For most of the season, the Tennessee Titans and New York Giants were the dominant teams in the AFC and NFC.
On Sunday, they will be playing to lock up the top seeds, positions that have become precarious after being considered a given since midseason. Both are at home against their primary rival for home-field advantage: the Titans (12-2) playing host to Pittsburgh (11-3), the Giants (11-3) against Carolina (11-3).
Right now, the Steelers and Panthers are surging, the Titans and Giants are faltering.
``We've got some tangible, big-time goals to achieve in front of us here in the regular season,'' Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin says. ``Having an opportunity to play the best in our conference at their place this week is motivation enough to get out of bed and be ready to rock 'n' roll professionally. Our team is of that mentality.''
own by inches. The week before, they beat Dallas at home, rallying from 10 points down in the fourth quarter, another clutch performance that makes them look dangerous for the playoffs.
The Titans will be without DT Albert Haynsworth, their best defensive player, who injured his knee at the end of last week's loss in Houston. Still, they clinch home-field advantage if they win; if the Steelers win, they will get the tiebreaker for the top seed with a week to go, but could blow that spot by losing their finale against Cleveland.
The Panthers, like the Steelers, are playing well, rushing for 299 yards in a win over Tampa two weeks ago, then breezing by Denver, 30-10. But those games were at home, where Carolina finished 8-0.
The Panthers are 3-3 away, but still clinched a playoff spot after the Dallas Cowboys lost 33-25 to the Baltimore Ravens (10-5) on Saturday night. Willis McGahee ran 77 yards for a lead-stretching touchdown when things got tight late in the fourth quarter, then Le'Ron McClain topped that by going 83 yards for the real victory-clinching touchdown with 1:18 left to thwart the Cowboys (9-6) at the last game at Texas Stadium.
Carolina leads the NFC South by two games over both Atlanta and Tampa Bay with two games to go, so that's pretty safe.
And if they win Sunday night's game at the Meadowlands, they win that top seed.
have lost two in a row and scored only one offensive touchdown in those losses - in the final minute of a 20-14 loss to Philadelphia. They haven't even clinched a bye in the first round of the playoffs.
The defeats have been attributed to the absence of Plaxico Burress, their chief receiving threat. The team placed him on the non-football injury suspended list after being arrested on handgun charges in a Manhattan nightclub after accidentally shooting himself in the thigh.
But the defending Super Bowl champs' 20-8 loss in Dallas may have been due as much to the absence of running back Brandon Jacobs, out with a knee injury. Jacobs says he will be back this week and that he could have played last week but was held out because the Carolina game is more important.
In fact, Tom Coughlin was almost giddy this week.
``It is terrific,'' the Giants coach said after uncharacteristically greeting the media with a pair of jumping jacks. ``Can you imagine being this time of year, being 11-3 and playing at home for the chance to have a first-round bye and play at home throughout the playoffs? Think about that; just think about it a minute. If you can't be excited about this, I'm not sure what the heck you can be excited about.''
Four of the eight divisions have been decided entering the weekend, with the Giants, Titans and Steelers winning theirs and Arizona the champion of the weak NFC West.
Minnesota can clinch the NFC North if it beats Atlanta at home on Sunday or Chicago loses at home Monday night to Green Bay.
Denver can win the AFC West if it beats Buffalo at home or if San Diego loses at Tampa Bay.
Tampa Bay and Atlanta can clinch NFC wild-card spots with wins and a combination of losses by other teams.
The Indianapolis Colts clinched an AFC wild-card berth with a 31-24 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday night. It was the seventh straight time the Colts (11-4) have reached the playoffs and their eighth straight win overall. Peyton Manning threw for 364 yards and three touchdown passes to send the Jaguars (5-10) to their seventh loss in nine games.
In other Sunday games, New Orleans is at Detroit; Miami at Kansas City; Arizona at New England; San Francisco at St. Louis; Cincinnati at Cleveland; the New York Jets at Seattle; Houston at Oakland; and Philadelphia at Washington.
Miami (9-5) at Kansas City (2-12)
New York Jets (9-5) at Seattle (3-11)
Arizona (8-6) at New England (9-5)
There's a three-way tie at the top of the AFC East, where the Patriots could finish 11-5 and still miss the playoffs.
