NFL: Playoff races heat up as season winds down

By Julian Linden, Reuters

Posted at Dec 09 2012 07:35 PM | Updated as of Dec 10 2012 03:35 AM

NEW YORK - The San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens will get another opportunity on Sunday to secure National Football League (NFL) playoff berths after squandering their first chances to qualify last weekend.

Both teams are coming off agonizing defeats that put their postseason celebrations on hold but get another crack if they win this weekend and other results go their way.

The Houston Texans and Atlanta Falcons have already secured their playoff berths but could clinch some key advantages if they win this weekend and other results work out in their favor.

The Texans (11-1), unbeaten on the road this season, can wrap up the American Football Conference (AFC) South division and secure a first-round bye with a victory at the New England Patriots on Monday combined with a Tennessee Titans (4-8) upset victory over the Indianapolis Colts (8-3).

A win over New England (9-3) would also go a long way to deciding the top seed in the AFC and the stakes are high with both the Texans and Patriots riding six-game winning streaks.

"We've put ourselves in a tremendous position right now here for the rest of the season for the last four games," Houston quarterback Matt Schaub told reporters.

"It's about how we take advantage of the position we've put ourselves in so we can be peaking and playing our best football as we get to the late part of December and into January."

The Falcons (11-1), who have clinched the National Football Conference's (NFC) South division, could secure a first-round bye and home-field advantage with a road win over the struggling Carolina Panthers (3-9).

In addition to beating the Panthers, the Falcons need either the 49ers (8-3) or Chicago Bears (8-4) and Green Bay Packers (8-4) to lose to seal a first-round bye and all three of them to lose to secure NFC home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

"Everyone wants to play their games at home," Atlanta head coach Mike Smith told a news conference. "We have an opportunity if we play well the final quarter of the season to accomplish the opportunity to play at home."

The last two Super Bowl champions, the New York Giants and Packers, cannot clinch postseason places this weekend but can inch closer if they win their Week 14 games at home.

The Giants (7-5), beaten by the Washington Redskins last week, are at home to the New Orleans Saints while the Packers host the Detroit Lions in Sunday's featured night game.

The Ravens (9-3) could have secured their playoff spot with a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers but lost to a last play field goal. Now they have to stop the Redskins (6-6), propelled by Robert Griffin III and riding a three-game winning streak, and hope that either Pittsburgh or Cincinnati lose.

Griffin has been mesmerizing opposition defenses with his running game this season and Baltimore safety Bernard Pollard said the Ravens have a simple plan to stop him.

"We just got to hit him every chance we get," Pollard told the team's website. "He's a very good quarterback. I don't take that away from him."

San Francisco, beaten in overtime by the St. Louis Rams last week, are at home to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday but their chances of making the playoffs as early as this week are slim in the tightly-congested NFC standings.

The 49ers would need to win and rely on a combination of five other teams losing. (Editing by Frank Pingue)