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New year brings life to playoff hopefuls

(Dec. 27, 2005) -- It will be "Happy New Year!" ... or wait till next year.

That is the forecast for six NFL teams this week as the 2005 regular season concludes with eight playoff spots accounted for and four still up for grabs.

"It all comes down to this week," says cornerback Ken Lucas of the Carolina Panthers, one of the "grabbing" clubs.

After offseason minicamps, two-a-days at training camps and 16 grueling, unpredictable weeks of the season, it comes down to this Saturday and Sunday.

No matter how it all turns out, the 2005 NFL playoff field will be an impressive one indeed:

  • All 12 teams could have at least 10 wins apiece -- the third time this has happened (2000, 2003) since the NFL went to the 12-team playoff system in 1990. Looked at in another way, there could be three teams with 10 wins who do not make the playoffs -- equaling the entire total of such teams since 1990 (Philadelphia and San Francisco in 1991; Miami in 2003).
  • For the second time in the past three seasons (2003), the NFL could boast six 12-win teams -- the most in a season in history.
  • Of the 14 clubs either in the playoffs or seeking playoff berths, nine did not make the postseason last year.
  • For the fourth time since 2000, two teams -- Chicago and Tampa Bay -- can go from "worst to first" in their divisions, finishing last a year ago and first in 2005.
  • It starts with two nationally televised games on Saturday, followed by 14 games on New Year's Day -- the first regular-season games in NFL history to be played on January 1.

4:30 PM ET (CBS): DENVER BRONCOS (12-3) at SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (9-6)

One team is in the playoffs (Denver), the other is not, but they both still have goals to play for.

"The game we play Saturday is going to last for six or seven months," says Chargers head coach Marty Schottenheimer. The Chargers can post their second consecutive season of at least 10 wins. Couple 10 victories with the 12 of 2004 and the combined 22 wins would be the Chargers' best two-year mark since 23 victories in 1979-80.

"10-6 sounds a lot better to me than 9-7," says Schottenheimer.

For the Broncos, it's "get ready for the playoffs." With a first-round bye, this is their final game for two weeks. They want to keep sharp, particularly in pass protection. The Chargers will provide that test. They rank fifth in the league in sacks (44), led by rookie LB Shawne Merriman (9.0), who was named to the Pro Bowl.

With 131 yards, Tatum Bell (869) would join Mike Anderson (1,014) as the first team running-back duo since Cleveland's Kevin Mack (1,104) and Earnest Byner (1,002) in 1985 to each post 1,000 yards.

8 PM ET (FOX): NEW YORK GIANTS (10-5) at OAKLAND RAIDERS (4-11)

That you, Kerry?

Giants face for the first time the quarterback who brought them to Super Bowl XXXV, Kerry Collins. But after the handshakes, playoff-bound New York has serious business to take care of.

With a win or tie, the Giants are NFC East champs and would be guaranteed a home playoff game in the wild-card round. That, of course, is something to strive for.

"We're looking to win this coming weekend," says Giants head coach Tom Coughlin, "so that we're able to say we won the division."

On the personal level, New York RB Tiki Barber (2,127) is seeking to lead the NFL in scrimmage yards for the second consecutive year.

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