A month ago, few people mentioned playoffs and the Minnesota Vikings in the same sentence. Just two weeks ago, the same was true for Washington, which had a four-game losing streak.
Now the Redskins and Vikings meet in Minneapolis on Sunday night with the playoffs very much on the line. A win by Washington would not only end Minnesota's five-game winning streak but it would put the Redskins in good position for an NFC wild-card berth. Both would be 8-7, but the Redskins would have the tiebreaker with a head-to-head win.
If Minnesota wins and New Orleans loses to Philadelphia, the Vikings make the playoffs.
It's a familiar feeling for Washington, which in 2005 started 5-6 and won its last five to make it to the postseason. This year, the Redskins are halfway through a set of four must-wins, inspired in part by the shooting death of safety Sean Taylor.
``It sort of feels the same as it did that year,'' defensive end Phillip Daniels said. ``In times like this, when your back's against the wall, it brings the team together a little bit more.''
Minnesota is not only winning, but it has had good luck, always an important element in the parity-driven NFL. In Monday night's 20-13 win over Chicago, the luck was the presence at quarterback for the Bears of third-stringer Kyle Orton, who was unable to take advantage of four Minnesota turnovers - Chicago had just 209 yards of offense.
Washington is going with a backup QB, too, but Todd Collins is far more experienced and capable than Orton.
He took over against Chicago two weeks ago when Jason Campbell was injured and led the Redskins to a 24-16 win, then avoided any major mistakes in the Meadowlands wind last Sunday night in a 22-10 win over the Giants.
The Vikings weren't at their best against the Bears, who held Adrian Peterson to 78 yards on 20 carries, although his 8-yard run for the go-ahead touchdown was a marvel. He turned a botched play into a darting, swerving run to the end zone.
``We kept plugging away, plugging away, and kept fighting,'' said Darren Sharper, who sealed the win with an interception. ``That's the sign of a good football team, and we have the potential to be a great football team.''
The Redskins have the potential to puncture that assumption.
Seven of the eight divisions have been clinched with two weeks left, with only the AFC North still to be decided. Pittsburgh and Cleveland are tied, with the Steelers holding the tiebreaker because they beat the Browns twice.
The Browns get a wild-card spot if they win at Cincinnati and Pittsburgh clinches one if Tennessee loses at home to the New York Jets on Sunday. Jacksonville gets a wild-card spot with a win at home over Oakland.
In the NFC, the New York Giants can clinch a wild-card berth if they win Sunday at Buffalo or if they lose and the Redskins lose to the Vikings and the Saints lose at home to Philadelphia.
The weekend opened Thursday night with Pittsburgh at St. Louis.
Dallas is at Carolina on Saturday night.
In other Sunday games, Kansas City is at Detroit; Green Bay at Chicago; Houston at Indianapolis; Atlanta at Arizona; Tampa Bay at San Francisco; Baltimore at Seattle; and Miami at New England.
Denver is at San Diego on Monday night.
Dallas (12-2) at Carolina (6-8) (Saturday)
The Cowboys' 10-6 loss to the Eagles last week dropped them back into a tie for home-field advantage in the NFC with Green Bay, although they hold the tiebreaker because they beat the Packers. Tony Romo's sore thumb, which caused some passes to go awry against Philadelphia, appears OK, a major relief for Dallas going into the playoffs.
Carolina got an unlikely 13-10 win over Seattle with Matt Moore making his first start at quarterback. The Panthers' can get to .500 with two wins and have a very slim shot at a wild-card berth.

Miami (1-13) at New England (14-0)
Now that Miami has its win, there's not as much focus on this game, which almost surely will leave the Patriots with just one win to go for an unbeaten regular season. It's fitting this game is against the Dolphins, because a New England victory will make it the first team to go 15-0 in a regular season, one game better than the 14-0 posted by Miami in 1972.
The Dolphins' 22-16 overtime win over Baltimore last week led to Super Bowl-style celebrations. ``I can't remember getting so many hugs from people prior to this game and so many calls and messages after a game,'' said Cam Cameron, who got his first NFL win as a head coach. ``There were a lot of people pulling for us.''

Cleveland (9-5) at Cincinnati (5-9)
New York Jets (3-11) at Tennessee (8-6)
At the start of the season, the assumption was the records of the Browns and Bengals might be reversed at this point. And that Brady Quinn would be the quarterback for Cleveland, not Derek Anderson
Instead, the Browns, whose run started with a 51-45 win over Cincinnati in Week 2, need only a victory or a loss by the Titans for their first playoff berth since 2002 and second since they returned to the NFL in 1999.
Tennessee can look back at lost opportunities, especially a game two weeks ago in which it blew a 17-3 fourth-quarter lead to San Diego and lost in overtime. Vince Young has struggled in his second season, not unusual for young quarterbacks.

