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Top teams seek playoff spots as season enters home stretch

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. REUT
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. REUT

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.

"I firmly believe that (Charlie Batch will play well)," Roethlisberger told reporters on Friday about the 37-year-old fill-in, who threw three interceptions in last week's loss to the Cleveland Browns.

"They know what he's capable of. He's been doing it a long time. They respect him. I think he's ready to rise to the occasion."

A key inter-conference game pits the hard-charging Denver Broncos (8-3) and MVP candidate quarterback Peyton Manning against the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-5), who are clinging to their wildcard hopes.

"Our goal is to keep winning and get to the big one," said Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, whose team is riding a six-game winning streak.

Denver can clinch the AFC West division with a win or a San Diego loss to the wildcard hunting Cincinnati Bengals (6-5).

Baltimore can claim the AFC North crown with a win and a Bengals loss. A victory over the Steelers would ensure them of a playoff spot.

New England (8-3) takes another AFC East title if they beat the Miami Dolphins (5-6), while AFC-leading Houston (10-1) can secure a berth in the postseason with a win over the Tennessee Titans.

The Atlanta Falcons, 23-13 winners against the New Orleans Saints on Thursday, would clinch the NFC South division if Tampa Bay loses, or a playoff berth should Seattle lose.

One fresh face among the top AFC teams belongs to the Indianapolis Colts (7-4) and rookie signal caller Andrew Luck, who take on the Detroit Lions (4-7).

At the moment, the Colts, who got to select Luck with the top pick in the NFL Draft because they had the league's worst record last season, would be in the playoffs.

(Editing by Frank Pingue)

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