In fact, if the Dolphins and Jets both win this week, the Pats will be close to elimination for the division race. Miami is at the Jets next week and would have to tie while New England wins out.
Brett Favre made the Pro Bowl and Chad Pennington didn't. But Pennington, cut by the Jets when Favre arrived, is the main reason the Dolphins have rebounded into contention after finishing 1-15 last season. He gave them the starting-caliber QB they haven't had since Dan Marino retired a decade ago.
The Jets, who lost two straight before their narrow escape against Buffalo last week, are 0-3 on the West Coast against three losing teams: Oakland, San Francisco and San Diego. This will be the final home game as head coach of the Seahawks for Mike Holmgren, who groomed Favre in Green Bay.
``I can honestly say that I would not be here today if it were not for Mike Holmgren,'' Favre says.
Arizona, embarrassed at home by the Vikings last week, needs some credibility to go with its NFC West title. The Cardinals beat Miami early and beat Dallas in overtime, but the rest of their victories are against teams with losing records.
Atlanta (9-5) at Minnesota (9-5)
The Vikings are close to the playoffs and will continue at quarterback with Tarvaris Jackson, who threw four TD passes in Arizona last week replacing the injured Gus Frerotte. Frerotte had taken Jackson's starting job three games into the season.
d both had suspensions for taking a diuretic considered a screening agent for steroids put on hold by a Minneapolis judge.
Their absence could open holes for Michael Turner, the Falcons' Pro Bowl running back. Along with Matt Ryan and new coach Mike Smith, he is among the reasons a team that was 4-12 last season and embarrassed by the Michael Vick dogfighting saga is in contention for a playoff berth with two weeks to go.
Philadelphia (8-5-1) at Washington (7-7)
The Eagles could have fallen apart after a tie in Cincinnati followed by the loss in Baltimore in which Andy Reid benched Donovan McNabb at halftime. Instead, they've won three straight, two over division winners, and their playoff chances could come down to their final-week game with Dallas.
The Redskins have gone in the opposite direction, losing five of six. That left Clinton Portis questioning coach Jim Zorn and had Zorn questioning himself following a loss to the Bengals last week, calling himself ``the worst coach in America.'' Then he recanted and decided there must be some who are worse than he is.
Buffalo (6-8) at Denver (8-6)
San Diego (6-8) at Tampa Bay (9-5)
It seems like forever that the Broncos have had a magic number of ``one'' to clinch the AFC West - one win or a Chargers loss.
37 seconds to beat the Chiefs 22-21 and stave off elimination. So if the Broncos lose and the Chargers win this week, they play next week with the title on the line.
That's unlikely - the Bills have lost seven of eight - although the Broncos have a knack for improbable losses, including one at home to Oakland. The Bucs have put themselves in danger of missing the playoffs with division road losses to Carolina and Atlanta, but they are 6-0 at home.
Green Bay (5-9) at Chicago (8-6) (Monday night)
The Packers routed the Bears 37-3 at Lambeau on Nov. 16, but have lost four straight since. In fact, that was their only win in seven games that dropped them from the playoff race. But don't blame the decision to let Brett Favre go for that - the Packers have allowed 29.5 points a game in those six losses.
The Bears' season turned when they failed on the goal line in Minnesota three weeks ago with a chance to go up 14-3 and take control of the NFC North. The Vikings then scored on a 99-yard pass to ex-Bear Bernard Berrian and the 14-point turnaround propelled them to a win that gave them the division lead.
New Orleans (7-7) at Detroit (0-14)
Houston (7-7) at Oakland (3-11)
San Francisco (5-9) at St. Louis (2-12)
Cincinnati (2-11-1) at Cleveland (4-10)
Can Detroit win a game? Maybe, perhaps even this one. After all, the Lions went to Indy and were tied at 21 early in the fourth quarter, an indication that Rod Marinelli still has them playing all out.
The Texans went 8-8 last season and could finish above .500 for the first time ever if they beat the Raiders and then Chicago. But they always get started too late.
The 49ers might be at .500 if Shaun Hill had been the quarterback from the start of the season, a change Mike Singletary made when he took over as coach.
The best that can be said for Cincinnati is that it's played well against the tough NFC East, beating Washington, tying Philadelphia, taking the Giants to overtime and scaring Dallas.

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