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Now it gets real: Biggest games left that could shake up playoff race

With the bye weeks over and the three-game pigskin feast that is Thanksgiving just a couple of days away from kickoff, watching the pieces fall into place with the 96 games that remain in the NFL's regular season traditionally makes this the best time of the year to follow the game.

But there is an unexpected twist involved this season, in that there's much more clarity than we're used to this early in regards to how the 12-team postseason field is shaping up. Perhaps you haven't noticed, but through 11 weeks, the division races in the AFC are all but non-existent, and the NFC only features two of its four divisions where the top two teams are within a game or less of one another.

In the AFC, New England, Houston and Denver all have built commanding three-game leads in their division, and the Broncos actually lead by four when you factor in their two-game series sweep of the reeling second-place Chargers. Only AFC North-leading Baltimore holds a lead as small as two games (over Pittsburgh), but the Ravens just beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh and have the chance to all but lock up the division next week when the rematch unfolds at M&T Bank Stadium.

The NFC division races are considerably tighter as we head down the season's backstretch, but not across the board. Atlanta has a comfy three-game bulge in the South, and San Francisco holds a much-less commanding 1 1/2-game edge over Seattle in the West, thanks to its Monday night rout of the Bears. But it's in the NFC North and the NFC East where things look decidedly undecided as crunch time approaches. In the North, Chicago and Green Bay now are tied at 7-3 with a game remaining head to head, and in the East, the top three teams are separated by just two games.

Having just two out of eight division races remain ultra-competitive at this point perhaps doesn't portend a bevy of December drama, at least compared to last season. Through 11 weeks in 2011, we still had four division races where the top two or three teams were either tied or within a game of each other, and two other divisions where the gap was only two games between first and second place.

Same goes for 2010, and even more so, when through 11 games all eight divisions had at least two teams separated by just one game at the top, with four divisions featuring co-leaders as Thanksgiving week arrived. Ten of the AFC's 16 teams were within a game of first place after 11 weeks that season, and the same went for nine of the NFC's 16 clubs.

And as we've noted before, there appears to be a great chance for this year's playoff field to look very familiar, given that the AFC field could include playoff perennials New England, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, with Denver and Houston both being repeat division champs making it back to the dance. In the NFC, Atlanta, the Giants and Green Bay have all been regular qualifiers for January action of late, and the number of playoff repeaters would grow if San Francisco, Chicago and even comeback-minded New Orleans makes the field.

Consider this: If the Bucs and Saints can stay hot and overtake the Seahawks and Bears to claim wild-card berths, the NFL's 2012 playoff field easily could include the clubs responsible for winning the most recent 12 Super Bowls, dating from 2000 on -- Baltimore, New England, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, the Giants, New Orleans, and Green Bay.

Of the 12 teams in playoff position at the moment, only three of them weren't in the 2011 postseason, and even in the case of the Bears, Seahawks and Colts, all three of them won their divisions as recently as 2010. While the NFL is understandably proud of its parity-infused streak of having at least five new teams in the playoffs every year since 1996, chances are it's ending this season unless the Bucs, Vikings and Cowboys win their way into the tournament.

But while we seemingly know plenty about this year's eventual playoff field even before Turkey Day, we probably don't know as much as we think, the NFL being the NFL, with late-season table-runners like the Giants and Packers winning the past two Super Bowls.

Many of the division races may not be eventful this season, but there are still plenty of teams fighting for their playoff lives, and that means there will be games of great importance between clubs with little margin for error. For the moment, let's set aside those teams with comfortable multi-game division leads and focus on the showdowns that feature contenders who will play out the rest of the season with their backs against the wall.

From my vantage point, that's a 10-team NFC contingent that takes in the Giants (6-4), Dallas (5-5), Washington (4-6), Tampa Bay (6-4), New Orleans (5-5), Minnesota (6-4), Green Bay (7-3), Chicago (7-3), San Francisco (7-2-1) and Seattle (6-4). In the AFC, where more seems set, we'll put Pittsburgh (6-4), Indianapolis (6-4) and resurgent Cincinnati (5-5) in that no-ground-to-give category.

While glamor match-ups like Houston at New England in Week 14 or Denver at Baltimore in Week 15 are not to be over-looked, we're more interested in the must-see games that will directly impact teams on the playoff bubble. While the playoff picture is constantly evolving, here's a current snapshot of today's reality in the postseason chase. With six weeks to go, here are the 12 games left in 2012 that have the greatest chance to determine who makes the 12-team playoff field:

Washington at Dallas -- A seventh loss for the Redskins probably seals their doom, but if Washington pulls the upset it'll be shades of 2005 and 2007 in the nation's capital. In 2005, Joe Gibbs' Redskins were 5-6 and all but forgotten in the NFC playoff race, but they won five in a row to end the season and edged out Dallas and Minnesota (both 9-7) to earn the conference's final playoff spot.

The Redskins did it again in 2007, sitting 5-7 after 12 games, tied for last place in the division and still in shock from the shooting death of safety Sean Taylor as Week 13 ended. But united and focused in the season's final month, Washington went on a 4-0 run to finish 9-7 and nip three 8-8 clubs for the NFC's second wild-card slot.

For the Cowboys, who must travel to Washington in Week 17, the significance of Thursday's Thanksgiving visit from the Redskins is clear-cut: With a Dallas win and a Giants loss at home to Green Bay on Sunday, the NFC East would be a 6-5 tie with five games to go. And that's just four weeks after New York won in Dallas to improve to 6-2, dropping the Cowboys to 3-4 and 2 1/2 games off the division lead.

Green Bay at N.Y. Giants -- The past two Super Bowl winners have plenty of recent history to draw on, having met in the Packers' thrilling 38-35 win in the Meadowlands in Week 13 of last season, and again in the divisional round of 2011's playoffs, a shocking 37-20 upset of host Green Bay by New York.

