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In the zone: Lots yet to be decided for final NFL playoff push

With just two weeks remaining on the NFL schedule, there are plenty of paths many teams can take -- to or away from the playoffs.

The slate scheduled for today (Sunday) is one which will decide the face of the 2009 playoffs -- with both No. 1 seeds up for grabs in two games, pitting Carolina at the New York Giants and the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Tennessee Titans.

The winner of those games will receive the blessed No. 1 seed, meaning a bye week in the playoffs and home field throughout to the Super Bowl.

Just three weeks ago, it was almost common knowledge the Giants and Titans were going to be the NFC and AFC top seeds, each boasting a one-loss record.

But in the topsy-turvy NFL, that quickly has changed, as last year's surprise Super Bowl champion Giants ran into a bullet -- or the bullet ran into star receiver Plaxico Burress' leg.

After that fiasco, New York has lost two in a row. Then the Titans get shocked by the now-raving hot Houston Texans at home.

There are 17 teams still realistically alive for the playoffs.

Isn't anything sacred or consistent anymore?

Oh, yes, the Detroit Lions still suck, but on historical suckdom levels this season with an 0-14 record, and the possibility of going O-fer for the first time in NFL history (on that note, my prediction will be a Lions' win in Lambeau Field against the reeling Packers, to stave off that infamous history).

But what of those Minnesota Vikings? I will not test fate by focusing on them with this column -- just a month ago head coach Brad Childress was "writing his own walking papers."

That was four consecutive wins ago and a possibility of winning the No. 2 seed in the NFC and a bye if the Giants lose to Carolina Sunday, the Vikes top Atlanta and then beat the visiting New York squad next Sunday.

No, it seems I have my own Sports Illustrated like curse, including the above mentioned and then around Thanksgiving time, a column here congratulating the University of Minnesota's Tim Brewster for "walking on water" and turning around the Gopher football team to a 7-1 record.


After that one was published, the Gophs lost four in a row, including a 55-0 lambasting by Iowa.

But I digress, and this week's focal point will be the NFL rankings.

After Sunday, the rankings will be a bit more in chiseled stone, with the majority of playoff spots filled, including seeding positions.

There is no dominating force this year -- i.e., the New England Patriots of a year ago.

No, it's been musical chairs for the top three spots, making this year's playoffs as unpredictable as Timberwolves' Kevin McHale's next franchise-destroying move.

Here is a ranking of the playoff contenders left in the big race.

Flexing muscle, kicking butt and taking names:

1. Pittsburgh (11-3): Defense is the name of the game in December. Hard-hitting and stifling defense has brought Pittsburgh to the closest thing of being a sure pick. But there are warts to this team, mainly an inconsistent offense and floundering offensive line and rushing attack.

So the Steelers can be exposed.

2. Carolina (11-3): The Panthers are the hottest team in the NFL. They are undefeated at home and again, supply a defense which turns games around.

Unlike Pitt, the Panthers do have playmakers on offense, like WR Steve Smith and the RB duo of DeAngelo Williams and rookie Jonathan Stewart.

3. Tennessee Titans (12-2): The cracks are starting to show on this previously undefeated team. The Titans were living on the edge, winning a bunch of close games, keyed by defense and a top rushing game.

But with the losses of Kyle VandenBosch and Albert Haynesworth on the D-line, along with Kerry Collins starting to turn the ball over some, Tennessee goes from big-time contender to strong contender.

4. Indianapolis Colts (10-4): Winners of eight in a row, the Colts are back on track and headed by lead engineer, QB Peyton Manning.

There are still plenty of concerns, like a leaky defense and a lack of a rushing game, but with Manning and head coach Tony Dungy at the helm, anything can happen.

5. N.Y. Giants (11-3): No longer the NFC cream of the crop after losing Burress and spending time without bruising RB Brandon Jacobs, the Giants are leaking water with two consecutive losses.

Once with a No. 1 seed almost guaranteed, a loss to Carolina at home and in Minnesota next week, could trip them to a No. 3 seed and no bye week.

Starting to claw their way back into contention:

6. Baltimore Ravens (9-5): A controversial loss last week to Pittsburgh pushes the Ravens back down to the next tier. With a win there, this team could be on its way to another Super Bowl.

Why? This defense is dominating, that's why.

They may need help to get into the playoffs, but if they do, watch out for a P-O'ed Ravens team.

7. Dallas Cowboys (9-5): Once written off for being dead, a win over the Giants catapults this team back into the limelight -- for good or bad.

The Cowboys and Ravens will meet in basically an elimination game Sunday, where the victor gets a pump of hope, and the loser -- well, it's all done.

8. Minnesota Vikings (9-5): O.K. here we go again.

Yet another "proving" game for the Vikes, one which could propel them up the ladder near the NFC elite, or yet another trip down disappointment lane (i.e., the loss to Washington last year).

A win over the Falcons Sunday would go a long way for this team. It would be a win suggesting they are ready to announce their arrival at being a clutch squad with six Pro Bowlers.

A loss? Well, let's say that numb feeling in Viking fans' bodies isn't from all this sub-arctic temperatures, even though a win over the Giants next week would clinch a playoff berth.

9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-5): With home games against the Chargers and Raiders, the Bucs can still step their way into the playoffs. Jeff Garcia is hurt and if he doesn't come back soon, even the ghosts of Warren Sapp, John Lynch and Booger McFarland can't save them.

10. Atlanta Falcons (9-5): Great feel-good story with an amazing turnaround.

Hoping to repeat "Black Sunday"?in the Metrodome to keep their playoff hopes alive.

11-13. The East Heap: The trio of Miami, New England and New York J-E-T-S are tied at 9-5, with possibly two of them being able to go to the playoffs.

Let 'em battle it out, and may the best team win.

14. Philadelphia Eagles (8-5-1): Back in the hunt, but hunting season maybe ending before they can make their move.

15. Arizona Cardinals (8-6): Here's some Advil, a pillow and your bankey for that NFC West championship hangover.

16: Denver Broncos (8-6): Rocky Mountain High? Nah, just an average team in a bad division.

17. Chicago Bears (8-6): The Bears can either - A: Be taken off of life support with a Vikes' loss to Atlanta and live another weekend; B: Die an honorable death by winning out and forcing the Vikes to pull one out in the last two weeks; or C: Enrage their fanbase by losing to their rival Packers Monday Night.