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Gift-wrapped: A holiday playoff scramble

NEW YORK (Dec. 20, 2006) -- Happy Holidays! For some.

Six NFL teams have already made the playoffs. That leaves six spots open with 18 clubs going for them. Christmas is going to come packed with some fireworks!

"This is a fun time of year to play football," says New York Jets head coach Eric Mangini. Especially if you're in the playoff hunt.

With two weeks to go in the season, there are 24 clubs still in Super Bowl contention, the second most ever (26 in 2004) since the advent of the 16-game schedule in 1978. That means that in two of the past three seasons, more clubs have been in such contention than in any other time in history.

"Making the playoffs, that's step one," says Baltimore Ravens heads coach Brian Billick, whose team won its division in Week 15. "Every team, when they show up in training camp, has the same goal. It first begins with making the playoffs."

That "making" begins Thursday night in the first of four national television games that will highlight the holiday weekend -- all with playoff implications:

  • Thursday night, NFL Network: Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers (8 p.m. ET).
  • Saturday night, NFL Network: Kansas City Chiefs at Oakland Raiders (8 p.m. ET).
  • Monday night (Christmas), NBC: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys (5 p.m. ET).
  • Monday night (Christmas), ESPN: New York Jets at Miami Dolphins (8:30 p.m. ET).

Where the NFL stands in the playoff picture with two weeks left:

THE NFL PLAYOFF LANDSCAPE
CATEGORY TEAM(S)
Homefield Won Chicago
First-round Bye Won ---
Division Title Won Baltimore, Indianapolis, New Orleans, San Diego
Playoff Berth Won Dallas
Homefield Can Be Won This Week San Diego
First-round Bye Can Be Clinched This Week Indianapolis, New Orleans
Division Can Be Won This Week With Win/Tie Dallas, New England, Seattle
Playoff Berth Can Be Won This Week With Win Philadelphia
Playoff Berth Can Be Won This Week With Win & Help Cincinnati, Denver, NY Giants
Still Vying, But No Clinching This Week Atlanta, Buffalo, Carolina, Green Bay, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Minnesota, NY Jets, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, San Francisco, Tennessee
* Other playoff possibilities exist*

How do clubs reach these categories? It will not be easy. A rundown for Week 16, in which 13 of the 16 games have playoff implications:

AFC EAST
The New England Patriots (10-4) hit the road in search of the playoffs. The Pats are 5-1 on the road this year, have won four of their past five overall, and come off a 40-7 win over Houston.

"We really haven't done anything yet," says New England LB Tedy Bruschi. "We're still in a race. We're not in the playoffs, so what have we done up to this point? Nothing."

Well, the Patriots can do something this week in Jacksonville -- win the division.

Two games behind New England sit the New York Jets (8-6), who under new coach Mangini have doubled their victory total of last year. Right behind them are the Buffalo Bills (7-7), who have won four of their past five. (In each of the four AFC divisions, the third-place teams have no worse than a .500 record.)

Neither New York or Buffalo can earn a playoff berth this week Miami has been eliminated.

AFC NORTH
Dominating defense (No 1 in the league). Efficient offense. Sounds like the Super Bowl days of the Baltimore Ravens (11-3), who have won their first division title since 2003.

Since their bye week in mid-October, the Ravens have reeled off seven wins in eight games, giving them, as of now, the third seed in the conference after San Diego (12-2) and Indianapolis (11-3).

"It's good to know that we're in the playoffs, but we still want to finish off the season in the right way," says Baltimore RB Jamal Lewis. "We haven't peaked yet. We haven't played our best football, but we're on our way."

The teams behind the Ravens aren't doing bad either.

The Cincinnati Bengals (8-6), even with their loss to Indianapolis on Monday, have won four of their past five and can earn their second playoff berth in as many years this week with a win in Denver and other scenarios.

The Bengals' final opponent is the division-rival Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7), who have righted their season by winning five of their past six. The Steelers cannot capture a playoff spot this week. Cleveland has been eliminated.

AFC SOUTH
The Indianapolis Colts (11-3) have won their fourth division title in a row -- the longest active streak in the NFL that can be matched this week by New England.

Off their performance Monday night against Cincinnati - 394 net yards, four TD passes by AFC All-Star starting QB Peyton Manning -- the Colts may be heating up for the playoffs at just the right time.

