During the stretch drive, New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick never wants to be asked about his team's playoff possibilities -- and that goes for his players, too.

"That's not the reason we won three Super Bowls," said Redskins wide receiver David Patten, who played for Belichick on all those Patriots championship teams. "But he never talked about anything except what was happening that week. He always would say, 'If you're looking at the playoffs, you won't get to the playoffs.' He said, 'Only the present matters.' That was his whole mantra."

In Washington a year later, Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs and many of his players are taking a different tack. With a 5-3 record at the halfway point and the Redskins tied with Dallas for second place, a game behind the New York Giants in the NFC East, few of them have any qualms about talking about the excitement of still being in the hunt for the team's first playoff berth since 1999.

"It's excitement for us, for our team, for our fans," Gibbs said last week. "I know it's a lift to the coaching staff. . . . NFC battles are raging all over the place, and it'll be week to week. It's a much better position to be in, feeling like you're fighting for it rather than having to come off the floor."

Quarterback Mark Brunell said the playoffs are definitely "in the back of everyone's mind. At 5-3, at least you're in the running. It's not something you think about or predict, but it's something that needs to be on the minds of everyone. Tampa Bay is 5-3, and our mentality has to be whether we're going against a 5-3 or a 1-7 team, on any week a team can come in and hit you right in the mouth."

Added tackle Jon Jansen, "You've got to think about the playoffs, and it's not a goal we're afraid to talk about."

The Redskins at this point are very much a contender, either for the division title or a wild-card berth. They seem to have put their dismal 36-0 loss to the Giants two weeks ago behind them and also know their final three games of the regular season, all against NFC East rivals (two at home against Dallas and the Giants before the season finale at Philadelphia on Jan. 1) likely will decide their postseason fate.

The schedule is definitely in their favor. The Bucs' offense, led by inexperienced Chris Simms, has sputtered in two straight losses, and the Redskins know securing a second road victory today will be critical to their postseason hopes. They then have back-to-back home games, with four of their last seven at FedEx Field, where they're 4-0. They play St. Louis (4-4) and woeful Arizona (2-6) on the road.

But six of their last eight games also will be played against teams still very much in the playoff mix. In a conference in which a 9-7 record likely will not be enough to get a wild-card spot, another 5-3 mark in the second half seems almost mandatory.

Unless they were to win the division, the Redskins' chances are intertwined with the fortunes of others. Serious contenders in the NFC include the entire NFC East, though 4-4 Philadelphia's chances of getting back in the race without suspended wide receiver Terrell Owens seem diminished. The Eagles will know far more about their playoff possibilities in the next two weeks -- they entertain Dallas tomorrow night and travel to the Meadowlands the following week to take on the Giants. After that, four of their last six games will be at home, but it may be too late, especially with games against contending teams such as Seattle, the Giants, Rams and Redskins.

The Giants, riding a three-game winning streak, face a far more difficult second half. Their opponents in the first eight weeks were a combined 31-35. Their foes in the second half are 35-29 and four of their last six games will be on the road, with trips to Seattle and Oakland.

After Minnesota at home today, they'll also have what could be a season-defining four-game stretch against the visiting Eagles, on the road in Seattle, at home against the Cowboys and on the road at Philadelphia. If the Redskins and Giants stay close, their Christmas eve game at FedEx Field might mean in or out for either team.

"You're constantly creating exciting scenarios for yourself in your mind as you go forward," Giants Coach Tom Coughlin said last week. "You learn all you can from the game before and you're certainly excited for the franchise, our players, our coaches and our team for the situation we're in. But we have a long, long way to go. I think everyone knows that. The players know that."

The Cowboys have a brutal three-game stretch over 11 days. They'll play Detroit at Texas Stadium next week, then host Denver on Thanksgiving day. After that, it gets even tougher, with three road games in their final five, and each against a team that is now .500 or better.

"I don't think anyone else in the league has to do this," Dallas Coach Bill Parcells said of the three games over the next 11 days. "It's an arduous task and we're going to be hard-pressed to get through it. I told the players they have to be ready to make a big push because you aren't going to have much time to think about it. I've also tried to get the coaching staff ready. We've done some work on these three teams already and we'll try to do some work on Detroit while we're in Philadelphia Monday."

Outside the NFC East, Carolina, already on a five-game winning streak, may have the easiest time of it. Its next three games, all against nondivision opponents, also come against teams with shaky quarterback situations -- at home against the Jets and games at Chicago and Buffalo. Three of the Panthers' final five games are at home, including a key NFC South matchup against Atlanta on Dec. 4. They'll face the Falcons again Jan. 1 in the regular season finale in a game that could decide the division title, though both teams likely will be in the postseason.

"Under no uncertain terms have we arrived," said Carolina Coach John Fox. "We don't want to get too far ahead or too far behind. We just want to stay in the now."

The Falcons' next two home games should not be too burdensome with Green Bay and Tampa Bay coming to town. But the Falcons also play four of their last six on the road, including a Thanksgiving game in Detroit. Four of the Falcons' six wins have been by single-digit figures and both losses were by three points to Seattle and New England, both likely playoff teams.

"I like the fact that we've been in close games because there are going to be more of those down the road," said Falcons Coach Jim Mora. "We know how to win them. We know how to recover from a loss. You have to learn how to win and how to recover from losses, and I think we've done that."

The Seahawks would have the NFC's best record at 7-1 if not for a missed 47-yard field goal by Josh Brown at the end of regulation Oct. 2, allowing the Redskins to win the game in overtime. At 6-2, they've got a two-game lead in the NFC West over the second-place Rams and could strike a killer blow to the Rams' division title hopes this afternoon in Seattle, where they're 4-0. The Seahawks play three of their last five on the road, but four of their final eight games come against dead-enders San Francisco (twice), Tennessee and Green Bay.

"It's a huge football game," Seattle Coach Mike Holmgren said last week of today's game against the Rams. "Since we've been here [1999], this is as big as any game we'll play."

The surprise team has been Chicago. After a 1-3 start, the Bears are 5-3 and, after today's game against San Francisco, three of their next five games are at home. They've also got to face Carolina, Pittsburgh and Atlanta over that stretch. They also have two holiday specials -- a Christmas day game at Green Bay and a New Year's Day game at Minnesota -- definitely a good sign for the team's first postseason appearance since 2001.