Health status of playoff contenders varies

Had your first 103-degree bout with the flu yet this year? Sniffled through that initial, and always miserable, autumn cold? Anyone in the immediate family needed the chiropractor to address a painful backache from shoveling that early and unanticipated snowfall?

'Tis the season, after all, for such maladies.

So now that we've established a new personal record for most question marks used at the outset of a story, what does any of this have to do with football, or with the December playoff stretch run that commences this weekend, with an impressive schedule of games that could have NFL junkies scurrying to order the league's Sunday Ticket package?

From a literal standpoint, we're guessing, absolutely nothing. But teams that are hale in December are typically hearty come crunch time. And while there is no inoculation that can ward off an untimely turnover, no time-release capsule capable of curing an errant quarterback's inaccuracy, not a single medication for curing a head coach's inexplicably poor clock management, healthy teams are usually playoff teams.

One team's panacea might be little more than a placebo for another franchise. But this is definitely the time of the season when players and coaches most want to feel good about themselves. And not just from the standpoint of a short weekly injury report.

"We're at the point now," said Philadelphia linebacker Nate Wayne, "when it's especially important to be physically and mentally and emotionally ready for what is coming."

With that in mind (and body), here is a subjective assessment of the relative health of the playoff contenders at the three-quarter pole of the 2003 season:

AFC playoff contenders

  • Kansas City Chiefs (11-1): Crying for no apparent reason is often a telling symptom of depression. But it's usually the opponents of coach (Weepin') Dick Vermeil's team who are left in tears. From both an organizational standpoint and on the field, too, the Chiefs seem almost too well-adjusted, you know? In such cases, doctors tend to pad the bill by looking for something, anything, even the slightest sign of disease. Well, keep digging, docs, because you're not apt to uncover much wrong with this team. Sure, the passing game isn't as good as it could be, the defense is susceptible to a power running game, and Dante Hall hasn't returned a punt or kickoff for a touchdown now in seven straight games. Geez, none of the pundits have mentioned his name in conjunction with the MVP award much lately, have they? But the Chiefs remain the top outfit in the league, are well-coached and, just for good measure, have a Priest in their corner as well. Pasquarelli's prognosis: Fit as a fiddle.

  • New England Patriots (10-2): We're partial and we admit it but, in the Year of the Coach, no one has done it better than Bill Belichick. No longer just an X's and O's geek, Belichick in the last two seasons has evolved into the consummate sideline boss, adept at virtually every component of his profession. From a resourcefulness standpoint, perhaps only Andy Reid of Philadelphia can match up with Belichick, who has figured out a way nearly every week to overcome injuries. The Pats have started nine different lineups on offense. They have used the same defensive lineup on consecutive weekends just once all season. Truth be told, the New England logo ought to be the famous Revolutionary War tableaux, of the trio of wounded kids, limping home playing the flute and waving the flag. Like the Eagles, the Pats are suddenly getting healthy again. Quarterback Tom Brady has emerged as a top 10 guy at his position, the Patriots keep inventing ways to win, and they always seem to prevail in the close games. Pasquarelli's prognosis: In the pink.

  • Tennessee Titans (9-3): You get the sense that, if someone amputated Steve McNair's leg, the Titans quarterback would just strap on a prosthetic device, limp into the huddle, and play as if there were nothing wrong with him. The Monday night loss to the New York Jets aside, and notwithstanding the season-ending broken leg suffered by middle linebacker Rocky Calmus, the Titans are well-positioned for another run at the championship. This is a resourceful team, a veteran bunch that knows how to win, and coach Jeff Fisher annually rates among the best at his craft. There are still a few nicks to overcome, like the injury to resurgent defensive end Jevon Kearse, but no one should bet against Tennessee being in the conference title game again. Pasquarelli's prognosis: Nothing a few aspirin won't cure.

  • Indianapolis Colts (9-3): Just from an injury standpoint, the Colts enter Sunday's big divisional showdown at Tennessee in less than optimum condition, missing perhaps three or four starters. So beaten up was the Indianapolis offense last week that the Colts had to improvise their short-yardage personnel package at the end of the game, with the ball on the New England 2-yard line. The good news is that there seemed nothing amiss with the right elbow of quarterback Peyton Manning. But left offensive tackle Tarik Glenn, who was supposed to have been back in the lineup by now (does any organization, or general manager, fudge on injuries as much as this one?), remains absent. The team has lost one tight end (Dallas Clark) for the season and the other (Marcus Pollard) is playing at less than 100 percent. There are injuries on the defense, too, and the secondary could be vulnerable against the Titans' upfield attack. Pasquarelli's prognosis: Despite a propensity for being able to ward off most illnesses, the antibiotics could run out sooner or later, and Indianapolis might succumb to its various physical problems.

