Friday December 9th, 2011

This is the part of the NFL's regular season when fans everywhere start studying those playoff scenarios like there's a final exam. You know what I'm talking about.

"The Eagles can still win the division if they win out, Dallas loses three, the NBA approves the Chris Paul trade and Herman Cain reenters the presidential race."

If there's a scenario out there that gets their team into the playoffs, fans will find it, down to the very last tiebreaker. But a lot of these teams could make their lives a lot easier by doing something pretty simple: Winning.

A huge chunk of playoff contenders lost in Week 13, especially in the top-heavy NFC. If a couple teams here and there get hot, all the playoff scenarios in the world won't keep them out of the playoffs.

Here's what to look for in Week 14:

Now or never for the Jets

The AFC's most hard-to-figure team has shot back into playoff contention with two straight wins. The Jets' final three games are tricky -- at Philadelphia, vs. the Giants and at Miami -- so letting one slip away Sunday at home against the Chiefs would amount to the first nail in New York's coffin.

On paper, it's a game the Jets should win, but remember that the Chiefs pulled an upset in Chicago last week (Some of that was Caleb Hanie related, but still ...). The Chiefs also have playoff aspirations of their own, however slim. With four weeks left in the season, Kansas City is two games back in the AFC West -- but still plays Denver and Oakland, the teams tied for first in the division.

Can T.J. Yates do it again?

Come hell or high water, the Texans just keep rolling around. Last week against the Falcons, Houston found a way to win, despite Yates making his first career start. If Yates can move to 2-0 as a the No. 1 QB, the Texans could wrap up the AFC South Sunday. To accomplish that without injured wide receiver Andre Johnson, Yates will do plenty of handing off to Arian Foster and Ben Tate, who combined for 42 carries against the Falcons.

He'll also sit back and hope Houston's second-ranked defense can shut down the Bengals and their rookie signal-caller, Andy Dalton, who was taken 117 slots before Yates in the 2011 draft.

Chris Johnson suddenly surging

Don't look now, but Titans running back Chris Johnson is one big game away from topping the 1,000-yard rushing mark. That's not quite living up to the expectations Tennessee had for Johnson when it gave him a huge contract this past offseason, but given that he had just 98 yards rushing total after three weeks, it's a little more impressive.

Next up on Johnson's comeback tour are the Saints, who have won four straight and cruised past the Giants and Lions in their past two games. Tennessee's currently tied with four teams for the final wild-card spot in the AFC, so finding a way to win Sunday would be huge -- and getting Johnson going early might be the recipe for success.

Pressure's on Falcons, Lions in NFC

Atlanta and Detroit lost last week as part of the NFC's wild-card race carnage -- the Bears, Giants and Cowboys also fell in Week 13 -- but have ample opportunity to rebound in Week 14. The Falcons hit the road to take on the 4-8 Panthers, while the Lions host the 2-10 Vikings. If both playoff contenders pick up wins early Sunday, the pressure would then fall on ...

Chicago falling apart as it visits Denver

After winning five straight to get to 7-3 on the season, Chicago appeared to have it made in the playoff shade. Injuries to Jay Cutler and Matt Forte, plus back-to-back losses, have flipped the script.

It doesn't get any easier for the Bears this week: They travel to Denver Sunday to take on the red-hot Broncos and the one, the only Tim Tebow. Chicago's defense could tone down Tebow's usual run-first approach, but Tebow showed in Minnesota last week that he can air it out as well. If the Bears can't limit Tebow's production, it will be difficult for Chicago QB Caleb Hanie to match.

Is Oakland capable of ending Green Bay's streak?

That 16-0 season seems more and more like an inevitability with each Packers victory, especially when they come in the manner of Week 13, when Green Bay used a last-minute drive to drop the Giants. Oakland, at 7-5 and tied for first in the AFC West, arguably has more to play for than the Packers, who are coasting to a No. 1 playoff seed. But can a banged-up Raiders squad hold the line on defense or stand toe-to-toe with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense? It seems unlikely, but you never know.

• NFC East title bout, round 1

Kudos to the NFL's schedule-makers, who backloaded the schedule with two Cowboys-Giants showdowns. With Dallas clinging to an edge on New York in the NFC East standings, the outcomes of those games probably will decide the division.

Dallas gets hosting duties first, Sunday night at Cowboys Stadium. If the Cowboys win that one, then beat Tampa Bay and Philadelphia the next two weeks, their Week 17 in New York would be meaningless -- the Cowboys would already have the division wrapped up.

• Seattle tries to linger in the postseason discussion

The Seahawks are 5-7 and sits in ninth place in the NFC, so any talk of them making a playoff run may be premature.

And yet ... Wins in three of their last four games have given the Seahawks some hope, and a win over the last-place Rams Monday night would definitely enter Seattle into the conversation. The Seahawks, and especially Marshawn Lynch certainly looked like a contender last week in a victory over Philadelphia. A 9-7 record might be enough to wrap up a wild-card berth.

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