Sun, Dec 14, 2008 - Page 19 News List

NFL: NFL playoff race tightens with only three weeks left


Four pressure-packed games today between teams fighting for National Football League playoff berths will bring extra drama with only three weeks remaining in the season.

Pittsburgh can clinch a division crown and first-round bye with a victory at Baltimore. Carolina can seal a playoff spot with a home win over Denver and Tampa Bay can secure a post-season berth by winning in Atlanta. And the reigning Super Bowl champion New York Giants, already assured of the NFC East division title and a playoff spot, can secure a first-round bye with a victory at Dallas, where the Cowboys need a win to bolster their playoff quest.

The Steelers (10-3) can claim their third AFC North crown in four years by winning at Baltimore (9-4), but the Ravens have outscored foes 94-20 during a three-game win streak that has them able to share the division lead with a win.

“We want to be champions,” Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. “That’s something every team in the division definitely plays for so we’re not backing down. The Steelers stand between us and the division championship.”

Pittsburgh’s defensive unit, rated the best in the NFL, has forced five turnovers in each of the past two games — wins over playoff contenders New England and Dallas. But they face the NFL’s No. 2 defense in the Ravens. The Steelers’ defense has allowed the fewest rushing yards, passing yards and points in the league and paces the NFL with 45 quarterback sacks, bad news for Baltimore rookie starter Joe Flacco. Pittsburgh beat Baltimore 23-20 in over-time earlier this season.

At Carolina, the host Panthers (10-3) will clinch a playoff spot with a victory and loss by either Atlanta or Dallas while Denver (8-5) takes a division title with a victory but has lost five running backs to injuries.

The Panthers will have a home-field edge throughout the playoffs if they win their final three games of the regular season, notably a showdown next Sunday at the Giants (11-2).

Not only can the Giants clinch a first-round bye with the victory, they can hand the rival Cowboys (8-5) a major setback in their playoff bid. Dallas beat New York twice last season but fell to the Giants in the playoffs. Tampa Bay (9-4) has a one-game edge on Atlanta (8-5) in the NFC South but could be damaged with a defeat or make the playoffs with a victory and a loss by either Dallas or the Philadelphia Eagles when they host Cleveland tomorrow.

Another fight looms in the AFC East where Miami, New England and the New York Jets are all 8-5. The Jets have a tie-breaker edge and would take a title and playoff spot by winning out, starting at home against Buffalo.

“I expect us to make the playoffs,” Favre said. “I would hope every guy in the locker room feels the same way. Why think any different?”

But the Jets have lost two games in a row and struggled to score or deny opponents.

“We backed ourselves into a corner. We’ve got to come out and win,” Jets safety Kerry Rhodes said. “We know the opportunity is there for us if we win our games. We are in the driver’s seat.”

New England will travel to Oakland while Miami will host San Francisco. Tennessee can clinch a home-field edge throughout the AFC playoffs with a win at Houston, the team’s original home, while Minnesota has a shot at a division title with a victory at Arizona, which has sealed a playoff bid.

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