Mad dash for playoff spots as season turns for home

Tue Nov 27, 2012 6:31pm EST
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(Reuters) - Super Bowl contenders have started to emerge from the pack with a handful of teams poised to clinch playoff spots this weekend as the National Football League's (NFL) regular season enters the home stretch.

Heading into final month of the schedule, 26 of the league's 32 teams are within two games of a playoff spot with only the Kansas City Chiefs (1-10) without a chance of making the trip to New Orleans in February for the NFL's championship game.

The playoff picture in the American Football Conference (AFC) could start to take shape this week with a quartet of division leaders, the Houston Texans (10-1), Baltimore Ravens (9-2), New England Patriots (8-3) and Denver Broncos (8-3), all in position to clinch playoff spots.

But the road to the postseason is wide open in the National Football Conference (NFC), with only the Atlanta Falcons (10-1) having an opportunity to secure a playoff berth this week.

It has been business as usual in the AFC with Tom Brady and the Patriots looking dangerous cruising along with a three-game lead in the East division and the Texans, living up to preseason predictions, owning a three-game cushion in the South.

The North division has witnessed another bruising street fight with the Ravens overcoming injuries to defensive lynchpins Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs to open up a three-game edge on the Cincinnati Bengals and the wounded Pittsburgh Steelers, who are down to third string quarterback Charlie Batch.

If there is a surprise in the AFC it has come out of the West division, where in-form quarterback Peyton Manning, back from career-threatening neck surgery, has led the Broncos to the top of the division and a commanding four-game lead over the short-circuiting San Diego Chargers.

A win over Tampa Bay on Sunday or losses by the Chargers would crown the Broncos as best in the West and set Denver's sights on first-round bye.

"Our goal is to keep winning and get to the big one," said Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. "We're going to take every game one at a time, take it week by week and just keep going."   Continued...