New York Giants (9-5) at Buffalo (7-7)
The Giants, who have to play New England in the finale, had a chance to clinch an NFC wild-card berth last week at home, but couldn't handle the Meadowlands winds - dropped passes were in double figures in the loss to the Redskins. But New York has won six straight on the road after an opening-week loss in Dallas.
``That is just the team that we are,'' Plaxico Burress says. ``When we go on the road we seem to focus and play well and meet the other team's intensity.''
The Bills were eliminated from contention last week in the 8-0 loss in the Cleveland snow. Still, they've overcome injuries and low expectations to play better than expected. Kevin Everett, who suffered a severe spinal cord injury in the opening game, is expected to return to Buffalo for this game.

Philadelphia (6-8) at New Orleans (7-7)
The Eagles are out of the playoffs, but Andy Reid teams don't quit and a .500 season is still in reach. Brian Westbrook, with urging from Jon Runyan, might have made this season's headiest play in last week's 10-6 win in Dallas, falling on the 1-yard line instead of scoring with about two minutes left to let the Eagles run out the clock.
The Saints have been streaky, losing four to start the season, winning four, losing two more, and now winning three of four. That leaves them needing a lot of help to make the postseason.

Green Bay (12-2) at Chicago (5-9)
The Packers would be in command in the NFC if they hadn't lost to the Bears in Green Bay 27-20 on Oct. 7, one of Brett Favre's few poor games this season. Still, the Packers should win this and beat Detroit at home next Sunday, forcing Dallas to win out.
The Bears go again with Orton instead of Brian Griese at quarterback. Off his play Monday night in Minnesota, Orton is NOT Chicago's future.

Oakland (4-10) at Jacksonville (10-4)
Although clinching a playoff spot is incentive enough, the Jaguars got another reason to win this week when none of them was voted to the Pro Bowl. The most obvious omission was Fred Taylor, who has risen to 18th on the career rushing list and is the only one of the top 43 in NFL history never to make it.
Another running back note: Justin Fargas is out for the Raiders after rushing for 1,009 yards. So the more heralded former free agents LaMont Jordan and Dominic Rhodes will share his spot.

Denver (6-8) at San Diego (9-5) (Monday night)
Denver may have more incentive than the Chargers, who have clinched the AFC West. The Broncos, who lost at home to San Diego 41-3, would like to avenge that and also win their last two and avoid their first sub-.500 season since they were 6-10 in 1999 - the season after John Elway retired.
San Diego might prefer the third seed in the AFC to the fourth, which would likely avoid a game with Jacksonville, certain to be a difficult first-round opponent.

Houston (7-7) at Indianapolis (12-2)
The Colts are locked into the No. 2 seed in the AFC, but appear ready to play harder than they have in similar situations in the past. One reason: They had to play full out last season, then had a first-round playoff game and ended up with momentum that helped them win their first Super Bowl since moving to Indianapolis 23 years ago.
The Texans, whose first season was 2002, have never won more than seven games. That's one incentive. The other might be for Sage Rosenfels, impressive in place of Matt Schaub, to show he's got a shot at a starting job next season, either with the Texans or somewhere else.

Tampa Bay (9-5) at San Francisco (4-10)
The Bucs have clinched the NFC South but don't have a Pro Bowler. Neither does anyone else in that division, which suggests either that it's truly weak or that the voters are clueless. Right now, the Bucs trail Seattle for the third seed in the conference because they lost to the Seahawks.
The 49ers don't even have the consolation of a high draft pick because they traded it to New England for a pick they used on OT Joe Staley. Imagine the Patriots with Darren McFadden next season.

Baltimore (4-10) at Seattle (9-5)
The Seahawks' new pass-first offense fizzled last week in windy Carolina, which could hurt them in the playoffs if they have to play in similar conditions (Green Bay). They ran for only 44 yards on 15 carries and Mike Holmgren conceded: ``Yeah, it's a concern.''
The ultimate embarrassment, a loss in Miami, means the Ravens have lost eight straight. Owner Steve Bisciotti has indicated Brian Billick's job is safe. Why not? He's won a Super Bowl and his team went 13-3 last season.

Kansas City (4-10) at Detroit (6-8)
Atlanta (3-11) at Arizona (6-8)
The Cardinals haven't had a winning season in 22 of the last 23 years, but can get to 8-8, their best mark since they were 9-7 in 1998. ``It would mean something; I've never done that around here before,'' WR Anquan Boldin says. ``I think the most games I've won here is probably six, so it would be a lot better to go 8-8 than 6-10.''
Another historically challenged team, the Lions, have lost six straight after starting 6-2. They still need one win to reach what would be their best season since 2001, when Matt Millen took over as team president.
What else can backfire on Atlanta now that Bill Parcells has decided not to take over the football operation?
Kansas City coach Herman Edwards has a vote of confidence from GM Carl Peterson, who might need one himself.

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