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Expect the unexpected in furious finish to regular season

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In what would be a bizarre scenario Sunday, Patriots coach Bill Belichick might cheer for Eric Mangini and the Jets.


Picture New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick sporting his grey hoodie and celebrating one of his finer efforts after a regular-season-ending victory over the Buffalo Bills. He's cheering, not for his team but for the New York Jets -- his hated AFC East rivals.

It could happen Sunday.

It would be like swallowing cod liver oil for Belichick, but as bitter the taste, the outcome could prove worth the misery.

Playoff picture
Maurice Jones-Drew and the Jaguars have long been eliminated from playoff contention, but Sunday, they could play role of spoilers. Check out all the postseason scenarios entering the final weekend.

The Miami Dolphins could add insult to Belichick's afternoon of irony by beating the Jets, winning the AFC East title and re-routing the Patriots' cheering toward the Jacksonville Jaguars, who could open the door for New England to land a wild-card berth should they upset the Ravens in Baltimore.

The drama for the NFL's final weekend couldn't be any more intriguing.

There's a Rubik's Cube of scenarios that could have the Dolphins and Atlanta Falcons completing incredibly radical turnarounds from 2007 doormats to '08 division champions. Each conference's Western division champs could get into the playoffs with an 8-8 record, and the Oakland Raiders actually could factor in the postseason picture.

There's also history on the line in a couple of other games. At Lambeau Field, the Detroit Lions could finish 0-16 or the Green Bay Packers (5-10) could become a dubious footnote to bookend a season that started ugly and ended even uglier. And in New Orleans, where the Carolina Panthers are trying to wrap up the NFC's No. 2 seed, the Saints' Drew Brees is going after Dan Marino's NFL record for passing yards in a season.

Setting the table

Most of the drama in the AFC playoff race won't be settled until late in the afternoon, but the Patriots and Bills can set the table for what happens in Jets-Dolphins and Jaguars-Ravens games.

Buffalo is the only AFC East team with a losing home record (3-4) -- a loss to Miami was played in Toronto -- with three of those defeats being the last three it played at Ralph Wilson Stadium. That's still not as damning as the Bills' 0-5 mark within the division.

Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel is rolling and has received a huge boost from running back Sammy Morris the past two weeks to make New England far more functional on offense. The Patriots have shown remarkable wherewithal against the odds, and they have a lot more to play for than the Bills do, although Buffalo coach Dick Jauron might need the victory to save his job. And don't forget how the Bills put a dent in the Denver Broncos' postseason hopes last week.

Headed north in the NFC South

Every NFC South team has a say in the playoff picture.

Although the Saints (8-7) have been eliminated from the postseason, they play host to Carolina (11-4) and could possibly render the Panthers a wild-card team by defeating them. New Orleans is 6-1 at home, where it averages nearly 33 points per game -- almost eight more than it has when playing away from the Superdome. In addition, Brees needs 402 passing yards to break Marino's single-season mark of 5,024, set in in 1984. The Panthers can't neglect Saints running back Pierre Thomas, who looks like he could be the long-term answer at that position.

With all that, Carolina, despite losing in overtime to the New York Giants on Sunday, is playing exceptional football and has the rushing attack to keep the ball out of Brees' hands. A win, and the Panthers are division champs. Carolina, which has beaten New Orleans in five of their past six meetings, will lay it out in order to get a bye week to recoup.

In a side note, if the Saints win, the NFC South and NFC East could be the only divisions in which every team finishes with a winning record. At worst, every team in those divisions -- and possibly the AFC East -- would be .500 or better.

In Atlanta (10-5), the Falcons already have qualified for the playoffs. They could win the division with a victory over the St. Louis Rams (2-13) and a Panthers loss, by virtue of a better record in the NFC. The Falcons have been solid at home and should put up big numbers against the Rams.

This could be Jim Haslett's last game coaching the Rams. There are rumblings that St. Louis might have its eye on Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, who has earned a head-coaching opportunity. Rams football decision-maker Billy Devaney, who was promoted from executive vice president/player personnel to GM on Wednesday, was with the Falcons last winter when they interviewed coaches, including Ryan, who was highly regarded and was a finalist, along with Mike Smith.

Whereas Carolina and Atlanta control their fates, Tampa Bay (9-6), which led the division a few weeks ago, needs help. First off, the Buccaneers need to defeat the Raiders. Key to that outcome is Tampa Bay's declining defense. The last three times the Raiders have had a leading rusher in a game -- twice in the past five weeks -- they have won. The Bucs have allowed three different runners to rush for 428 yards in each of the past three games -- all losses.

If Tampa Bay wins, it needs the Dallas Cowboys to lose to gain a wild-card berth and give the NFC South three playoff representatives.

Better late than ...

By winning their past three games, the Chicago Bears (9-6) put themselves in position to win the NFC North. Defeating the Houston Texans (7-8) is crucial. Chicago could win the division with a victory and a Minnesota loss. The Vikings (9-6) hold tiebreakers should both teams win or lose.

