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SCOUT'S HONOR: Hot and on the spot

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Here's a brief look inside the playoff picture as we've hit the stretch run of the NFL season. This week, we are looking at the teams that have been hot entering the month of December.

Who's hot

Atlanta: continues to provide the with a lot of energy. But he's given them more than just that. Vick has his teammates feeling very confident right now. He really makes things happen on the field. And opposing defenses have really struggled to devise a game plan to matchup with Vick's athleticism. The ' meeting with Tampa Bay this weekend should give an indication how real they are. Philadelphia: gets hurt. Rivals like the get excited. For what? The are well-organized team and have the ability to overcome adversity. and have shown they can avoid mistakes and maintain consistency within the offense. That's enough to get them by right now, but they'll need McNabb for the playoffs. The defense has really played well lately but hasn't created enough turnovers until last Sunday's excellent effort against St. Louis. Oakland: The have rebounded after a lull and have looked very strong lately. There are concerns over their veterans wearing down near the end of the season and into the playoffs. But this team is extremely hungry right now. They won't let anything stop them at this stage. and have posted some excellent numbers this season. And excellent play by the offensive line has really helped the offense. But the defense must rise to the occasion during the playoffs. They aren't creating enough turnovers and have given up too many plays against the pass. They'll also face a major test on Sunday against and the San Diego , who regained their stroke against Denver last weekend. Pittsburgh: A favorable schedule has allowed the to find their footing again. The offense really found a consistent rhythm with under center. They hope he regains that rhythm when he returns this Sunday after missing a few weeks. Although has played well, having a healthy for the playoff grind would really help. The defense still remains a concern. Having back has made an impact, but they are still vulnerable against the pass, especially with the struggles of cornerback . Indianapolis: The are really on a roll right now. Playing in the AFC South has helped, but they still deserve credit for what they've accomplished thus far — especially for their victory at Philadelphia. That really gave the some legitimacy. An improved defense has made a difference. They are a long way from having a great defense, but this unit has shown more energy and has been more competitive. The offense has been solid carried by the battery of and . They need to get healthy for the playoffs. His production has been adequate, but he's still working back to his pre-knee injury form. He just hasn't been able to stay healthy this season. New England: The have climbed their way back into contention with some superb efforts, but this clearly isn't the same team that captured a lot of hearts last season. The offensive line has been erratic and they haven't been able to find root in their run game behind . Smith must find a comfort level and generate some muscle on the ground. The defense has had its struggles. Their problems against the run are obvious, but they've also given up a lot more points this season inside the red zone. And that's made a major difference between last season's team and what we are seeing right now.

On the spot

Here's a brief look at how several playoff contenders are shaping up on special teams entering the cruel month of December. Miami: Although hasn't been consistent, he's a proven weapon in close games. The return game has been adequate, but has lacked a big-play punch throughout the year. New England: This should be one area the can rely on to make a difference. has been excellent again while the coverage units remain very strong. Pittsburgh: has been solid since taking over kicking duties a few weeks ago, but the rookie remains untested in playoff conditions. Overall, their special teams' remains a potential downfall on any given week. Indianapolis: has struggled a little at times this season but is a major threat with his strong leg. The coverage units have been solid, but they need more production for its return game. Tennessee: has had a decent year but can be erratic at times. They aren't getting enough production from its return units. San Diego: 's weak leg puts some limitations on the kicking game. That could haunt the in close games. The return game hasn't found its groove, but is a threat to break a big play at any moment. Oakland: They return game has struggled since and went down with injuries. It's really unknown what Buchanon can contribute when he returns. And the coverage units are a liability. has made strides, but he's always an unknown. This is a unit with a lot of overall problems that could prove costly. Denver: The kicking game has been a disappointment this season — especially , who has been like a rock for the . hasn't been as productive returning punts while shows potential to help on kick returns. His blend of speed and pop has intrigued ' officials. Philadelphia: is an absolute weapon for the . His strong leg and consistency has many teams jealous. But the loss of punter is a major concern. He could prove to become a bigger loss than right now. That's saying a lot. Veteran remains a threat on the return units. The addition of has added a boost to their coverage units. Green Bay: is having a fairly solid year. The coverage units have been okay. But they really need a boost on punt returns. Tampa Bay: Their overall production has been okay. They still lack ideal punch on the return units and has struggled at times. Atlanta: He may struggle a little from long distance, but has been adequate. has been steady as a return man while the coverage units have been solid. New Orleans: has shown the ability to break some long returns at any time. He's a true scoring threat. And kicker still gets the job done consistently. San Francisco: This unit continues to be a problem for the , especially the kicking game. They've turned to rookie as their kicker, but you never know what you'll get from a rookie in the playoffs. The coverage units still need improvement while has been adequate on returns. Brian DeLucia is a respected college and pro personnel consultant around the NFL. Formerly a consultant with Rivals.com, and currently a contributor for ProFootballDigest.com, Brian is in his third season with FOXSports.com providing commentary around the NFL and NFL Draft.
Tagged: Falcons, Broncos, Packers, Titans, Colts, Raiders, Dolphins, Patriots, Saints, Giants, Eagles, 49ers, Buccaneers, Steelers, Chargers, Michael Vick, Jay Feely, Deltha O'Neal, Jason Elam, Allen Rossum, Ryan Longwell, Joe Nedney, Mike Vanderjagt, Edgerrin James, Peyton Manning, Sebastian Janikowski, Jerry Rice, Olindo Mare, Antowain Smith, Adam Vinatieri, Donovan McNabb, David Akers, A.J. Feeley, Sean Landeta, Amos Zereoue, Jerome Bettis, LaDainian Tomlinson, Jeff Chandler, Phillip Buchanon, Michael Lewis, Tommy Maddox, John Carney, Jeff Reed

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