AP Pro Football Writer
(AP) - We have separation at the top of the NFL: Atlanta, Houston, San Francisco, Chicago and the New York Giants.
We have depression at the bottom: Jacksonville, Carolina, Cleveland and Kansas City.
Nearing the halfway mark of the season, we also have a muddle in the middle. Playoff races could be wide open into late December, but not for some teams that already have reached desperation time.
Mark down the Cowboys, Eagles, Titans, Bengals, Chargers, Saints and Lions in that category. All of them had winning or .500 records in 2011, and each of them entered the season with designs on playoff berths.
Now, all of them appear to be outsiders, plagued by inconsistency and underachievement, questionable decision making and, at least in Dallas, Philadelphia and San Diego, uncertain futures for the coaching staffs.
Nowhere is the disappointment thus far more pronounced than in the NFC East, where the Giants have a 2 1/2-game edge over the Cowboys and Eagles.
Things looked so bright for Dallas when it beat the defending Super Bowl champions in the season opener, and for Philly when it squeezed past New York in Week 4. Now, both teams need binoculars to see how far the Giants are out front.
"There is a tremendous amount of urgency," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "Every game is critical."
The problems in Dallas in great part stem from the unreliability of the receiving corps and the run game (without DeMarco Murray). Jason Witten is as dependable as any tight end in the league, as his sensational 18-catch, 167-yard performance in last Sunday's lost to the Giants showed. But Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and the other targets run too many poor routes, drop too many balls and cause Tony Romo to look even worse than he actually is playing. Yes, those wideouts make a lot of good plays as well. But their biggest plays are the ones they don't make, and the Cowboys have become a turnover machine.
"It's to that point in the season where you don't have time," Witten said. "Nobody cares about battling. They don't, they want to see you win. ... The clock's ticking. You have to be able to find a way to get on top here a little bit."
Similarly in Philadelphia, some of the Eagles' stars haven't shined. Michael Vick is having an awful season, plagued by turnovers and an inability to make use of his team's speed at the skill positions. Nnamdi Asomugha hasn't come close to earning the huge contract he landed last year. LeSean McCoy doesn't get the ball enough and, often when he does, the line can't make holes for him.
If the Cowboys and Eagles don't turn desperation into motivation and then into domination, Garrett and Eagles coach Andy Reid could be unemployed by January.
Almost as puzzling is the abyss the Bengals and Lions have fallen into.
Cincinnati opened 3-1, then imploded with losses to Miami, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The Bengals seemed ready to take the next step into true contention, perhaps even win the AFC North where Baltimore is banged-up and Pittsburgh is in a bit of a transition phase. Instead, they've reached back into their Bungles past, and with matchups against the Broncos, Giants, Steelers and Ravens remaining, their task isn't enviable.
"We've wallowed around here in mediocrity," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "Let's go. That's the thing we've got to do."
Detroit has made last year's playoff run after an 11-season hiatus marked by horrid teams _ remember 0-16 in 2008? _ look like a fluke. Perhaps the NFL's most undisciplined team with 52 penalties _ only Dallas and Baltimore have more through seven games _ and dissatisfying showings by the touted defensive line, the Lions' chore is even more challenging than Cincinnati's: Chicago, Green Bay and even Minnesota have been far better in the NFC North.
Struggles in Tennessee and San Diego probably were more predictable. The Titans outperformed their talent base in going 9-7 a year ago, and are in more of a rebuilding stage than a contending one, with a sieve of a defense. The Chargers are, well, the Chargers, which means fans should expect unfathomable losses such as the 7-6 debacle at Cleveland. San Diego simply makes just enough errors of omission and commission to flop.
Then there's New Orleans. The folks in the Big Easy believe the Saints' 2-5 record is all Commissioner Roger Goodell's fault. Maybe things would be more jovial on Bourbon Street if the team had a defense.
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