While this game features the top two rookie running backs in the NFL -- Chicago's Matt Forte and Houston's Steve Slaton -- the Bears' ability to defend the pass could determine the outcome. Chicago is 28th in pass defense, and Houston is fourth in pass offense. Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson is among the top three at his position and could be the difference-maker.

Houston has to be careful, though. Chicago is generating a serious pass rush of late, and the Bears have four interceptions in the past three games.

Catching the Giants at the right time

The Vikings have something to play for. The Giants (12-3) don't. New York has secured the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

The Giants don't want to sustain any injuries, so tailback Brandon Jacobs, who has been bothered by a sore knee, could sit this one out. Other key players, such as defensive lineman Justin Tuck and quarterback Eli Manning, also could have short afternoons.

That doesn't mean the Giants won't play hard -- or that the Vikings will play well enough to win.

Minnesota must have one of its quarterbacks, Tarvaris Jackson or Gus Frerotte, establish some consistency and avoid turning over the ball. While the Vikings will ride tailback Adrian Peterson, who has had ball-security issues of his own, unsettled quarterback play could be their undoing.

The wild card in the Wildcat

The storylines featuring Jets quarterback Brett Favre's do-or-die regular-season finale and the Dolphins' Chad Pennington having the chance to stick it to his former team will carry the game's setup. However, the outcome could come down to whether the Jets can stop running back Ronnie Brown and his historically big performances in New York.

The last two times the Pro Bowl-bound Brown played against the Jets (9-6) in the Meadowlands, he went over 100 rushing yards and scored a combined three touchdowns. Both times, the Jets won by a field goal. Since rushing for 101 yards in Week 11, Brown hasn't come close to rushing for 100 yards, and the Dolphins have won four of the five games.

Brown could be on the verge of having a strong game, though. The Jets' once-stout run defense has sprung leaks the past two games, as Buffalo's Marshawn Lynch (127 yards) and Seattle's Maurice Morris (116) have put up big numbers.

As for the quarterbacks, Favre has really struggled, throwing six interceptions to just one touchdown in his past four games -- three of which were losses to teams based in the West. If Pennington shows him up and Miami wins, heads could roll with the Jets' coaching staff, and Favre might finally go into permanent retirement.

Flacco might make two

With Atlanta's Matt Ryan already in the playoffs, Baltimore's Joe Flacco could become the second rookie quarterback in postseason play if he and his team can defeat reeling Jacksonville (5-10) at home. If the Ravens (10-5) win, they claim the second wild-card spot in the AFC. The Indianapolis Colts already have locked up the other.

Flacco has faced three of the NFL's best defenses the last three weeks (Washington, Pittsburgh and Dallas) and played efficiently as Baltimore won two of those games. His calmness under duress and ability to fight through adversity seemingly have him playoff-ready.

Flacco's development this season apparently has brought some attention to quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson, who could be an under-the-radar prospect for the Raiders' head-coaching job, according to a league source.

The Ravens' win-and-in situation means that whichever teams don't win the AFC East would be left out of the playoffs. Should the Ravens lose, they can still clinch a wild-card berth if the Patriots and Jets lose, too.

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An era likely will end in NFC East

Though it's only for a wild-card spot, the game between Dallas (9-6) and Philadelphia (8-6-1) could prove to be the most intriguing of the weekend -- especially if neither team gets into the playoffs.

There's already speculation about Cowboys coach Wade Phillips' future, even though there are reports that he will be back next season. A loss, especially a humiliating one that keeps Dallas out of postseason play (Tampa Bay would need to win), could be enough for Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to make a change.

A win, and Dallas grabs the final wild-card spot, and the speculation can wait for another time.

A loss by the Eagles, and coach Andy Reid could be out, although his departure seemingly would be voluntary since he's so well thought of by ownership. Quarterback Donovan McNabb also could be playing his last game with Philadelphia, which is why beating the Cowboys and being able to claim victory over Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens, whose problems with the Eagles ignited a lot of the turmoil in Philadelphia, could be a good parting shot.

The Eagles have an outside shot to get into the playoffs. They need to win and have Tampa Bay and Minnesota or Chicago lose.

The clincher

The sun sets on the weekend out West, where reeling Denver (8-7) faces San Diego (7-8), which finally seems to be playing close to its potential. The winner earns the AFC West title: the Broncos by record and the Chargers via a better division record tie-breaker.

This rematch is only fitting since the Chargers lost 39-38 to the Broncos in Week 2 on a controversial call by an official. San Diego never fully regained traction after that. The recent hot play of quarterback Philip Rivers, who was perhaps the biggest of all Pro Bowl omissions, has the Chargers looking like a team that nobody really wants to play right now.

The plethora of injuries at running back has hurt Denver, which has two straight losses, but the play of its defense has been the problem. In their seven losses, the Broncos allowed nearly 31 points per game. In the Chargers' seven victories, they averaged nearly 32 points per game.

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