The masks come off after Thanksgiving, when injuries expose thin NFL rosters and small problems become major issues.
The New York Giants, who looked so good a month ago, sleepwalked through a dismal loss yesterday that put a new face on last season's second-half collapse.
The Washington Redskins looked playoff-worthy through October but haven't been the same since their train wreck in New England.
Quarterback Jon Kitna predicted the Detroit Lions would win 10 games this season, and at 6-2, he looked clairvoyant. On Thursday, he and the Lions played the turkey in the Green Bay Packers' Thanksgiving feast.
There's a lot of football left, but for these three NFC teams, losses in Week 12 likely will come to haunt them in late December. Here's why:
What happened: After their second straight 6-2 start, they have lost two of the last three. On top of that, they were drubbed at home, 41-17, by the Minnesota Vikings, who had Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback and no Adrian Peterson in the backfield.
Why: An ankle injury is hampering Plaxico Burress and has robbed the Giants of their deep threat. Quarterback Eli Manning doesn't appear capable of lifting the team himself - he threw four interceptions yesterday, three of which were returned for touchdowns. This team has a fragile psyche and not much heart.
What's next: The Giants have road trips to Chicago and Philadelphia in the next two weeks, which will be critical.
What happened: Since starting 5-3, the Redskins have lost three in a row, and they have played little defense since a 52-7 loss to the Patriots in Week 8. Yesterday, they couldn't beat backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski in an ugly 19-13 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, despite numerous chances.
Why: Quarterback Jason Campbell threw two second-half interceptions after the Redskins lost four first-half fumbles. Injuries are playing a role, but there's a price to pay with an inexperienced quarterback. Also, running back Clinton Portis hit the wall - literally - when he failed to convert fourth-and-inches inside the 5-yard line in the third quarter, a huge play.
What's next: The Redskins probably have the best finishing schedule of the wild-card contenders, starting with the Buffalo Bills in Week 13. They have a chance to survive the carnage in Tampa.
What happened: They also started 6-2, and after three straight losses, are clinging to the last wild-card spot in the NFC. They were dissected by Brett Favre on Thursday and their pass defense was brutal.
Why: The franchise has been down so long, the Lions don't know how to handle success. It would help if they had some cornerbacks.
What's next: They have big games left against the Dallas Cowboys, San Diego Chargers and Packers. Despite Kitna's prediction, they'll be lucky to win eight games.
Bad losses, Part II
You can count out the Tennessee Titans, too. They were 6-2 before losing their past three games. They were blown out in Cincinnati yesterday by a Bengals team that had allowed 286 points after 10 games. Vince Young still has a lot of growing to do in the NFL.
The Carolina Panthers had bad luck with the season-ending injury to quarterback Jake Delhomme. Now they're reliant on a 44-year-old who sat out half the season, and Vinny Testaverde is starting to creak. The backup quarterback they signed in the offseason, David Carr, started against the New Orleans Saints yesterday and, in a 31-6 loss, showed once again why he's one of the league's biggest draft busts ever. He played terribly, completing just 10 of 22 passes for 95 yards with two interceptions.
The near future could be worse. The Panthers have lost five in a row and are winless in five home games this season. A major shake-up could arrive in the offseason.
St. Louis quarterback Gus Frerotte probably played his way out of the league in a 24-19 home loss to the Seattle Seahawks. He replaced Marc Bulger (concussion) in the first quarter and played well enough to keep the Rams in the game.
They had first-and-goal at the end of the game with a chance to win, but Frerotte botched two plays to lose it. He badly missed Isaac Bruce with a short 6-yard pass on first down, then fumbled the center exchange on fourth down.