"We're playing for a lot of momentum going into the postseason and for seeding," says Manning.

Ranked second in the overall AFC standings, Indy can earn a valuable first-round bye this week.

The Jacksonville Jaguars (8-6) followed their big 44-17 triumph over the Colts two weeks ago with a deflating 24-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans (7-7) last Sunday. Tennessee has turned around its season by winning five in a row, led by QB Vince Young -- who has tied Dan Marino and Kerry Collins for the most wins (7) by a rookie quarterback since 1970.

Neither Jacksonville or Tennessee can qualify for the playoffs this week. Houston has been eliminated.

AFC WEST
Ride LT to homefield advantage! That's the plan this week for the division-champion San Diego Chargers (12-2).

The Chargers have already matched their most season victories ever with two games to go. A large part of that success is thanks to All-Star RB LaDainian Tomlinson, who every week seems to set more offensive records.

"The whole focus is to remain the first seed in the AFC and to get that first-round bye," says Tomlinson. "Hopefully, we have five more games left." He means through Super Bowl XLI.

The Denver Broncos (8-6) - right now the fifth seed in the AFC -- can earn their fourth playoff berth in a row this week when they go against Cincinnati at home. "If we want to accomplish what we set out to do at the beginning of the season, we have to win," says Denver head coach Mike Shanahan.

The Kansas City Chiefs (7-7) cannot clinch a berth this week. Oakland has been eliminated.

NFC EASTWhat would an NFL playoff race be without the typical NFC East logjam?

One team, the Dallas Cowboys (9-5), have already clinched a playoff berth, and two more clubs -- the Philadelphia Eagles (8-6) and New York Giants (7-7) can do so this week.

The Cowboys -- 6-2 under All-Star QB Tony Romo --can capture their first division title since 1998 this week. They have to beat the visiting Eagles on Christmas Day to do so. It will not be easy. Philly has won three of its past four under revived QB Jeff Garcia and will be aiming for a playoff spot. "The most important thing for our team is to look at this as if we didn't clinch anything," says Cowboys WR Terry Glenn. "Making the playoffs is really not satisfying to me. We should just go out there and finish these last two games with victories and finish at 11-5 and then see where we are."

The Giants can clinch a playoff berth this week when they host NFC South champion New Orleans. Washington has been eliminated.

NFC NORTH
Those Chicago Bears (12-2) are tops in the NFC. They have clinched the first homefield advantage position in their history while capturing their second division title in a row.

The Bears can use the next two games -- against division rivals Detroit and Green Bay -- to prepare for the playoffs.

"We haven't won anything," says Chicago's Charles Tillman, cornerback for a defense that leads the league with 42 takeaways. "I don't have a ring on, a Super Bowl ring. We want to win out, and until that's done, we haven't won anything at all."

The Green Bay Packers (6-8) and Minnesota Vikings (6-8) are still in playoff contention but cannot clinch a berth this week. Detroit has been eliminated.

NFC SOUTH
Who dat!? That's the New Orleans Saints (9-5), who have thrilled a rebuilding city and the rest of the country with their season.

Led by a new head coach, Sean Payton, and a new QB, Drew Brees -- who will start for the NFC All-Star team in this February's Pro Bowl -- the Saints have tripled their victory total of last season and won their first division title since 2000.

New Orleans can earn a first-round bye this week also. "We won the division," says Brees, the second Saints quarterback (Archie Manning, 1979-80) to be selected for the Pro Bowl. "That's great, but we still have more things now that we want to accomplish."

The Atlanta Falcons (7-7) and Carolina Panthers (6-8) cannot clinch a playoff berth this week. Tampa Bay has been eliminated.

NFC WEST
Win and they're in!

The Seattle Seahawks (8-6) can take the division this week, which would be their third NFC West crown in a row.

But the 'Hawks are not happy. They're looking to "get their swagger back as a team," as Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck puts it.

Since Thanksgiving, the Seahawks have split their four games, losing their past two, including last Thursday night to division-rival San Francisco. They want to start winning to ride such a surge into the playoffs.

"Are we angry?" says Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren. "Are we frustrated? Can we play better? Yes. Yes. Yes. But that's done. We've got two games left in the regular season. Let's go after them as hard as we can."

The ST. Louis rams (6-8) and San Francisco 49ers (6-8) cannot clinch a berth this week. Arizona has been eliminated.

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