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Wednesday November 30th, 2011

Despite a loss to the Ravens on Thanksgiving, the 49ers can clinch a playoff spot this weekend. (ZUMAPRESS.com)

How do you know the playoffs are fast approaching? Well, Week 13 of the NFL season brings with it our first playoff-clinching scenarios of the season.

Both Green Bay and San Francisco can lock up a division title this weekend -- the Packers with a win and a Detroit loss, or losses by the Bears and Lions; the 49ers with a win, or Seahawks and Cardinals losses. We've known for a long while that both the Packers and 49ers would be in the postseason, but it could be official by Sunday.

Three of the NFL's 32 teams also have been eliminated from playoff contention: Minnesota, St. Louis and winless Indianapolis.

The middle of the pile, between the Green Bay/San Francisco duo and those teams already prepping for the draft, is a bit of a jumbled mess, though. One upset here or there could send shockwaves through the whole race.

Here's how things stand heading into Week 13:

AFC

No. 1 seed: Houston Texans (8-3) — Remaining opponents: vs. Falcons, at Bengals, vs. Panthers, at Colts, vs. Titans

No. 2 seed: New England Patriots (8-3) — Remaining opponents: vs. Colts, at Redskins, at Broncos, vs. Dolphins, vs. Bills

No. 3 seed: Baltimore Ravens (8-3) — Remaining opponents: at Browns, vs. Colts, at Chargers, vs. Browns, at Bengals

No. 4 seed: Oakland Raiders (7-4) — Remaining opponents: at Dolphins, at Packers, vs. Lions, at Chiefs, vs. Chargers

No. 5 seed: Pittsburgh Steelers (8-3) — Remaining opponents: vs. Bengals, vs. Browns, at 49ers, vs. Rams, at Browns

No. 6 seed: Cincinnati Bengals (7-4) — Remaining opponents: at Steelers, vs. Texans, at Rams, vs. Cardinals, vs. Ravens

On the bubble: Denver Broncos (6-5), , New York Jets (6-5), Tennessee Titans (6-5), Buffalo Bills (5-6)

For all the injury adversity it's faced this season -- losing Mario Williams, Matt Schaub and now Matt Leinart -- Houston reclaimed the No. 1 spot in the AFC, based on tiebreakers. But a glance at the remaining schedules makes a 13-3 finish for the Patriots seem more and more likely each week.

The AFC North won't let go of its grip on three of six possible playoff spots, but Sunday's Cincinnati visit to Pittsburgh could shake things up dramatically between those two teams. Neither the Steelers nor Bengals can like what they see in the Ravens' remaining games either -- just one team left on Baltimore's schedule (Cincinnati) is above .500. Baltimore's head-to-head sweep of Pittsburgh has it in line for the division title and a home playoff game or two, barring an upset loss.

All three of the AFC's 6-5 teams hit the road this week: Denver at Minnesota, the Jets at Washington and Tennessee at Buffalo. The Titans and especially the Broncos still have their sights set on their respective division crowns.

And if Oakland's going to take the AFC West, it will have to earn it. A trip to resurgent Miami this week continues a tough closing stretch for the first-place Raiders.

NFC

No. 1 seed: Green Bay Packers (11-0) — Remaining opponents: at Giants, vs. Raiders, at Chiefs, vs. Bears, vs. Lions

No. 2 seed: San Francisco 49ers (9-2) — Remaining opponents: vs. Rams, at Cardinals, vs. Steelers, at Seahawks, at Rams

No. 3 seed: New Orleans Saints (8-3) — Remaining opponents: vs. Lions, at Titans, at Vikings, vs. Falcons, vs. Panthers

No. 4 seed: Dallas Cowboys (7-4) — Remaining opponents: at Cardinals, vs. Giants, at Buccaneers, vs. Eagles, at Giants

No. 5 seed: Chicago Bears (7-4) — Remaining opponents: vs. Chiefs, at Broncos, vs. Seahawks, at Packers, at Vikings

No. 6 seed: Atlanta Falcons (7-4) — Remaining opponents: at Texans, at Panthers, vs. Jaguars, at Saints, vs. Buccaneers

On the bubble: Detroit Lions (7-4), New York Giants (6-5)

The top seed in the NFC is all but decided -- that conference will go through Lambeau Field. San Francisco still has the inside track on the No. 2 spot, too, especially given its current edge in the conference-record tiebreaker over No. 3 New Orleans.

After that, though, things get a little tricky.

Dallas and New York will sort out the NFC East on the field in the coming weeks, with two head-to-head showdowns, including a potential do-or-die Week 17 matchup. But it's looking less and less that division will send more than one team to the dance.

The wild-card drama in the NFC may come down to the Jay Cutler-less Bears and their division rivals from Detroit. Even with trips to Houston and New Orleans left, Atlanta is a safe bet to reach 10 wins. Can Detroit and Chicago get there, too?

The Lions may have to win in Weeks 14, 15 and 16 (vs. Minnesota, at Oakland, vs. San Diego) to make that happen, because they bookend that stretch with trips to New Orleans and Green Bay. Chicago, meanwhile, will know a lot more about its chances after this week. If Caleb Hanie, who lost his first start in Oakland, can't get the job done at home against Kyle Orton and Kansas City, it might be panic time for the Bears.

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