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Saints, Vikings vying for homefield; Cowboys losing their grip

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MINNEAPOLIS -- For the Minnesota Vikings, clinching a playoff berth Sunday wasn't quite as meaningful as regaining their menacing mojo in a 30-10 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. The New Orleans Saints, meanwhile, escaped injury-depleted Atlanta with their 13th straight victory to clinch the NFC South and a first-round bye.

Playoff picture
Drew Brees and the Saints continue to hold the top spot in the NFC, but there is a shakeup in the lower seeds. Take a look at how the NFC teams stack up for the postseason. More ...

» Saints clinch first-round bye

The intrigue with these two teams is pretty much over, except for that little thing known as homefield advantage. Both teams want the playoffs to come through their old, domed stadiums, especially the Saints, who are the linchpin of a soulful city's soul. That, more than history, is the impetus for their push for a perfect regular season.

At 11-2, the Vikings need the Saints to lose to have any chance of hosting more than one playoff game, so with things out of their hands, their immediate focus is perfecting the things that can be perfected.

"I'm not focused on that," Vikings coach Brad Childress said about simply earning a playoff spot. "Ultimately, that is not where we are headed goal-wise."

There are a lot of other teams, starting with Dallas, who wish their standing was as comfortable. In losing to San Diego on Sunday, their second loss in as many games this month, Dallas lost its grip on the NFC East lead and thrust itself into the shallow morass of teams vying to simply get into the playoffs.

A look at the playoff picture in the NFC after Week 14 (in order of current seeding):

1. New Orleans (13-0, clinched South, first-round playoff bye)

The final serious challenge comes next week when the desperate Cowboys go to the Big Easy for a Saturday night showdown on NFL Network. Tampa Bay and Carolina remain after that. The Saints don't want to take their feet off the accelerator, but resting some starters after garnering comfortable leads could be forthcoming -- once homefield is secured.

2. Minnesota (11-2, first in the North, clinched playoff berth)

Their resilience in rebounding from last week's thrashing at Arizona showed mental toughness. Remaining opponents Carolina, Chicago and the Giants provide enough competition to keep them hungry. As well as the Packers are playing, they have little hope of catching the Vikings, who need just one more victory to capture the North.

3. Philadelphia (9-4, first in the East)

The Eagles are now the team to beat in the division after defeating the Giants and with Dallas on its late season banana peel. Games against San Francisco, Denver and the Cowboys make their current lead less than secure and everything, again, could boil down to the season finale.

4. Arizona (8-4, first in the West)

The Cardinals can clinch the West for the second straight season with a victory over the 49ers on Monday night. Arizona is a scary team for opponents, but its propensity to daydream could allow it to slip against San Francisco and prolong its inevitable division title. Detroit and St. Louis in Weeks 15 and 16 (before a date with Green Bay) provides a menu to eventually finalize things.

5. Green Bay (9-4, second in the North)

Riding a five-game winning streak, the red-hot Packers are all but a lock for a wild-card berth. They currently hold down the No. 5 seed, and a victory over Pittsburgh, Seattle or Arizona should be enough to seal the deal.

6. Dallas (8-5, second in the East)

The whispers of a December collapse are now screams and things don't get any better. Dallas has to travel to New Orleans to play against the unbeaten Saints in a hostile Superdome on Saturday. Washington and Philadelphia follow. Either history repeats itself and a collapse leads to major personnel and coaching changes, or the Cowboys find a way to blaze a modern-day trail to the playoffs. It's all on them.

New York (7-6, third in the East)

The loss to Philly is a crushing blow because it came within the division and shows the Giants aren't fully back on track. Its sweep of the Cowboys looks bigger than ever but it has to likely win out to have a chance. Fortunately for them, the remaining schedule features Washington, Carolina and a Minnesota team that could be resting its starters in the finale.

The Falcons (6-7) and 49ers (5-7, vs. Arizona Monday night) are still mathematically in the playoff hunt, but the best that each could do is nine wins, a total that likely won't be good enough to get into the playoffs, especially when you consider that the teams have combined for 10 conference losses.

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