We always know when the regular NFL season begins to wind down because we start to see games being played on Saturday once again.
The first matchup pits two teams with rookie quarterbacks. The New York Giants (5-8), signed Eli Manning this year with a record contract, but the Giants have lost six straight games.
The Pittsburgh Steelers (12-1) have won 11 straight games with their rookie quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger -- a relative unknown before the start of the season.
The Steelers have wrapped up their division title, and Manning knows their defense has yielded only five touchdowns in six games. Manning's quarterback rating in last week's blowout by the Ravens was zero, and for the season it's only 33.6. As he said, "I have to find a way to get out of this."
Washington (4-9) at San Francisco (2-11)
The 49ers have lost eight games in a row, and their coach, Dennis Erickson, may be headed for a comfortable college job. Their talent is scarce, quarterback Tim Rattay has been hurt and their only victories have come in overtime against the Cardinals.
The Redskins' defense looks good, but their offense sometimes keeps other teams in the game.
After his team barely lost to the powerhouse Eagles last week, the Redskins' offensive tackle, Chris Samuels, said, "They won the game, but they respect us." Which means: "They won and we lost."
Carolina (6-7) at Atlanta (10-3)
The Falcons have clinched their division title and seem headed for a first-round playoff bye. They have rushed for 200 or more yards four times this season, but T.J. Duckett, who ran for four touchdowns last week against the Raiders, is gone for the season after knee surgery.
The Panthers have won five games in a row, all against teams with losing records. Still, they are in the wild-card race. As linebacker Mark Fields said, "They had us for the buzzards. We were road kill. All of a sudden, we are coming back."
This is one of those dream matchups between a Indianapolis Colts (10-3) offense that never stops and a Baltimore Ravens (8-5) defense that never stops.
It may also be part of history because Peyton Manning, the Colts' quarterback, needs three touchdown passes to break Dan Marino's NFL season record of 48.
"I'm really enjoying the ride," Manning said. "Touchdowns don't come easy."
They seem to have come easily enough so far, but the Colts, with six straight victories and with a playoff berth clinched, could face a serious test. They are finishing the regular season against the Ravens, the Chargers and the Broncos, all prospective playoff opponents.
For Baltimore, the task is clear: Stop Manning with physical defense and control the ball with a solid running offense. Jamal Lewis, the Ravens' best runner, is recovering from a sprained right ankle, but he will play as much as needed. Kyle Boller threw four touchdown passes last week against the Giants, not the greatest test, but a good taste of success nevertheless.
To make the playoffs, the Ravens must sneak in as a wild card. As coach Brian Billick said: "There are no scenarios. We've got to win to get in. That means each game is a playoff."
Seattle (7-6) at NY Jets (9-4)
The Seahawks are puzzling. Despite offensive talent to spare, they have trouble playing consistently two weeks in a row.
Still, they lead what may be the NFL's weakest division. The Jets played a physical game in last week's loss to the Steelers, but their 11 penalties in the first 25 minutes showed a lack of concentration.