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NFL playoff puzzle is nearly complete as Patriots eye a bye
With one week remaining in the regular season, the National Football League's playoff picture has come into sharper focus with only a few more pieces of the post-season puzzle to be put into place.
Much of the remaining drama is focused on the NFC East, where the Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants will stage a battle royale for the division crown with a ticket to the post-season going to the survivor.
The Redskins (9-6), riding a six-game winning streak and with rookie sensation quarterback Robert Griffin III healthy and calling plays, host the Cowboys (8-7) in the Sunday evening prime time finale to the NFL regular season that will see the winner claim the division.
While the Cowboys' (8-7) only path to the post-season requires a victory, the Redskins could still scrape into the playoffs with a loss if the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings also lose their finales.
The situation is much more dire for the slumping Giants (8-7), who will need plenty of help to advance.
The defending Super Bowl champions have lost five of their last seven and must defeat the Philadelphia Eagles at home on Sunday and hope Dallas, Chicago and Minnesota all lose.
The Seattle Seahawks (10-5) and San Francisco 49ers (10-4-1) enter the final weekend having clinched playoff berths but with the NFC West title still up for grabs along with a possible first round bye.
San Francisco can take top spot in the West with a win at home over the Arizona Cardinals (5-10) while the surging Seahawks, who have outscored opponents 150-30 in their last three contests, must close out the regular season with a fifth straight victory when they visit the St. Louis Rams (7-7-1) and have the 49ers lose.
With the 49ers or Seahawks guaranteed playoff spots the other NFC wildcard will go to either the Bears (9-6) or Vikings (9-6).
The Vikings, who have staged a late season charge behind the running of Adrian Peterson, can lock up a playoff spot with visit to Lambeau Field and a win over NFC North rivals the Green Bay Packers (11-4).
The Bears close out the campaign with a trip to the Motor City where they must combine victory over the Lions (4-11), losers of seven straight with a Vikings loss to move on.
The Atlanta Falcons (13-2) clinched a first round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs with a 31-18 win over the Detroit Lions on Saturday and the Packers can also grab a first round bye with a win over Minnesota or a San Francisco loss combined with a Seattle loss or tie.
The post-season picture is much clearer in the AFC with the four division winners, New England Patriots (East), Baltimore Ravens (North), Houston Texans (South), Denver Broncos (West) and wildcards Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts already decided.
The Broncos (12-3), Texans (12-3) and Patriots (11-4), however, will all have something to play for on the final Sunday with two first round byes and home field advantage throughout the playoffs on offer.
Denver, who will host the Kansas City Chiefs (2-13) and Houston, who visit the Colts can get the first weekend off with wins while the Patriots must beat the Miami Dolphins (7-8) and have either the Broncos or Texans lose.
A number of combinations of wins and losses could give the Texans, Broncos or Patriots home field advantage for the playoff run.