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Monday, December 26, 2005 

The Ties Have It

After a weekend with a few surprises, here's a quick rundown on where the playoff races stand.

In the AFC, Denver clinched the second seed behind Indy, while Cincinnati inexplicably lost to Buffalo at home and failed to lock up the third slot. Meanwhile, Jacksonville continued to back into the playoffs with a win over Houston, wrapping up not only a playoff spot, but the fifth seed. The Jaguars now have a one game lead over the Steelers, who the Jags defeated 23-17 in overtime back in October. Pittsburgh still looks like a lock for the last spot, as they host Detroit next Sunday. But if the Steelers stumble, the Chiefs could still get in if they can beat the Bengals at home. That looks likely when you consider this - what exactly is the motivation for the Bengals to win next week? If Cincinnati wins, they are the third seed and will host Pittsburgh the following weekend. But if Cincinnati loses, and New England again takes care of business against the Jets tonight and the Dolphins next week, then New England moves into the third seed (and plays either Pittsburgh or Kansas City). That would give the Bengals a far easier first-round matchup against the Jaguars, and would likely end the Patriots season in round one.

The NFC race is a bit more open, with four teams fighting for three spots. The top two seeds are set, with Seattle and Chicago winning their games this weekend. Tom Coughlin and the rest of his Giants should send the Ravens a thank you card for showing up and knocking the Vikings out of the playoffs last night, since that result also put the Giants in. The Giants will beat Oakland on Saturday to wrap up the NFC East, but now they have a safety net. But even then, New Year's Day Day could be a fun one. In the 1pm ET timeslot, Carolina travels to Atlanta while Tampa Bay hosts New Orleans. If the Bucs can't beat the Saints, they don't deserve a playoff spot. Look for them to win the NFC South. With the Falcons out of the race, I don't know how they'll respond, but Carolina knows they can wrap up a wild-card spot with a win.

However, a Panthers loss is great news for the Cowboys and Redskins, who both have tie-breaker advantanges (Cowboys defeated the Panthers on Sunday, Redskins have a better conference record). But they'll still need to win their games - and they should. The Redskins play at Philadelphia in a 4:15ET start, while the Cowboys finish the season at home against the Rams at 8:30ET start. The NFL schedule-makers couldn't have done a better job.

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