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These eight games will chart map to playoff course

With so many things uncertain as we head into December, several playoff spots won't be decided until the final two weeks of the season. However, there are some games that will be played earlier in the month that will, at the least, set the table for an intriguing stretch run and possibly determine things outright.

Let's take a look at the best of what's to come.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens, Dec. 5: The stakes typically are high when these AFC North foes meet late in the season, but this rather early matchup dictates what each must do the rest of the way. Both will enter the game at 8-3 with Baltimore, which beat Pittsburgh earlier this season, seizing the head-to-head tiebreaker if it sweeps. The Ravens are unbeaten in Baltimore thus far. Should the Steelers win, they will take the division lead and put pressure on the Ravens to keep pace.

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New York Jets at New England Patriots, Dec. 6: A pair of 9-2 teams take their records, pride and swagger into a game that could dictate the AFC East champ, a wild-card spot and which city the Super Bowl runs through. Neither team has put together that complete game. The Patriots keep finding ways and getting timely defense. The Jets' defense is its backbone -- despite having to manufacture a pass rush. New York won at home early in the season. A road victory would send a strong message about who the boss is in the division. New England is in the middle of a brutal stretch and a win here is almost a must.

Kansas City Chiefs at San Diego Chargers, Dec. 12: The Chiefs kicked off their season -- and a 3-0 start -- with a victory over the Chargers in Kansas City. That early success allowed them the cushion to brace themselves for San Diego's current surge. Now we'll find out what both teams are made of. If Kansas City wins, it could put the nail in the coffin for the Chargers, since the Chiefs would hold a key tiebreaker with a sweep. If San Diego, which is dominant at home, walks away victorious, Kansas City could be looking at the consolation of at least being it the hunt -- for awhile.

Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants, Dec. 19: These are the only teams in the hunt for the NFC East title but a wild-card berth could also be at stake, which makes winning this game of particular importance. The Bears, Packers, Falcons, Saints and Buccaneers could all be in the wild-card hunt with the Eagles and Giants and any losses down the stretch could eliminate them from the postseason. The Eagles won the first matchup in November and a double-dip could seal the Giants' fate.

Jacksonville Jaguars at Indianapolis Colts, Dec. 19: The two games each team plays following this AFC South tilt could prove just as vital as this -- if the Colts beat the Jaguars. Should Jacksonville win, it would have the head-to-head advantage since it already beat Indy. The Colts' injuries and inability to run the ball are catching up to them while the Jaguars refuse to go away. A Jacksonville victory could mean its season finale with Houston would be for the division title. The loser likely won't advance to the playoffs since the wild-card teams appear to be coming from the AFC North and East. Imagine Peyton Manning at home after 16 games.

New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons, Dec. 27: This could be for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, which is a must for either of these dome teams to emerge as a Super Bowl contender. With this game being in Atlanta, the Falcons will have the edge. However, the Saints beat the Falcons in the Georgia Dome last season. Chris Redman was Atlanta's quarterback at the time as Matt Ryan was injured. New Orleans is on the uptick while the Falcons have found a way to consistently win, much like the Saints during their Super Bowl run last season.

St. Louis Rams at Seattle Seahawks, Jan. 2: That we're even mentioning these two NFC West teams as playoff contenders is the story because of their recent struggles. The Rams finally won on the road and they are getting better each game. St. Louis also beat the Seahawks earlier this season. This likely will be for the division title -- and before anyone says these teams won't compete in the postseason, remember the Cardinals in 2008 and the Jets in 2009 before doubting.

Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers, Jan. 2: This will be for the NFC North title, a place the Packers were expected to be; not the Bears. Chicago knocked off Green Bay at home so this could be a must-win if Green Bay wants to make the playoffs, even as a wild card. The Packers have won their last two games over the Bears at Lambeau but this is a different Chicago team. The Bears' ability to run -- and the Packers' inability to do so -- could be the difference with the elements likely in play.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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