The NFC was a historically bad conference last season, with two 8-8 teams reaching the playoffs. This season, it remains up for debate whether the conference is any better.

At the top end, it isn't. Last season, the NFC at least had one dominant team, as the Philadelphia Eagles won 13 of their first 14 games, then rested their starters in the final two regular-season contests and finished 13-3. So far, it appears that this season's Eagles don't measure up to last season's Eagles, and they're in for a bad day in any game in which quarterback Donovan McNabb makes a wrong move and aggravates his torn abdominal muscle.

The Eagles still might be the conference's best team, even with their dud of a performance last weekend in Dallas. It's unclear at this point who the top challenger is. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 4-1 -- including 4-0 with rookie tailback Carnell "Cadillac" Williams in the lineup -- but they must prove they have staying power. The Atlanta Falcons still are a one-dimensional club on offense, able to run the ball but unable to throw it very efficiently when Michael Vick is at quarterback. The Carolina Panthers, a trendy Super Bowl pick before the season, have been wildly inconsistent but are showing some signs that they might be starting to put things together.

The NFC East appears to be the conference's best division top to bottom. The Washington Redskins, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys each finished 6-10 last season, seven games behind the Eagles. Now the Redskins and Giants are 3-1 and the Cowboys are 3-2, and all three appear to be legitimate playoff contenders. The NFC South is highly competitive, with the Falcons and Panthers chasing the Buccaneers.

But it's difficult to envision any team other than the Seattle Seahawks reaching .500 in the NFC West, with the St. Louis Rams now in disarray without Coach Mike Martz. And will even one club reach .500 in the NFC North? The Detroit Lions now lead the division at 2-2, and they're a highly flawed team currently looking for volunteers to play wide receiver.

The middle class does appear to be better in the conference this season, and that could keep the playoff race -- except in the NFC North -- from being as laughably forgiving as it was in 2004. But most of the best teams in football still appear to be stockpiled in the AFC, and the NFC again looks to be the league's junior-varsity conference.

R. Barber Fined $30,000

The NFL today fined Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber $30,000 for inadvertently hitting an official during Sunday's loss to the Jets.

Barber confronted Jets center Kevin Mawae after a play and swung at Mawae with his right hand. His fist missed Mawae and struck umpire Butch Hannah just below his right eye, knocking him to the ground. Barber received a personal-foul penalty but wasn't ejected from the game.

Burress Thriving

Wide receiver Plaxico Burress was mostly unwanted on the free-agent market last spring. He sat while dozens of other free agents signed, and the Giants even passed on him once before Burress changed agents and signed with the team. It is proving to be one of the best free-agent signings that any club made this year.

Burress quickly has established himself as the favorite target of Giants second-year quarterback Eli Manning, with 25 catches for 396 yards and four touchdowns. Manning has become comfortable lobbing the ball into the air in Burress's direction even when he's well covered, and allowing him to out-leap defenders to make acrobatic catches. Manning is thriving, with nine touchdowns and only two interceptions and a passer rating of 97.8, and the Giants are the NFL's highest-scoring team, averaging 34 points per game. . . .

Would you rather have Drew Bledsoe or Kelly Holcomb at quarterback? The Buffalo Bills, essentially, picked Holcomb.

The Bills decided last offseason to go with J.P. Losman as their starting quarterback this season as a second-year pro, and released Bledsoe after he declined to accept a pay cut to remain on board as Losman's backup and mentor. Now Bledsoe is the NFL's third-rated passer as the Dallas starter.

Buffalo signed Holcomb to back up Losman, a first-round draft choice last year, and seemed prepared to live with Losman's mistakes this season while building something for the future. One month into the season, however, Coach Mike Mularkey benched Losman and went to Holcomb. The move had a short-term benefit, as the Bills beat the mistake-prone Miami Dolphins last weekend, but puts the team's future at quarterback in great doubt.

When Cincinnati Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis benched veteran Jon Kitna before last season and went with Carson Palmer as his quarterback, he knew there would be trying times in Palmer's first year as the starter. But he resisted the temptation to go back to Kitna, and now the Bengals are 4-1 in Palmer's second season as the starter. Giants Coach Tom Coughlin lived with Manning's gaffes last season while losing the first six games started by the prized rookie after Kurt Warner was benched, and now Coughlin and his club are reaping the benefits in Manning's first full season as the starter.

Losman was not a top overall draft selection, as Palmer and Manning were. But the Bills thought enough of him to use a first-round pick on him, and they should have been prepared to live with his mistakes for an entire season before scrapping his development plan. Now they're on the path toward turning their young quarterback into another Patrick Ramsey. If the Bills weren't going to remain committed to Losman's development, they simply should have stuck with Bledsoe as their starter. . . .

Matt Schaub's solid performance for the Falcons in last weekend's loss to the New England Patriots while starting in place of the injured Vick has increased the second-year pro's stature around the league. A team or two might try to pry Schaub from the Falcons in an offseason trade. . . .

The Green Bay Packers are 1-4 after last weekend's thumping of the New Orleans Saints. The Packers also were 1-4 last season before winning nine of their final 11 games to win the NFC North.

Suggs Out a Month

Cleveland tailback Lee Suggs is to miss a month after suffering a broken right thumb in Sunday's win over the Chicago Bears. Suggs underwent surgery Monday and had two screws inserted into the thumb. . . .

The Cowboys don't know if they'll have tailback Julius Jones for Sunday's NFC East showdown with the Giants at Texas Stadium. Jones limped off the field with an ankle injury after rushing for 72 first-half yards in last Sunday's 33-10 triumph over the Eagles in Irving, Tex. Undrafted rookie Tyson Thompson ran for 75 second-half yards against Philadelphia, and he and veteran Anthony Thomas probably would share the tailback duties against the Giants if Jones is unable to play. . . .

The Eagles released linebacker Mike Labinjo and defensive end Alonzo Jackson. Labinjo started the opening game of the season in Atlanta when middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter was ejected for a pregame scuffle. But the moves were aimed more at improving Philadelphia's struggling special teams. The Eagles signed linebacker Zeke Moreno to fill one of the two vacant roster spots and plan to use him on their kick-coverage units. . . .

Pittsburgh signed quarterback Rod Rutherford to its practice squad. He could join Charlie Batch as the only healthy quarterbacks on the field when the Steelers practice today. Starter Ben Roethlisberger has a hyperextended and bruised knee and backup Tommy Maddox has an ailing calf muscle, although neither has been ruled out of Sunday's home game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. . . .

Steelers Coach Bill Cowher said during his news conference Tuesday that he plans to continue to split tailback duties between Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis, who returned from a calf injury to be a significant contributor to Monday night's triumph at San Diego. . . .

The Patriots waived linebacker Eric Alexander.