The NFC playoff picture is remarkably clear with five weeks to go.
Barring an unexpected collapse by a division leader or playoff perennials Green Bay and San Francisco, or an unexpected five-game winning streak by a have-not team, the first-round pairings are virtually set.
Minnesota was a 28-14 winner in its showdown with Green Bay, and Dallas beat Seattle 30-22 Sunday. The Vikings and Cowboys essentially have three-game leads in their divisions, and the Packers and 49ers seem to be sure bets to at least win wild cards.
The Vikings clinched at least a wild card berth when the San Francisco 49ers beat the New Orleans Saints Sunday night.
The NFC race that's most up in the air is the West, where San Francisco (8-3) is just one game behind Atlanta (9-2), and Falcons quarterback Chris Chandler was hurt again in their 20-13 victory over Chicago on Sunday.
But Chandler believes he'll be ready for Cincinnati next week, and the Falcons have a favorable schedule in their race with the 49ers, who defeated New Orleans 31-20 Sunday night.
| Running back Jamal Anderson performs the Dirty Bird dance, the newest craze in Atlanta. (AP) |
"It's certainly not a season-threatening or career-threatening injury," team doctor Andrew Bisho said of Chandler's right knee and ankle sprain.
But the ugly-looking injury with just more than six minutes left was enough to strike fear into the rest of the Falcons, who saw Chandler wipe out a 10-point deficit with two touchdown passes against the Bears.
"We don't need those demons back in this locker room," receiver Terance Mathis said. "We don't need those demons back in this organization. We've got to keep Chris healthy."
Another wide-open NFC race is the one for the last wild card spot behind Green Bay and either Atlanta or San Francisco. Arizona, a 45-42 winner over Washington, has the inside track for its first playoff berth since 1982.
In the AFC, the only sure thing appears to be Denver, which kept alive its hopes for an unbeaten season with its defeat of the Raiders.
The Broncos are the 10th team in NFL history to go 11-0 and are aiming to match the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only teams to go undefeated wire-to-wire. The Broncos can clinch a playoff berth if the Dolphins lose to New England tonight.
Pittsburgh (7-4) moved within a game of Jacksonvile with its showdown AFC Central victory over the Jaguars, and there would be a three-way tie for first in the AFC East if New England beats Miami tonight at Foxboro, Mass.
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