Top teams seek playoff spots as season enters home stretch

Fri Nov 30, 2012 6:49pm EST
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By Larry Fine

(Reuters) - The first weekend of December football signals the start of the NFL stretch run with Houston, New England, Denver, Baltimore and Atlanta poised to clinch playoff spots, while others fight to stay on the postseason path.

American Football Conference (AFC) division races look close to being locked up, but the National Football Conference is full of question marks with five weeks left in the regular season.

"This is when you need to be playing your best ball, heading into the playoff atmosphere," New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said this week. "This is when you want to be playing your best."

The Super Bowl champion Giants (7-4) could be dragged into a battle for the NFC East title by the Washington Redskins (5-6) and their gifted rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, who could climb to within a game of New York with victory on Monday.

The Giants know they could have their hands full with the explosive Redskins quarterback. RG3 put Washington ahead with a late TD pass in their October meeting before Eli Manning threw a 77-yard bomb to Victor Cruz with 73 seconds left to win it.

The NFC North-leading Chicago Bears (8-3) entertain wildcard hopefuls the Seattle Seahawks (6-5), and the Green Bay Packers (7-4) host the Minnesota Vikings (6-5) in a key NFC North clash.

In one of the league's fiercest rivalries, the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5) go up against AFC North-leading Ravens (9-2), desperate for a victory to fortify their wildcard aspirations.

The Steelers will be hard-pressed to avert a third straight loss as it looks likely they will be without injured starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.   Continued...

A man stands at a window lit by the NFL logo as he watches performances during the 2012 NFL kickoff show in New York September 5, 2012. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson