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Must-Win Watch: NFC East, AFC North up for grabs

Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley will have to set aside their differences for a near must-win game against the Bengals. (Gene J. Puskar/AP) Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley will have to set aside their differences for a near must-win game against the Bengals. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

If the end-of-the-world predictions are right, we won't even make it to Week 16 of the NFL season. In fact, perhaps fittingly, the last non kneel-down play in NFL history would stand as Mark Sanchez fumbling a shotgun snap to seal a Jets loss.

But assuming that time keeps on tickin' into Saturday and Sunday, there are a number of critical games across the league with heavy playoff implications. So, with a nod to staying calm in the face of potential disaster, this week's Must-Win Watch takes a look at which teams are feeling relaxed ... and which are hitting the panic button:

Atlanta Falcons (12-2, at Detroit); Houston Texans (12-2, vs. Minnesota): By the time Sunday's early games wrap up, both No. 1 seeds could be sewed up officially. All the Falcons and Texans need to do is win this week to ensure that they would host any of their playoff games, pre-Super Bowl.

Both teams are favored headed into the weekend -- Atlanta visits Detroit Saturday, to take on a Lions team that has lost six straight; Houston hosts the Vikings on Sunday. The Falcons host Tampa Bay next week, so if they somehow slip up in the Motor City, they could nail down the No. 1 seed at home. Houston, meanwhile, has to visit Indianapolis in Week 17, which could be a tricky matchup if the Colts need that one for a playoff berth. Desperation level: "Take it easy, Dude."

The current No. 3 seeds: That's New England (10-4, at Jacksonville) and Green Bay (10-4, vs. Tennessee), for the record. Both teams have their divisions and, by virtue of that, a top-four seed secured. But the Patriots and Packers:

a) Want to avoid dropping to the No. 4 seed -- New England is just a game up on Baltimore, while Green Bay holds a two-game edge on the NFC East teams.

b) Have their eyes on a first-round bye -- the Patriots hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over current No. 2 Denver, and Green Bay simply needs a 2-0 finish and San Francisco loss to steal that slot. Desperation level: "Don't worry about it. I'm not worried at all."

San Francisco 49ers (10-3-1, at Seattle): The 49ers have clinched a playoff spot and, with a Week 17 game against 5-9 Arizona left, should be able to secure the NFC West, regardless of what happens Sunday night in Seattle. Still, the 49ers would love to wrap things up by beating their rivals ... and there's that little matter of a first-round bye still on the table. A loss by San Francisco would open the door for Green Bay to slide up the two-seed, forcing the 49ers to hit the road in Round 1. Desperation level: "I'm not gonna do what you all think I'm gonna do ..."

Indianapolis Colts (9-5, at Kansas City): It would take a wild set of circumstances for the Colts to miss out -- Pittsburgh finishing 2-0, Cincinnati beating Baltimore in Week 17 and the Bengals flipping the strength-of-victory tiebreaker in their favor (the Colts currently hold a sizable edge). Or the Colts could just end all the drama and beat 2-12 Kansas City on Sunday. Desperation level: "I need a drink."

Seattle Seahawks (9-5) vs. San Francisco: Even if the Seahawks' shot at stealing first place appeared to slip away when the 49ers won in New England, Seattle still has business to take care of in Week 16. Beat San Francisco and the Seahawks would be playoff-bound as a wild-card team.

They'd prefer that scenario to needing a win in Week 17, even if their season-ending foe is St. Louis. Desperation level: "We've got too much to lose! Keep our composure!"

Baltimore Ravens (9-5, vs. NY Giants): Two or three weeks ago, the thought of Baltimore fumbling away the division crown was nearly unfathomable. Now, it doesn't seem so crazy.

Baltimore has lost three straight, switched offensive coordinators and continue to deal with injuries. The Ravens still need just one win to lock up the division, but they play at Cincinnati next week -- in a game that could be for all the marbles in the AFC North. An 0-2 finish probably would relegate the Ravens to the No. 6 seed and a first-round trip to Denver or New England. Desperation level: "I'm going to check if the coast is clear ..."

Minnesota Vikings (8-6, at Houston); Chicago Bears (8-6, at Arizona): There are ways that the Vikings can reach the playoffs at 9-7 or even 8-8. They are, however, unlikely -- no surprise, considering that Minnesota could finish at 10-6 and still miss the dance. Winning in Houston, then turning around and beating Green Bay in Week 17 will be no easy task, but the Vikings will need a ton of help if they don't pull off that back-to-back.

Chicago is basically in the same boat, only behind Minnesota via tiebreakers. Without wins at Arizona and Detroit to close the year, it's hard to envision the Bears finding a way into the postseason. Desperation level: "I'm freaking out, man."

The top three teams in the NFC East: After 15 weeks of play, we have a three-way tie atop this division with Washington, Dallas and the Giants (in that order currently, based on tiebreakers) all knotted at 8-6.

Schedule-wise, give the advantage to Washington, which plays at Philadelphia on Sunday, then hosts Dallas next week. The Cowboys have to deal with the Saints in Week 16, prior to that trip to D.C., while the Giants close with games at Baltimore and against Philadelphia.

Since that Dallas-Washington matchup looms, it's likely one of those two teams will be on the outside looking in when the playoffs are finalized (though, it's mathematically possible for the loser to get in at 9-7). Will the NFC East sneak out two, or even three, spots? Or will the division champ be the lone postseason representative? Desperation level: "All is well. ALL IS WELL!"

Cincinnati Bengals (8-6); Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7): Arguably the weekend's biggest game takes place in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers host the Bengals. The Steelers have to feel extremely lucky -- despite stumbling through an injury-plagued second half, they still control their own destiny in the AFC.

Same goes for Cincinnati, which could punch its ticket by winning Sunday. A loss, however, would leave the Bengals in need of a win over Baltimore plus some help next Sunday. Desperation level: "This is the perfect time to panic!"

The three teams below .500 but not yet eliminated from contention: This group includes 6-7-1 St. Louis (at Tampa Bay), 6-8 New Orleans (at Dallas) and 6-8 Miami (vs. Buffalo). Is it mathematically conceivable for these teams to reach the playoffs? Sure. But it will require 2-0 finishes plus precise sets of circumstances.

Miami has the easiest road: The Dolphins must beat Buffalo and New England, then root for Cincinnati to finish 0-2 and Cleveland to win in Pittsburgh in Week 17. Desperation level: "Time's up."

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