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Fuzzy playoff picture to come into focus in three NFL divisions

The pivotal matchups of Cincinnati at Pittsburgh, Washington at Philadelphia and San Francisco at Seattle will provide some clarity in the AFC North and NFC East and West.

December 18, 2012|By Sam Farmer, Los Angeles Times
  • The 49ers and Seahawks are still battling for the NFC West.
The 49ers and Seahawks are still battling for the NFC West. ( Paul Kitagaki Jr. / Associated…)

With two weeks remaining, three NFL divisions remain up for grabs.

The AFC North is undecided. Same goes for the NFC East and West.

The fuzzy picture will come into better focus after this weekend's games, which include a handful of pivotal divisional matchups: Cincinnati at Pittsburgh, Washington at Philadelphia and San Francisco at Seattle.

First, the Steelers. If they win their final two — home games against the Bengals and Cleveland Browns — they will secure a spot in the postseason. In another year, those might be gimme games for Pittsburgh, but that franchise is struggling.

The Steelers have lost four of five, including two in a row since the return of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

The Bengals are still in the postseason hunt and are coming off a win — a 34-13 victory over Philadelphia — but that wasn't as impressive as the score indicates. Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton fumbled twice in that game and was sacked six times, and the Bengals were flagged 11 times for 94 yards. If Philadelphia were a better team, it would have made the Bengals pay for those mistakes.

Meanwhile, Baltimore secured a playoff spot Sunday, but only because the Steelers lost at Dallas. For the last three weeks, the Ravens have been one win away from qualifying for the playoffs. They responded by losing three in a row.

The Ravens play host to the New York Giants on Sunday and would clinch the division by winning.

A burning question: Does anyone want to win the AFC North?

There's a three-way tie for first at 8-6 in the NFC East, with the Redskins in the driver's seat (tiebreakers-wise), followed by the Cowboys and Giants.

The big question for Washington this week will be whether to play rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III against the 4-10 Eagles, or to rest him — giving his sprained knee more time to heal — for the finale at home against Dallas.

Fellow rookie Kirk Cousins filled in for Griffin in the last two minutes against Baltimore and led them to a comeback victory, then won again Sunday at Cleveland.

Griffin and Cousins are the first rookie quarterback tandem since 1983 to win their first starts, matching the feat of Denver's John Elway and Gary Kubiak.

In the NFC West, San Francisco clinched a spot in the playoffs by winning in New England on Sunday night. The 49ers will be back on national TV next Sunday night with a game at Seattle, where the Seahawks have yet to lose this season.

The Seahawks can grab a wild-card berth by winning one of their final two games. They close the season at home against St. Louis.

For Seattle to win the division, the Seahawks would need to win their final two games, and the 49ers would have to lose their final two — at Seattle, obviously, and at home against Arizona.

A more likely scenario is the 49ers winning the division, and the Seahawks grabbing the No. 5 seeding. That's what happens if the Seahawks win their final two games, and San Francisco beats Arizona, or if the Seahawks win one of two and the Giants either a) lose one of their final two games, or b) win the NFC East.

Elite feet

Minnesota's Adrian Peterson is closing in on becoming the seventh player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards. He has 1,812 with two weeks remaining, and over the last eight games has run for a record 1,313.

The Vikings play at Houston on Sunday, and the Texans are ranked fifth against the run. Houston is where Peterson did most of his rehabilitation in the off-season for his two torn knee ligaments.

Peterson, who finishes the regular season against Green Bay, believes Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record is within reach. Dickerson rushed for 2,105 yards in 1984.

Peterson would need to average 147 yards rushing in the final two games to break Dickerson's mark.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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