- Associated Press - Saturday, December 25, 2010

There it is, within grasp, for a half-dozen teams: that coveted playoff berth.

The chore is simple for five of them. If the Saints, Eagles, Giants, Jets or Ravens win, they are in. Doesn’t matter what anybody else does; no help required.

Kansas City needs a victory and a loss by San Diego to capture the AFC West. The Chiefs host Tennessee, while the Chargers are at Cincinnati, and many expect that race to come down to the season finales.

“What you work and play all year for is to play after the regular season,” says Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson. “And that’s what we plan to do.”

San Diego has made its usual charge in the second half of the schedule, winning six of seven. Star quarterback Philip Rivers figures it will take eight of nine to stay alive.

“We know we need to win the next two to even have a chance, and we still need some help,” says the NFL’s highest-ranked passer in December. “We’ve always wanted to finish strong, and we’ve been able to do that. But it’s certainly going to be a challenge these last two weeks.”

Well, maybe not that big a challenge: The Chargers’ other game is at woeful Denver. Kansas City hosts its biggest rival, Oakland, next weekend.

New England, Pittsburgh and Atlanta already own postseason spots. The Saints get one if they win at Atlanta, which also would keep the defending Super Bowl champions in position to take the AFC South that the Falcons currently lead by two games.

The winner of that division figures to get a first-round bye.

“It’s a huge advantage to have that bye and have that home game, but there’s been teams that haven’t had that luxury and moved on to do special things,” says Saints linebacker Scott Shanle. “I won’t deny that (playing on the road) does make your job harder. But it’s not impossible.”

The Eagles win the NFC East by beating Minnesota in the Sunday night game.

Also Sunday, the Giants are at Green Bay and the Jets visit Chicago. With wins at their NFC North opponents, both New York teams can secure wild cards.

Baltimore travels to Cleveland with a chance to secure a postseason berth; New England is at Buffalo with a shot at grabbing the AFC East crown and a first-round bye; Indianapolis tries to hold onto the top spot in the AFC South when it visits Oakland while division runner-up Jacksonville hosts Washington; San Francisco is at St. Louis and Seattle visits Tampa Bay in the not-so-wild NFC West race.

On Saturday night, in a rare Christmas game, Arizona edged Dallas 27-26 on Jay Feely’s 48-yard field goal with 5 seconds remaining. Both teams are 5-10.

Two other games with no meaning whatsoever in the playoff races take place Sunday: Houston at Denver and Detroit at Miami.

The weekend’s action began Thursday night with Pittsburgh beating Carolina 27-3. The Steelers are 11-4 and the Panthers are 2-13.


Tennessee (6-8) at Kansas City (9-5)

Matt Cassel showed tremendous grit last Sunday by returning from an appendectomy to guide Kansas City past Missouri rival St. Louis. But it’s the staunch running of Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones that makes the offense go, and the defense under coordinator Romeo Crennel is among the most improved in the league.

“I’m happy we’re in a situation where we can control our own destiny. I’m happy that no matter what, we’re going to have a winning season. There are a lot of pluses,” Chiefs guard Brian Waters says. “I’m very excited about it all. But now we have a responsibility to our fans and to ourselves not to get carried away and not to look too far ahead.”

The Titans aren’t eliminated from the AFC South race, but they need to get their house in order for next season and they broke a six-game slide by beating the Texans last weekend.

San Diego (8-6) at Cincinnati (3-11)

You sort of expect the Chargers to be a factor in the division and behind the superb work of Rivers, despite a slew of injuries around him, they are. A stumble in their longest trip east all season doesn’t seem likely, and they don’t have to worry about covering Terrell Owens: T.O. is MIA, on injured reserve after need surgery.

New Orleans (10-4) at Atlanta (12-2), Monday night

Ah, the marquee matchup of the weekend. Atlanta won on an overtime field goal at New Orleans in Week 3, a victory that provided tremendous impetus toward the league’s best record. The Falcons can shut up any remaining doubters that they are a championship quality outfit by handing the Saints a second consecutive defeat, which also gives Atlanta home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs.

New Orleans struggled against the run in its loss at Baltimore last Sunday, which bodes well for the Falcons, who can ram the ball through most defenses.

“We know what’s at stake,” Atlanta coach Mike Smith says. “The one thing I will say, though, is there’s a lot of football left to be played over the next couple of weeks.”

Minnesota (5-9) at Philadelphia (10-4)

Don’t expect a 7-minute, 28-point explosion from the Eagles again. Then again, why not with the way Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson, Brent Celek, Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy are performing behind an inconsistent line that they make look better than it actually is.

NBC wanted this game for prime time, perhaps hoping for a Vick vs. Brett Favre matchup. At least the network gets the most entertaining and dynamic offense in football _ and it can recount, once again, all the tribulations in Minnesota, even if Favre isn’t on the field.