  • Miami Dolphins (8-4): While the rest of the world was in a Trytophan-induced stupor, the Dolphins used their Thanksgiving date in Dallas as at least a temporary cure-all, stuffing the Cowboys in virtually every aspect of the game. As incredible at it seems, journeyman quarterback Jay Fiedler has emerged as this team's Dr. Feel-Good, and the Miami offense exudes confidence when he is in the lineup. It didn't hurt, either, that coordinator Norv Turner rediscovered the deep ball. The defense, which plays very well on the road, shouldn't miss "dime" cornerback Jamar Fletcher, out for the balance of the season with a broken forearm. The problem for coach Dave Wannstedt, who probably has to get to the playoffs to keep his job, is a challenging schedule. In the next two weeks, the Dolphins play at New England and then host Philadelphia. Those games could determine Miami's playoff viability. Pasquarelli's prognosis: Rallying back from a bout of the flu, but still susceptible to a relapse, and must be watched carefully.

  • Baltimore Ravens (7-5): Coach Insufferable has suffered the loss of his top quarterback, Kyle Boller, but has gotten stellar performances from retread Anthony Wright the last two weekends. The key for the Ravens, however, is that the defense is getting stronger every week, with middle linebacker Ray Lewis again establishing himself as a legitimate MVP candidate. As long as workhorse tailback Jamal Lewis remains ambulatory, the Ravens remain in the hunt, and wide receiver Marcus Robinson has come off the scrap heap to register five touchdown passes in two weeks. There is a chance Boller could return from a sprained knee ligament for the final few games of the regular season. In an atrociously bad division, the Ravens are a year ahead of schedule, given that the blueprint called for 2004 to be their really big year. With the way it plays defense, this is a team no one wants to face in the first round. Pasquarelli's prognosis: Always the possibility of a serious outbreak of foot-in-mouth disease, given the head coach, but relatively well-off.

  • Cincinnati Bengals (7-5): With respect to what has transpired in Cincinnati over the past 13 seasons, the Bengals are the equivalent of a medical miracle, feeling their oats in the first season of coach Marvin Lewis' stewardship. Strictly in terms of physical well-being, the Bengals are the lone team in the NFL that hasn't been forced to place a single player on injured reserve since the start of the regular season. That said, cornerback Jeff Burris is suffering from post-concussion problems, and that is a concern. In the team's seven wins, Jon Kitna has 18 touchdown passes and only one interception. Now that Corey Dillon is again healthy, Cincinnati has a nice tailback tandem, with him and Rudi Johnson. Wide receiver Chad Johnson is a big-play threat. The Bengals defeated the Ravens in an earlier meeting and travel to Baltimore on Sunday for a game that could determine the division champion. This is the final leg of a three-game road trip and Cincinnati has won the first two outings. The question is, can they handle Lewis, and the Ravens defense? Pasquarelli's prognosis: Take two aspirin on Saturday night (to deal with the headaches Ray Lewis will hand out) and call us Monday morning.

  • Denver Broncos (7-5): On the roller coaster so much this season, one would expect they are suffering at least some dizziness, and that is sometimes reflected in their play. Some physical setbacks, other injuries that are self-inflicted, and a quarterback (Jake Plummer) whose statistics are better than his results. Tailback Clinton Portis remains a mainstay and the workhorse can keep the Broncos in just about any game. But this is a puzzling bunch, one that doesn't always play up to its talent level, and coach Mike Shanahan is finally beginning to come under fire for several dubious personnel decisions. Pasquarelli's prognosis: The Broncos, as much as their opponents, suffer from (Jake the) Snake-poisoning. And their inconsistent play defines a new NFL disease, Rocky Mountain Spotty Fever.

