The first step sometimes is the biggest for NFL teams: making the playoffs.
With that accomplished, the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers have much loftier goals.
Green Bay clinched the NFC North and San Francisco grabbed the NFC West last week with wins. For the Packers, there's been nothing but victories, 12 of them, as they host Oakland on Sunday. The defending Super Bowl champions are concentrating on ensuring all their playoff games are held at Lambeau Field. And there's that little challenge of going undefeated.
"Oh, I think it's way too early to even think about those things," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "We have 12 wins. Everybody knows what San Francisco's record is. It's important for us to stay focused and get ready for the Oakland Raiders. It's way too early to think about those types of things."
San Francisco's record is 10-2 and the 49ers don't have the most challenging remaining schedule. They are at Arizona on Sunday — the Niners are 4-1 on the road — and also go to Seattle and St. Louis. The biggest test is a home game with the Steelers.
The Niners want, at worst, to finish second overall in the NFC and get a first-round playoff bye and a guaranteed home game. They also know NFC South leader New Orleans is just one game behind in the overall standings.
"I think we're still just kind of scratching at it, what we can become," 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said. "And we're doing some good things in the meantime, but still I think, still kind of forming and becoming what our potential is. That's encouraging as well that we just need to continue to keep getting better these last few weeks, each and every week taking a step ..."
Also Sunday, it's New Orleans at Tennessee, Atlanta at Carolina, Houston at Cincinnati, the New York Giants at Dallas, Chicago at Denver, Minnesota at Detroit, New England at Washington, Kansas City at the New York Jets, Indianapolis at Baltimore, Buffalo at San Diego, Philadelphia at Miami, and Tampa Bay at Jacksonville.
St. Louis is at Seattle on Monday night.
On Thursday night, Pittsburgh beat Cleveland 14-3. The Steelers (10-3) have won eight out of nine to move a half-game ahead of Baltimore in the race for the AFC North title. Cleveland dropped to (4-9), losing for the 15th time in itsr last 16 meetings with the Steelers.
Oakland (7-5) at Green Bay (12-0)
The Packers passed a tough test with their impressive march to a winning field goal in the final 58 seconds at the Giants. But their defense remains spotty, and star cornerback Charles Woodson sustained a concussion last week.
For Oakland, what once seemed like a romp to its first AFC West crown since 2002 now is a battle with surging Denver. The Raiders come off an awful performance at Miami and the offense has been stymied by injuries to running back Darren McFadden (right foot) and big-play receivers Jacoby Ford (left foot) and Denarius Moore (right foot). McFadden has missed the past five games, Ford the past three and Moore the past two.
But this is a resilient bunch that hopes to have success with the run game in Green Bay.
"Our guys got to get people blocked, we've got to run like we know we can run, and get it done," coach Hue Jackson. "That's the bottom line."
San Francisco (10-2) at Arizona (5-7)
The 49ers' stunning turnaround earned them their first playoff spot since 2002 with the stingiest defense in the NFL (28 fewer points than Houston) and a solid running game. They also lead with 28 takeaways and a plus-18 turnover margin. That's a winning formula in any league.
Arizona has won four of its last five, but the only loss was 23-7 at San Francisco.
New Orleans (9-3) at Tennessee (7-5)
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.
"I think it's important for us to go out there and try to play our best game this weekend," Tom Brady said. "What's in our control is how we're able to go out there and see how we match up against a team on the road that has some very good players, very good schemes, very well coached. I'm excited to see if we can go out there and finally play for 60 minutes and see what that looks like."
Washington is without TE Fred Davis and OT Trent Williams, both suspended for the rest of the season for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.
Kansas City (5-7) at New York Jets (7-5)
No team makes things more difficult on itself than the Jets, who have only one victory that wasn't close in the second half. They've gotten more offense lately and RB Shonn Greene rushed for three scores against Washington, but that's a bit of an illusion because of how unsteady they are with the ball.
KC made just enough plays to beat Chicago and showed a strong pass rush, with rookie LB Justin Houston getting three of the Chiefs' seven sacks. New York has not protected Mark Sanchez all that well.
Indianapolis (0-12) at Baltimore (9-3)
Sure, the Ravens sometimes play down to the grade of the opposition. It's doubtful they could sink as low as Indy no matter how poorly they play.
Ray Rice comes off a career-best 204 yards rushing and has developed into one of the NFL's most dangerous all-around players. There's also a chance star LB Ray Lewis will return from a right toe injury, although the way the defense has played without him, he might get another week off.
Indy is 9-2 all-time against Baltimore, the city from which the Colts defected, but those were the Peyton Manning Colts. These guys aren't.
Buffalo (5-7) at San Diego (5-7)
Both of these clubs were 4-1 long, long ago. The Chargers hit their tailspin first, and broke a six-game slide with a win at Jacksonville. Philip Rivers has had his worst season, but showed against the Jaguars the competitive streak and touch that has defined his career.
The Bills have lost five straight and are playing far too many backups because of injuries to be much of a threat. Yet they kept things close in recent defeats against the Jets and Titans.
St. Louis (2-10) at Seattle (5-7), Monday night
Some more must-miss TV on Monday night, except that the Seahawks are coming on and have an outside shot at being in the postseason mix if they win out. Knocking off the battered Rams would be the first step, and the way Marshawn Lynch is running (TDs in nine straight games, 591 yards rushing in last five weeks), he'll be taking the biggest steps.
Philadelphia (4-8) at Miami (4-8)
It sure seemed like the Eagles had lost interest with the way they performed in losing at Seattle. That could be the biggest indictment of coach Andy Reid, whose superb resume has taken a huge hit this year.
Miami's identical record has been achieved in a much different manner, with four wins in the last five games. The Dolphins have gotten particularly adept on defense, yielding just 54 points in those games.
Tampa Bay (4-8) at Jacksonville (3-9)
There can't be much interest in this one outside of Florida. Or inside the Sunshine State.
Tampa Bay has lost six in a row, the NFC's longest slide and second only to Indy's season-long slump. The Jaguars fired coach Jack Del Rio late last month and then flopped against San Diego in prime time. Other than RBs Maurice Jones-Drew for the hosts and LeGarrette Blount for the visitors, not much worth watching here.
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