SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

Second-tier NFL teams are in the background but still in the picture

Carolina Panthers are most impressive under-the-radar team in recent weeks. New York Giants, Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers rise from shaky starts to get in playoff conversation.

They are the darlings of the NFL — Seattle, Denver, Kansas City, New Orleans, San Francisco — but it isn't always the November darlings that wind up lifting the Lombardi Trophy in February.

Last season, for instance, the eventual-champion Baltimore Ravens lost four of five games in December before igniting in the playoffs and going on their run. There are similar stories for other recent Super Bowl winners.

So, while it's easy to be distracted by the so-called elite teams in the NFL, there's also a second tier of teams who have risen from the ashes of shaky starts and, though they don't lead their respective divisions, have played their way to relevance.

Notable among them are the New York Giants, who stumbled their way to an 0-6 start before finally snapping awake and winning their last four games. They play host to Dallas on Sunday, and were the Giants to win, they would be tied for second in the NFC East, a mere game behind Philadelphia.

Despite playing in the NFC West shadows of the Seahawks and 49ers, the Arizona Cardinals have cruised along in the background and are now tied for second with San Francisco at 6-4.

"Like we told our guys last week, we are in the playoffs right now," Cardinals Coach Bruce Arians said Monday. "Every game is win or be done. We have to keep pace with everyone we're tied with. We got some help and we kind of control our own destiny in a way, but we have to win every week."

The Cardinals have won three in a row — beating Atlanta, Houston and Jacksonville — and Sunday get a tougher test, against Indianapolis, with Arians reuniting with the Colts team he guided to the playoffs last season.

The Colts were coming off a 2-14 season in 2011 and selected quarterback Andrew Luck with the No. 1 overall pick. First-year Coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with a treatable form of leukemia after the first four games of the season, so Arians stepped in for the next 12 games. The Colts went 9-3 under Arians, and he became the first interim to be named NFL coach of the year.

"The prep will be easy," Arians said. "It's seeing them in person where you get emotionally involved. Because it was such an emotional year last year. So we'll get through that, hopefully in warmups."

The Pittsburgh Steelers lost their first four games, then followed that with two wins, two losses, and two more wins. They still have a losing record, but are in a three-way tie for second with Baltimore and Cleveland in the AFC North, behind 7-4 Cincinnati.

By no means are the Steelers in a comfortable spot for the sixth wild-card spot, but at least they are in the conversation. They play at Cleveland on Sunday and have beaten Baltimore and the New York Jets, both of whom are likely to be in the running for that last playoff spot.

At 5-5, the Jets and Miami currently have the inside track on that final berth, although much could change in the final six games of the season. Oakland, San Diego and Tennessee are all 4-6.

"Obviously there is no time to wear our hands out patting ourselves on the back," Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin said after Sunday's 37-27 victory over Detroit.

The under-the-radar team that has been most impressive in recent weeks has been the Carolina Panthers, who had won five in a row heading into Monday night's game against New England, including a stunning, 10-9 victory at San Francisco.

The Panthers play at Miami on Sunday, a big game coming off a short week. But as a Carolina team that lost three of its first four games can attest, nobody said it would be easy.

Hazy homecoming

The availability for Sunday of Denver receiver Wes Welker is in question after he was crunched by a pair of Kansas City defenders and sustained a concussion on a 20-yard catch and run. That means Welker could miss a chance to play at New England, where for years he was Tom Brady's favorite receiver.

Against the Chiefs, Welker's head and upper body were sandwiched by Kansas City players with 11:22 remaining, and he briefly relinquished control of the football as he fell to the ground. (The play was blown dead, however.) He looked dazed and briefly left the game, returning later to catch a pass with 7:44 to play.

We meet again

All-Pro safety Ed Reed will face his old Ravens teammates twice in the same season, playing for two different teams.

The Jets signed Reed last week, and they play at Baltimore on Sunday.

That will be the second homecoming of the season for Reed, 35, who was a member of the Houston Texans when they played at Baltimore in Week 3. The nine-time Pro Bowl pick was cut by the Texans last week.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesfarmer

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