    NFC playoff contenders

  • Philadelphia Eagles (9-3): Winners of seven straight games and nine of 10 after their uninspiring 0-2 start, the Eagles might need a multi-vitamin to help overcome a defense that has surrendered four consecutive 100-yard individual rushing performances, but this team has already weathered the worst of the storm. The scary part for opponents shouldn't necessarily be what Philadelphia has accomplished so far, but rather how much better the Eagles might be in December, since some of their injured players are coming back to the lineup now. Yeah, coach Andy Reid still uses a tailback by committee approach, the wide receivers don't make big plays, and the defense doesn't blitz as much as it once did. But this is a team that has been there before, is confident it can advance to a third consecutive NFC title game, and doesn't blink under adversity.
    Pasquarelli's prognosis: In the pink.

  • St. Louis Rams (9-3): Another team that managed to tread water during an epidemic of injuries and now, healthy again, appears to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender in the diluted NFC. Getting defensive end Leonard Little back last weekend (four sacks for the superior strong-side rusher) really helped but, just as significant, tailback Marshall Faulk has posted three straight 100-yard outings and the offense is suddenly better balanced. At an opportune time, coach Mike Martz seems to have improved his game management. A key for the Rams is earning home-field advantage, since the NFL's equivalent of a hot-house tomato doesn't usually survive well outdoors in the playoffs. Pasquarelli's prognosis: Avoid blustery weather if possible and have plenty of cold medication in stock.

  • Seattle Seahawks (8-4): Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has quietly enjoyed a very solid campaign, perhaps even a breakout year, and the offense has gained confidence over the last few weeks. The defense still suffers from too many bouts of nausea. And, like the Rams, this is a team (as demonstrated two weeks ago in Baltimore) that doesn't play nearly as well on the road. Pasquarelli's prognosis: Any medication that might cure the case of the "dropsies" that afflicted the wide receiver corps. And an industrial-strength prescription, too, for travel sickness.

  • Carolina Panthers (8-4): The league's early-season media darlings have now dropped two straight games, must face the returning Michael Vick in Atlanta on Sunday night, and are ebbing at an inopportune time. A simplistic approach based around the running game and tailback Stephen Davis has served the Panthers well, but quarterback Jake Delhomme has to make some plays, and coordinator Dan Henning needs to be more inventive in the "red zone." A defensive front that isn't rushing the passer with quite the fervor that it displayed in 2002 might need some energy supplements, especially morose left end Julius Peppers, whose performances have been spotty. And something, please, for oft-injured middle linebacker Dan Morgan, who is a regular on the injury report. Pasquarelli's prognosis: A weakening pulse and low blood pressure.

  • Dallas Cowboys (8-4): Given its shoddy Thanksgiving Day performance against the Miami Dolphins, someone ought to check the NFL's top-rated defense for any signs of anemia, since the undersized front seven is suddenly displaying symptoms of physical erosion. And maybe The Tuna has been left unrefrigerated too long and has developed salmonella poisoning. Noted psychologist Dr. Bill Parcells has been reduced to familiar head games in an effort to pull his team out of its slump. Over the past six weeks, Dallas has really had only two solid outings. Pasquarelli's prognosis: Definitely a bit flushed, a mild temperature, a bothersome infection that must be stemmed.

  • Minnesota Vikings (7-5): Some experts might suggest collective amnesia, since the Minnesota players and coaches seem to have forgotten the formula they used to jump out to a 6-0 start this season. The ESPN.com medical staff, though, feels the Vikings are sliding into a coma, one from which they might not recover. Whatever smoke and mirrors defensive coordinator George O'Leary used to camouflage his unit's shortcomings early in the campaign have dissipated. The offense remains high octane, but quarterback Daunte Culpepper at times has lapsed back into his old, turnover-prone self. Two months ago, Mike Tice looked like a coach of the year candidate, and now his job security once again is in question. Pasquarelli's prognosis: Someone call a priest to administer last rites.

  • Green Bay Packers (6-6) and New Orleans Saints (6-6): Whatever shrinks are using these days to most effectively treat schizophrenia, well, both these teams need it, since they suffer from the same problems. Neither can handle prosperity, or take advantage of opportunity, and their shared inconsistency is maddening. Both have wonderful tailbacks, quarterbacks who can throw four touchdowns or four interceptions in a game, defenses that appear improved one minute and look inept the next. Pasquarelli's prognosis: Weak pulse.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Len a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.