What to watch in the second half

Five things to watch for in the NFC over the second half of the season:

Vikings1. Can the Minnesota Vikings possibly repeat in 2004 the kind of meltdown the team suffered last season? Coach Mike Tice, who might need a playoff spot to convince owner Red McCombs to exercise the 2005 option season in his contract, has reiterated that his club is not only a year older but also a year wiser. But circle this Sunday and Christmas Eve on your calendar, because those are the two matchups with Green Bay. After a 1-4 start, the Packers are surging and, with Minnesota currently on a two-game skid, Tice and the Vikings could be forced to play the second half of the season with one eye on the rear-view mirror again.

FalconsEagles2. The Philadelphia Eagles, despite currently owning the conference's best record, had better keep a close eye on the Atlanta Falcons. Given the Falcons' schedule is not very daunting, coach Jim Mora's team could quietly steal off with the homefield advantage through the NFC bracket of the playoffs. In the last 16 seasons, the NFC franchise that had the homefield advantage at the outset of the playoffs advanced to the conference title game every time. No one wants to come to the raucous Georgia Dome in January, where the Falcons could be tough to beat.

CowboysGiantsRedskins3. Over the first half of the season, three NFC teams had to start backup quarterbacks and two franchises, Chicago and Tampa Bay, used three different starters. In all but one of those cases (the switch to Craig Krenzel from Jonathan Quinn in Chicago two weeks ago), the changes were a result of injuries. Don't be surprised if, over the second half of the season, most of the quarterback alterations come as a result of poor play. Dallas, the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins are all teams that could make changes if the current starters continue to struggle. The word in Dallas is that, while Bill Parcells still supports Vinny Testaverde, a few more losses might convince him it's time to take a look at Drew Henson. In Washington, it's hard to believe that Joe Gibbs can continue to be so intransigent about yanking Mark Brunell from the lineup. And the Eli Manning watch has definitely commenced with the Giants.

4. Of the 16 teams in the conference, just five finished the first half of the season with winning records and there are only eight franchises at .500 or better. Translation: In a clearly inferior conference, it won't be shocking to see an 8-8 team qualify for postseason play. Far more so than the AFC, the senior conference is a subset defined by the "haves" and the "have nots."

Bucs5. Want a semi-sleeper team? OK, maybe we're crazy, but keep an eye on Tampa Bay, especially if they can come to Atlanta on Sunday and upset the Falcons. The Bucs have two games remaining with Atlanta, this week and then at home on Dec. 5, and the Tampa Bay defense still feels it has the formula for containing Michael Vick. Over the past three weeks, quarterback Brian Griese has done a nice job of reviving his career and tailback Michael Pittman, back from a three-game suspension, provides a power dimension to the running game. In the next eight weeks, the only teams with winning records on the Bucs' schedule are Atlanta and San Diego.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.