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Mess of an NFC
PANTHERS 5 col bw
Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme reacts as he watches his pass intercepted in the end zone by Philadelphia Eagles Lito Sheppard with 28 seconds left in the fourth quarter Monday night in Philadelphia. The Eagles won, 27-24 creating a four-way tie in the NFC for two wildcard playoff spots. - photo by Associated Press
NEW YORK — Going .500 gets fans upset, coaches in trouble and players released.
    Except in this year’s NFC, where a break-even mark is looking playoff-worthy. And a winning record makes you a Super Bowl contender.
    When the Philadelphia Eagles beat the Carolina Panthers on Monday night, it created a four-way logjam for the two NFC wild-card berths between those teams, the New York Giants and Atlanta — all at 6-6.
    So while teams possibly headed for 10 wins in the AFC are wondering if it will be enough to get them into the Super Bowl chase, mediocrity — not parity — in the other conference might well be rewarded with a trip to the postseason.
    ‘‘Well, it’s a crazy year, so anything is possible,’’ Eagles coach Andy Reid said. ‘‘We’re just taking it one week at a time; we’re not going to worry too much about getting into the playoffs or anything else.’’
    History usually hasn’t been kind to .500 teams. Since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, seven 8-8 clubs reached the postseason, with the 1985 Cleveland Browns actually winning the AFC Central. The other six were wild cards.
    But recent history has been more positive for such posers, with two 8-8s making it in 1999 (Dallas and Detroit) and two more in 2004 (Minnesota and St. Louis). Indeed, even a 7-9 finish could be good enough in the NFC, which brings St. Louis, San Francisco and Minnesota — all 5-7 and all decidedly average or worse — into the equation.
    Which raises the question whether the lack of artistry on the field by these teams is offset by the excitement created in cities where next April’s draft would, by now, be the main NFL topic.
    ‘‘That’s the way the NFC is this year, and because of that every game is like a playoff game,’’ said Philadelphia kicker David Akers, whose 25-yard field goal beat Carolina on Monday night and created the four-way tie at 6-6.
    ‘‘It was a playoff atmosphere out there,’’ Akers said. ‘‘Next week is going to be the same thing, because each game is so critical to win going down the stretch. You never can tell and if you don’t give up, maybe good things will happen for you.’’
    Really good things, such as division championships and byes, definitely will happen to teams with more wins than losses in the NFC. The Bears are 10-2, own the North title and could clinch home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs this weekend.
    Dallas, New Orleans and Seattle all are 8-4 and, with wins Sunday, could secure at least wild-card spots. Of course, the Cowboys host the Saints, so one of them won’t get that prize right away.
    But as long as they get another victory, they all should be playing in January.
    Of the 6-6 teams, who has the edge — even if they wind up 8-8?
    Maybe nobody. All four teams play each other twice. Atlanta finishes by hosting Carolina and visiting Philly. The Panthers are home for the Giants this Sunday. New York follows that by hosting the Eagles, and Philadelphia finishes at home against the Falcons after three straight road games.
    All are struggling — that’s how you get to 6-6, after all — and show few signs of putting together a winning streak this month.
    Carolina (four) and New York (five) already have had such strings, but the Panthers also have had three two-game losing streaks and the Giants are mired in a four-game skid. At least the Panthers don’t have the turmoil on and off the field that has plagued the Giants.
    Nor does Carolina have the string of injuries plaguing New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta.
    ‘‘We’re still in there, but it makes it harder for us,’’ Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker said of the 6-6 gridlock. ‘‘We have to play lights out now. We’ve been here before and that’s what we have to get across to the younger guys and let them know there’s a sense of urgency.’’
    Not to mention a sense of mediocrity.