Packers, 49ers in playoffs, have business left

By Barry Wilner

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Dec. 10 2011 12:08 p.m. MST

Tennessee is the most overlooked playoff contender, yet the Titans are in the midst of the wild-card chase, and should banged-up Houston stumble, they could steal the AFC South. To do that, though, they might need another signature win. So far, their best victory is over Baltimore, and that was in Week 2.

With Chris Johnson finally hitting stride after his lengthy preseason holdout led to a weak first half of the season, the Titans could give New Orleans plenty to handle. Then again, since they stumbled against St. Louis on Oct. 30, the Saints have been outstanding and would own the NFC South with a victory and an Atlanta defeat.

Drew Brees is the first quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards in a season's opening 12 games as he pursues Dan Marino's longstanding yards passing mark.

Atlanta (7-5) at Carolina (4-8)

Unless the Saints lose to somebody else, the Falcons won't take the NFC South even if they win out, including at New Orleans on the night after Christmas. So a wild-card berth might be their best bet, and to get that the Falcons need to rediscover their strong running game and get stingier against the pass.

The dynamic Cam Newton will challenge them in the air and on the ground. Carolina has won two straight behind its exciting offense, but its defense is a sieve.

Houston (9-3) at Cincinnati (7-5)

No longer a lock for a wild-card spot, the Bengals can't handle elite teams. Their losses have come against San Francisco, Denver, Pittsburgh (twice) and Baltimore. That's a trend, one that doesn't bode well if Cincinnati sneaks into the postseason.

Houston never has been that far, but clinches the AFC South with a victory and a Titans loss. The Texans polished up their resume by beating Atlanta last week with a rookie, third-string quarterback, T.J. Yates, and with top receiver Andre Johnson tweaking his hamstring again.

New York Giants (6-6) at Dallas (7-5)

Often a glamour game, this one has loads of importance with the Giants and Cowboys competing for the NFC East crown. But neither of these teams has the look of a title challenger right now, particularly New York.

The Giants, known to swoon in the second half of the schedule under Tom Coughlin — exception being 2007, when they stormed to the Super Bowl and upset unbeaten New England — have dropped four straight. They put up a gallant fight before a last-second loss to Green Bay last Sunday and seem encouraged by that.

Dallas has nothing to be encouraged about following a blown opportunity at Arizona. Still, a Cowboys victory in this one means the Giants almost certainly must win out to have a shot at the division title.

Chicago (7-5) at Denver (7-5)

Injuries have turned the Bears into a longer shot to make the postseason, even with their excellent special teams and the NFC's second-stingiest defense in points allowed. Star running back Matt Forte joins QB Jay Cutler on the sideline, meaning an almost certain low-scoring affair in the Mile High City.

Denver has a defense to match the Bears, especially if standout rookie linebacker Von Miller (10 1/2 sacks) is back from torn ligaments in his right thumb. He has been practicing with a cast on and likely will go.

Tim Tebow definitely will go, and that usually means victory for Denver, which has won its last five to tie Oakland atop the AFC West.

Minnesota (2-10) at Detroit (7-5)

Trouble has come to Motor City, where the Lions have gone from 5-0 to the verge of not making the playoffs. Star DT Ndamukong Suh serves the last of his two-game suspension and the Lions' offense has sputtered because it can't run the ball.

Still, they are expected to handle a Vikings team with three standouts — Jared Allen, Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin — and not much else.

New England (9-3) at Washington (4-8)

After building a 31-3 lead over Indianapolis, the Patriots lost interest and nearly let the Colts catch them. You know Bill Belichick was scowling even more than usual over that.

A Patriots win and Jets loss clinches the AFC East.

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