N.Y. Giants (9-5) at Green Bay (8-6)

One day after that stunning collapse against Philly, Giants QB Eli Manning got vocal with his teammates. Is that a sign of leadership or are the Giants on the verge of panic?

Manning had one of the best games of his career in the 2007 NFC title game at frigid Lambeau Field, and he’s pretty good at bouncing back from disappointment. Plus, a win and the Giants are in at least as a wild card, not a bad scenario if they then can emulate ‘07’s run to the championship.

Green Bay is hopeful of getting back its star quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, from a concussion. The Pack must win its last two games to get into the postseason as a wild card.

N.Y. Jets (10-4) at Chicago (10-4)

No coach deserves more credit for his team’s success this year than Lovie Smith. The Bears were projected as a .500 or below squad when the season began, yet if they win this one and the Eagles and Giants both lose, Chicago adds a bye to its NFC North crown.

Both teams excel on kick returns, Chicago with record-setting Devin Hester, New York with versatile Brad Smith. But this game figures to come down to which defense dominates, or which quarterback _ the Jets’ Mark Sanchez or the Bears’ Jay Cutler _ makes fewer mistakes.

Losses by Indianapolis or Jacksonville would lift the Jets into the playoffs even if they don’t win.

Baltimore (10-4) at Cleveland (5-9)

Coming off a sturdy win against the Saints, Baltimore is in the same position as the New York teams: win and get a wild card. Baltimore also can win the AFC North _ the Steelers hold the tiebreaker _ and can make the postseason with a combination of losses by other teams Sunday.

The Ravens, with a staunch running game and diverse passing attack, aren’t the overwhelming defensive team fans are used to watching. But they showed plenty of strength on D against New Orleans.

Yes, the Browns upset the Saints this year, but they definitely are not of the caliber of New Orleans.

New England (12-2) at Buffalo (4-10)

It only seems like the last time the Bills won in this series was in the old AFL.

The Patriots have won 14 straight and 19 of the past 20 meetings, outscoring Buffalo by a combined 209-39 in the second matchup of each season over the past seven years. QB Tom Brady is 16-1 against the Bills, having gone 339 of 514 for 3,965 yards with 36 TDs and 12 interceptions.

A win secures the AFC East, a bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Indianapolis (8-6) at Oakland (7-7)

Washington (5-9) at Jacksonville (8-6)

The Jaguars kicked away a chance to win the AFC South when they fell at Indy last Sunday. Now, they must take care of their last two weak opponents (Houston is next up) and hope the Colts trip up, or the Ravens and Jets both drop their final two games.

Indy appears to be back on track for the postseason, but hardly is an elite club this year. Injuries throughout the roster and lots of growing pains for Peyton Manning’s receiving corps and running backs has the four-time MVP in the unusual position of scrambling to qualify one season after going to the Super Bowl.

“The scenario has not changed,” coach Jim Caldwell said Monday. “If we get a couple of victories, we’ll be in basically the same position.”

San Francisco (5-9) at St. Louis (6-8)

Seattle (6-8) at Tampa Bay (8-6)

Consider this, and if you’re a true football fan, it’s not something you want to think about: losses by the Rams and Seahawks will guarantee a losing record will win the NFC West because those teams meet next week. It also would keep the 49ers in the chase.

Oh, for relegation in the NFL.

Tampa Bay is slumping, done in somewhat by its inexperience, and the loss to the Lions last weekend pretty much shattered postseason hopes for the Bucs. Yet they could finish 10-6 and see a 7-9 club emerge from the West.

At least the Rams deserve some credit for a turnaround year behind top overall draft pick Sam Bradford and second-year coach Steve Spagnuolo. Maybe the Seahawks do, too, for making some strides in Pete Carroll’s first season back in charge of a pro team.

But not too much credit if either one takes the division on the wrong side of .500.

Detroit (4-10) at Miami (7-7)

Houston (5-9) at Denver (3-11)

Dallas (5-9) at Arizona (4-10)

Shield your eyes for this trio of games, the exact type of matchups the NFL hopes to avoid in late December. And to the league’s dismay, one of them is in prime time: the Christmas night, uh, showcase between the disappointing Cowboys and the wretched Cardinals.

Dallas placed Tony Romo on injured reserve this week, and it still probably has the two best quarterbacks on either roster in Jon Kitna and Stephen McGee. You could argue the Cardinals are as big a flop as anybody in the NFC _ unless it’s the Cowboys.

Houston doesn’t even have a .500 record to play for, and that could cost coach Gary Kubiak his job. Denver has already fired coach Josh McDaniels, and a Mile High housecleaning is in the forecast.

Detroit deserves praise for breaking its record road skid with a win at Tampa last Sunday. The Lions could get another away victory in the Sunshine State because Miami is 1-6 at home.

How improved are the Lions this year? Detroit has been outscored by only 21 points compared with deficits of 232 last year and 249 in its winless 2008 season.

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