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Playoff Puzzle Is Nearly Complete

Times Staff Writer

Eight down, four to go.

Two-thirds of the 12-team NFL playoff field is set. But six teams -- the Carolina Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys in the NFC, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC -- still have a chance at securing spots entering the regular season’s final weekend.

Eight of the 16 games this weekend carry some type of playoff implications, however minimal in some cases, such as Saturday’s game matching the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers at San Diego.

The game means little to either the AFC West champion Broncos or the Chargers, who were eliminated from playoff contention last weekend. But the outcome could affect the Chiefs and Steelers. A Charger victory over the nothing-to-play-for Broncos would put the Steelers into the playoffs and eliminate the Chiefs.

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Other games will more directly affect the participants.

Of the 14 teams that have either made the playoffs already or will be sweating out the results of this weekend’s games, nine failed to qualify last season.

One, the NFC North champion Chicago Bears, has gone from worst to first in its division in one year’s time and, depending on what happens Saturday and Sunday, the Buccaneers could do the same in the NFC South.

The eight games with playoff implications going into Saturday:

Denver (12-3) plus 10 1/2 at San Diego (9-6), Saturday, 1:30 p.m., Channel 2 -- A game that once loomed as a possible showdown for division supremacy is now little more than a playoff tuneup for the Broncos -- or, more likely, their reserves.

New York Giants (10-5) minus 9 at Oakland (4-11), Saturday, 5 p.m., ESPN -- A victory over the last-place Raiders, who will finish with at least 11 losses for the third consecutive season, would give the Giants their first division title since 2000 and a home game in the opening round of the playoffs.

Carolina (10-5) minus 4 at Atlanta (8-7), Sunday, 10 a.m., Channel 11 -- To nail down a playoff berth after last weekend’s loss to the Cowboys, the Panthers probably will need to win in the Georgia Dome, where they’ve won only once in 10 games. The Falcons, who reached the NFC championship game last season, are 2-5 after a 6-2 start.

New Orleans (3-12) plus 13 1/2 at Tampa Bay (10-5), Sunday, 10 a.m. -- Against one of the NFL’s worst teams -- the vagabond Saints have lost 10 of 11 -- the Buccaneers have a chance to clinch the AFC South title and secure their first playoff berth since they won Super Bowl XXXVII.

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Detroit (5-10) plus 13 1/2 at Pittsburgh (10-5), Sunday, 10 a.m. -- Knowing that another loss probably would end their playoff hopes, the Steelers responded by defeating the Bears, Minnesota Vikings and Cleveland Browns by a combined 80-12 over the last three weeks. A victory over the Lions gives them a wild-card berth.

Cincinnati (11-4) plus 7 1/2 at Kansas City (9-6), Sunday, 10 a.m., Channel 2 -- Even if the Broncos win Saturday over the Chargers, the Chiefs still would need the Lions to upset the Steelers to keep their wild-card playoff hopes alive. And finally, of course, the Chiefs would have to defeat the AFC North champion Bengals.

Washington (9-6) minus 7 1/2 at Philadelphia (6-9), Sunday, 1:15 p.m., Channel 11 -- In the second season of the second Joe Gibbs era in Washington, the surging Redskins can clinch only their second playoff appearance since Gibbs left the team after the 1992 season -- and could win the division title if the Giants lose Saturday to the Raiders.

St. Louis (5-10) plus 12 1/2 at Dallas (9-6), Sunday, 5:30 p.m., ESPN -- Before hosting the final game of the regular season, Coach Bill Parcells and the Cowboys will know whether a victory would extend their season.

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The other eight matchups:

Seattle (13-2) plus 4 1/2 at Green Bay (3-12), Sunday, 10 a.m. -- Shaun Alexander, having helped the Seahawks to an 11-game winning streak and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, can wrap up the league rushing title and break the NFL single-season record for touchdowns (he’s equaled the mark of 27), but Coach Mike Holmgren warned this week that he would substitute his starters “pretty liberally.”

Miami (8-7) plus 5 1/2 at New England (10-5), Sunday, 10 a.m. -- The Patriots, AFC East champions for the third year in a row, have given up 31 points during a four-game winning streak, all but 10 in Monday night’s 31-21 victory over the New York Jets. The Dolphins have won five straight, too little too late after a 3-7 start.

Arizona (5-10) plus 6 1/2 at Indianapolis (13-2), Sunday, 10 a.m. -- The Colts, losers of consecutive games after the NFL’s first 13-0 start since 1988, are expected to again limit their starters’ playing time, as they did in Saturday’s 28-13 loss at Seattle.

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Baltimore (6-9) minus 3 at Cleveland (5-10), Sunday, 10 a.m. -- Seeking a silver lining, the Ravens hope to build on a two-game winning streak, but they’ve lost 10 straight on the road -- all seven outside Baltimore this season.

Buffalo (5-10) minus 1 1/2 at New York Jets (3-12), Sunday, 10 a.m. -- A season of high expectations ends quietly for the Jets against the Bills, who despite last weekend’s upset of the Bengals will miss the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season.

Tennessee (4-11) plus 3 1/2 at Jacksonville (11-4), Sunday, 1 p.m. -- Byron Leftwich returned to practice Wednesday and the Jaguar quarterback, sidelined since suffering a broken left ankle Nov. 27, could play in what is little more than a tuneup for his team’s first playoff appearance since the 1999 season.

Houston (2-13) minus 1 at San Francisco (3-12), Sunday, 1 p.m. -- In what is being dubbed the “Reggie Bowl,” the Texans by losing would secure the top pick in the 2006 draft, which presumably would include USC junior Reggie Bush.

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Chicago (11-4) plus 4 at Minnesota (8-7), Sunday, 1:15 p.m. -- Losses to the Steelers and Ravens the last two weeks eliminated the Vikings from the playoff picture, helping the Bears clinch the NFC North title and their first playoff trip since 2001.


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