As if that's not enough juice, both teams are in dogfights in their division, with the Packers winning five in a row to pull into a first-place tie with the Bears, and the Giants trying to both hold off the Cowboys and end yet another second-half swoon. It looks like two teams headed in opposite directions, but nothing comes easily for the Packers against New York, and we've seen again and again what Tom Coughlin's team is capable of when it has the proper motivational fodder.

Seattle at Chicago -- If the playoffs started today, the fifth-seeded Bears and sixth-seeded Seahawks would be the NFC wild card teams, and that makes this game critical to both teams' hopes of getting anywhere in January. The wild card spots aren't where the Bears and Seahawks want to be, because both teams play better at home than on the road, and figure to be one-and-doners in the postseason if they're not on familiar ground in at least the first round of the playoffs.

Dallas at Cincinnati -- Who knows where the Bengals and Cowboys will be in another two weeks, but they're both 5-5 and on season-saving two-game winning streaks as of this writing. The Bengals know very well what's possible if you can just barely keep your nose above .500 late in the season, because they made the playoffs last year at 9-7, despite being just 7-6 and without a signature win of any kind through 13 games.

Chicago at Minnesota -- The Vikings have to climb past both the Bucs (6-4), who beat them head to head in Week 8 in the Metrodome, and either the Packers or Bears (both 7-3). I don't like their chances of catching Aaron Rodgers and Co., but Chicago is looking vulnerable with Jay Cutler concussed and the offensive line again springing leaks galore. Minnesota plays at Chicago this week, in Week 12, but this quick rematch should have even more riding on it by the time it rolls around.

Tampa Bay at New Orleans -- There's hope in the Big Easy, because according to the NFL, the Saints are already just the sixth team to start a season 0-4 and still climb to .500 or better at 5-5 through 10 games. But Saints fans can only cross their fingers and pray that this Superdome showdown against the division rival Bucs still has meaning come Dec. 16. Before Tampa Bay comes to town, New Orleans has to navigate games against visiting San Francisco, at Atlanta, and at the Giants. Along with the Bucs, those are four of the eight NFC teams that still have a better record than the Saints.

Chicago at Green Bay -- With only one team in the NFC currently owning more than seven wins (Atlanta at 9-1), the Bears and Packers both look relatively safe bets to make the playoffs. But that can be an illusion, and some crazy stuff can transpire to leave a team grasping for just one more postseason-berth clinching victory. The 2008 Bucs were 9-3 and almost home free, but lost four in a row to finish out of the money at 9-7, ending the seven-year Jon Gruden era in Tampa Bay. That same season, Denver (8-5) led San Diego (5-8) by three games with three to play, and wound up coughing up the division title to the Chargers at 8-8. The Broncos' collapse cost Mike Shanahan his job, and set a new standard for late-season choke jobs in the NFL.

Pittsburgh at Dallas -- Sure, things look desperate for the Steelers about now. They're two back of Baltimore in the AFC North, have to travel to the land of crab cakes in Week 13 for a rematch with the Ravens, and their quarterback situation appears a train wreck with both Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich injured.

But the 2005 season is a good object lesson of what can happen if you keep your head down and work hard. The Bill Cowher-coached Steelers were 7-5, two games behind first-place Cincinnati and on a three-game losing streak that season entering Week 14. But they didn't lose again, winning four in a row to close the regular season as a wild-card qualifier, and four more in the playoffs, earning that long-pursued fifth Super Bowl ring for the franchise. Could similar magic unfold for Mike Tomlin's injury-depleted club?

New Orleans at Dallas -- The Cowboys' Jason Garrett may be on a save-his-job run late this season, and if so, beating Cleveland with an eager-to-return-to-coaching Mike Holmgren in the house in Week 11 certainly helped his cause. As would a win over the Saints in this potentially pivotal game, perhaps ending any speculation that a marriage of Jerry Jones and currently suspended Saints head coach Sean Payton could take place in 2013. Dallas ends a burst of five home games in six weeks with this game, and let's see how much hay the Cowboys were able to store up during that span.

San Francisco at Seattle -- With a 5-0 record at home, and three of their last four games to be played at CenturyLink Field this season, the Seahawks are in position for a December to remember. The division rival Cardinals, 49ers">49ers and Rams will all visit Seattle in the season's final four weeks, with only a trip to Buffalo in Week 15 breaking up that run. So even if Pete Carroll's guys should falter in their next two games at Miami and at Chicago, dropping to 6-6, Seahawks fans should keep hope alive. A 10-win season and a playoff berth will remain within reach.

Tampa Bay at Atlanta -- Everybody is abuzz about the Saints still having life in the NFC South, but the Bucs are the team that has late-season playoff-race mojo look to them, with four wins in a row and three of them on the road. Tampa Bay hadn't won three in a row away from home since the first half of 2010, and last week's miraculous comeback at Carolina is the kind of game you steal when you're gaining confidence and belief with every passing week. While this game might not mean anything for the Falcons, who could have the division and its playoff seed locked up by then, everything could be on the line for Greg Schiano and the turnaround project in Tampa Bay.

Houston at Indianapolis -- The Texans play host to the Colts in Week 15, but by the time they meet again in the regular season finale, Houston might be resting starters and getting ready to take a first-round bye. And that could play perfectly to Indy's favor, with Andrew Luck and the feel-good Colts needing the win to wrap up an AFC wild-card berth and complete an astounding reversal of fortune from last year's 2-14 debacle.

Maybe there will be some surprise factor to this postseason after all, because if I told you in August that Tampa Bay and Indianapolis (combined record of 6-26 last season) could both be gunning for a playoff berth in Week 17, stunning might be the only description that fit.

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