefs selected in the fifth round of this year's draft. He is playing only because Larry Johnson is injured and Priest Holmes is retired, but the kid is producing. He ran for 150 yards in his first start, against Oakland in Week 12, and he gained 83 yards on 21 carries against San Diego.

Smith is shifty and elusive, and he already looks like a quicker version of Holmes. When Johnson finally gets healthy, the Chiefs will have the kind of backfield combination coach Herm Edwards covets.

Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.