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Holiday season can bring postseason gifts

(Dec. 20, 2005) -- 'Tis the season for giving. And in the NFL on this coming holiday weekend, things are there for the taking.

For some clubs, that is. For others, they will need a little help with that "taking." But the bottom line is that there are 12 teams vying for the final seven playoff spots with two weeks to go in the season.

All that scrambling kicks off with 13 games on Saturday, Dec. 24. Then on Christmas Day, there are two nationally televised games -- Chicago at Green Bay (FOX, 5 p.m. ET) and Minnesota at Baltimore (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET). The weekend concludes with New England at the New York Jets on Monday night (ABC, 9 p.m. ET).

"This is when championships are won," says Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "You start jockeying for position with other teams. If you don't put your best foot forward, you can't win."

AFC EAST

The New England Patriots (9-5) -- those fellows who have won three of the past four Super Bowls -- look like they are peaking at just the right time.

With the division title already in their pocket -- their third in a row -- the Pats have reversed an early season streak in which a win was followed by a loss for the first eight weeks of the season. They have since won five of their past six, including a 28-0 decision over Tampa Bay last Saturday that gave them the division crown.

"If we win enough games at the end of the year," reasons always-pragmatic New England head coach Bill Belichick, "somebody will tell us to keep playing."

Peaking? The Pats have outscored their past three opponents 79-10, the fewest points they have ever allowed in a three-game span. And their defense -- in spite of some key injuries -- has held each of those three opponents to under 200 yards.

Buffalo, Miami and the New York Jets have been eliminated from playoff contention.

AFC NORTH

The Cincinnati Bengals (11-3) have won their first division championship since 1990 and can add more milestones to their promising season.

"The division is a great accomplishment, and it's one of the many goals we set out to do," says QB Carson Palmer, who has thrown for 30 touchdowns this season, breaking Ken Anderson's team record by one (1981). "We still have two tough games left and a chance to get a bye."

The Bengals host Buffalo this week and finish at Kansas City. They can conclude the season with their best record ever. They went 12-4 in 1981 and 1988. Both years they went to the Super Bowl.

Cincy is another team that is warming up in December, having won four in a row. They clinched the AFC North with a 41-17 win last Sunday in Detroit.

"I'm happy and elated," said 10-year Bengals OT Willie Anderson after the game. "But our biggest goal is to get back here." "Here" meaning Super Bowl XL in Detroit on Feb. 5.

The Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5) are still in the running for a wild-card berth. Having beaten two other playoff contenders (Chicago and Minnesota) in the past two weeks, the Steelers are right now ranked No. 6 in the AFC behind Jacksonville (10-4).

Baltimore and Cleveland have been eliminated from playoff contention.

AFC SOUTH

They lost? Yes, after 13 consecutive wins to start the season, the Indianapolis Colts (13-1) finally lost a game -- last Sunday to the San Diego Chargers, 26-17.

"That wasn't the main goal in our mind, to go undefeated," says Colts head coach Tony Dungy. "Losing wasn't what we wanted to do, but if it brings us back with a little more resolve, then maybe something will come of it."

Indy holds home-field advantage in the AFC, so they don't have to worry about losing ground. But this week they face on the road the team with the second best record in the NFL, the Seattle Seahawks (12-2). And the 'Hawks will be fired up because they can earn NFC home-field advantage with a win or tie.

The AFC South is the only NFL division with two teams that have at least 10 wins, thanks to the Jacksonville Jaguars (10-4). "It's a great feeling," says eight-year Jacksonville RB Fred Taylor. "It's always good to get double-digit wins."

The Jags, who have won six of their past seven games, can earn their first playoff berth since 1999 this week in Houston. Houston and Tennessee have been eliminated from playoff contention.

AFC WEST

The Denver Broncos (11-3) are in the driver's seat in the division and enter the final two weeks of the season as the No. 2 team in the conference.

Earning their third consecutive playoff berth last week, the Broncos -- who have won 11 games for the first time since 2000 -- can cop their first division title since 1998, the year they won Super Bowl XXXIII.

"The division has been our goal from the start," says head coach Mike Shanahan. "It's nice to be in the situation we're in." The Broncos can also earn a first-round bye this week.

The San Diego Chargers (9-5) -- the team to finally halt the streaking Colts last week -- and the Kansas City Chiefs (8-6) are still in playoff contention but cannot earn berths this week. Oakland has been eliminated.

NFC EAST

One of three NFL divisions (along with the AFC West and NFC South) with three teams in playoff contention. Two of them can enter the playoffs this week. Thing is, they play each other.

The last time they met, the New York Giants (10-4) dominated the visiting Washington Redskins (8-6) with a 36-0 triumph on Oct. 30. Now, two months later, each team is on a three-game winning streak. But that 36-0 game concerns Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs.

"That first game, they just totally dominated the game," he says. "It was all the way across the board. It worries me because if they can do it to us the first time, it concerns us in the rematch."

The Dallas Cowboys (8-6) are still in the playoff hunt but cannot clinch a berth this week. Philadelphia has been eliminated.

NFC NORTH

The Chicago Bears (10-4) under second-year head coach Lovie Smith -- and new starting QB Rex Grossman -- can spend an enjoyable Christmas Day in Green Bay. Real enjoyable.

Depending on how things fall, the Bears can clinch their first division title since 2001 and earn a first-round bye.

"You get everything that you're looking for as far as motivation in this one game," says Smith. "As much as anything, it's about winning the division and getting in the playoffs. Then we have a chance to achieve our ultimate goal of being the world champs. That's what it's all about."

After Green Bay this week, the Bears conclude the season on the road against the Minnesota Vikings (8-6). They topped the Vikes on Oct. 16, 28-3.

Minnesota cannot clinch a playoff berth this week. Detroit and Green Bay have been eliminated.

NFC SOUTH

A tight one here with two games to go. Two games separate the top three teams -- the Carolina Panthers (10-4), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-5) and Atlanta Falcons (8-6).

And the Bucs host the Falcons Saturday in a real grudge match. On Nov. 20, Tampa Bay edged Atlanta 30-27 when LB Derrick Brooks forced a fumble by Falcons QB Michael Vick with just over a minute to go, leading to Matt Bryant's 45-yard field goal for the victory.

"There's always big plays all over the field when we two play each other," says Bucs CB Ronde Barber

In the final week of the season, the Panthers play in Atlanta, and the Buccaneers have a divisional against New Orleans, which has been eliminated.

How it all can shake out this week:

NFC WEST

It's all Seahawks!

The Seattle Seahawks (12-2) -- the hottest team in the NFL (10 wins in a row) -- have won the division, clinched a first-round bye, and can earn NFC home-field advantage with a win or tie over Indianapolis.

"Our goal was to get a first-round bye," says head coach Mike Holmgren. "We got it. Our next goal is to play at home."

And that's a place in which the Seahawks have dominated. They are 21-4 at Qwest Field since the end of 2002 in both regular season and the playoffs. Their 12-2 start matches the best start in club history in 1984.

Arizona, St. Louis and San Francisco have been eliminated from playoff contention.

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