NEW YORK (Reuters) - The race is on for the National Football League (NFL) playoffs. The pressure is building by the day with teams knowing one mistake could cost them a chance to be a contender for the Super Bowl.
With just three weeks left in the regular season only four teams, the New England Patriots, the Denver Broncos, the Houston Texans and the Atlanta Falcons, are assured of spots in the postseason.
That leaves eight places still up for grabs, with 20 teams vying for the remaining spots and only eight of the NFL’s 32 teams eliminated from the playoff race.
The picture could become a lot clearer after this weekend with four teams, the Green Bay Packers, the San Francisco 49ers, the Indianapolis Colts and the Baltimore Ravens, all on the verge of clinching their places.
The Packers, Super Bowl champions two seasons ago, can wrap up the NFC North Division with a win over the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.
The 49ers, who came within a whisker of making last year’s Super Bowl, losing the NFC Conference final to eventual champions the New York Giants in overtime, are away to the Patriots.
A win will secure San Francisco’s spot in the playoffs while a win and a loss by the Seattle Seahawks would give them the NFC West Division.
The Baltimore Ravens, AFC Conference finalists last season, can clinch the NFC North Division with a win at home over the Broncos.
Even if they lose, the Ravens can still secure a playoff berth if the Pittsburgh Steelers lose to the Dallas Cowboys.
“Nothing really changes among us. We have a game to win this week,” said Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs.
“This is a big game for us, championship game, so we are going to approach our business like we always have.”
After finishing last season tied for the worst record in the NFL, the new and improved Indianapolis Colts can clinch a playoff spot with a win over the Texans, who will lock up the AFC South Division if they win.
Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck, last season’s number one draft pick, is closing in on the record for the most yards in a season by a rookie quarterback.
He has thrown 3,792 yards, surpassing Peyton Manning’s 1998 total in second place, and needs another 260 passing yards to eclipse Can Newton’s all-time record of 4,051, set last season.
Houston head coach Gary Kubiak said the Texans would need to be on their guard to stop Luck.
“He’s a big guy. He’s very athletic, makes a lot of plays with his feet so it’s got to be a big conscious effort for us to keep him contained and then when we do have our opportunities you got to really work to bring him down,” Kubiak said.
The Falcons, who suffered only their second loss of the season last week, can clinch a first-round bye if they win at home to Giants and either Green Bay or San Francisco lose. If they both lose, the Falcons can secure homefield advantage for the finals.
The only division that cannot be decided this weekend is the tightly contested NFC East, where three teams remain in contention.
The Giants are clinging to a one-game lead over the Cowboys and the Washington Redskins, who are keeping everyone guessing over whether rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III will play against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday after injuring his leg last week.
“This is what it’s about,” said Giants head coach Tom Coughlin.
“Late in the season, these games are important and they’re big and we’ve got to make sure we continue to play good football and making our strides.”
Editing by Gene Cherry