What to watch in the second half

1. Not a single one of the four division leaders qualified for the playoffs in 2002 so, not surprisingly, skepticism abounds over their postseason viability this year. Two of the division leaders, Dallas and Carolina, finished last in 2002, and thus are attempting to accomplish one of the league's rare "worst-to-first" rises. So can The Tuna keep reeling in victories and can The Fox prove cunning enough to keep answering every doubter with another overtime win? Hey, that's why they play the games, right? There are pundits who weren't sure in their preseason prognostications that Carolina and Dallas could win six games between them by midseason and, at the halfway marker, they've each done it. The schedule gets tougher for each franchise now, including their Cinderella matchup at Texas Stadium on Nov. 23, and because of their annual Thanksgiving Day contest, the Cowboys play three games in a 12-day stretch. The good news for the Panthers is that no one in the NFC South has made a move on them yet. In the NFC East, Dallas could yet face a challenge from Philadelphia and the New York Giants.

2. Winners of four of their last five games, the Eagles still qualify as one of the several NFC underachievers in the first half of the campaign, but can more than atone for their shortcomings over the final two months. Look for them, along with perhaps the New Orleans Saints, to make a playoff push. Both franchises figure, over the next few weeks, to get back some of their wounded, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

3. As for the listing defending champions, well, Tampa Bay has been consistent only in its inconsistency, having failed to win consecutive games. The defense isn't nearly as suffocating as it was a year ago and, despite the impressive numbers that quarterback Brad Johnson has posted, the offense simply isn't very explosive. In fact, for the most part, it's the same sideways design of a year ago with little vertical dimension and an offensive line whose shortcomings drive the coaches nutty at times. For all the focus on legacy that was so much a part of their training camp, the Bucs create way too many distractions for themselves, with chief instigator Warren Sapp apparently oblivious to his own idiocy. Keyshawn Johnson is stewing again about not getting the ball more, coach Jon Gruden has neutered some prominent members of the front office, and there is a lot more stagger than swagger. Maybe the Bucs will be among the disappointing teams of the first half to rally in November and December but, with the internecine bickering, they are more likely to implode than they are to improve.

4. At some point before the end of the season, we think, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Mike Vick will actually get back on the field. If you want to make a few spare bucks, start one of those polls, like they do for the birth of a baby, have the other folks in the office place wagers, and skim off the vigorish. Even Vick, for all his guessing, has no clue yet about when he is coming back. One week he announces it will be Dec. 7 and then, days later, he says it will be Nov. 30. For a guy who isn't sure how his fractured ankle really is recovering, and who seems to be relying on noted orthopedist Dr. Donovan McNabb for advice, there are a lot of questions right now. The primary one, suggested embattled coach Dan Reeves, concerns what is going on between Vick's ears. It's an ugly situation in Atlanta, with the uncertainty over Vick and backbiting in the locker room, and owner Arthur Blank has seen much of the bloom go off the rose. A year ago, Blank had the Midas Touch, and everything was golden in THE A-T-L. This year, that Midas Touch seems to mean that everything Blank fingers turns into a muffler.

5. There are several head coaches on the slippery slope, notably Dan Reeves (Atlanta), Dick Jauron (Chicago), and Jim Fassel (New York Giants), but the biggest coaching soap opera, of course, will play out in the nation's capital. Dan Synder isn't paying Steve Spurrier $5 million a year for these results. Wonder what ever happened to the prime time soaps that once dotted the schedule? Well, folks, here's a revival. Stay tuned.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.