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Playoff picture: Thanksgiving games loom large

The playoff picture page on is hypnotic. Use it long enough, and the secrets of the 2012 season will be revealed. Or you'll at least write a post with some takeaways heading into Week 12.

Thanksgiving impact

The Houston Texans, who can clinch a playoff spot, remain in great position for the No. 1 seed in the AFC because they hold the tiebreaker over the Baltimore Ravens and a two game lead over the New England Patriots. So they need to lose multiple games to let the other teams back in it. That's very possible.

Houston starts a three game road swing in the schedule Thursday and ends in New England in Week 14. The Texans will finish the season in Indianapolis. It's easy to see Houston going 4-2 or even 3-3 down the stretch, especially if they lose their turkey day tilt to the Detroit Lions.

Brooks: Turkey Day primer

Week 12 opens with a three-course football feast on Thanksgiving Day. Bucky Brooks has analysis/picks for each game. **More ...**

How wide open will AFC race be?

This is a huge week for the AFC wild card race. It's a "managing the schedule" type of week for the Colts and Steelers.

If the Colts are a wild card caliber team they will beat the Buffalo Bills at home and knock them out of the race. If the Colts lose, the Bills hang around with a tiebreaker edge over Indy. It provides hope to teams like the Tennessee Titans or San Diego Chargers. We're still not sure how good these Colts really are. It wouldn't surprise us if they came back to the pack.

The Steelers head to Baltimore in Week 13 with a backup quarterback at the helm. That makes this week's game, against an underrated Cleveland team, so vital. If Charlie Batch can't pull it off, the Steelers will be staring at a potential three-game losing streak and a 6-6 record. If they can manage a win this week, then the Steelers can survive Ben Roethlisberger's injury and remain in great position.

It's a huge week in the AFC race. If the Steelers and Colts both lose, this race is wide open. If they both win, it would look like a three-team race for two spots, with the Bengals still in the mix.

Must wins

»The New Orleans Saints' return to relevance has been a nice story, but they have almost no margin for error. There are simply too many NFC contenders to pass if they lost to the San Francisco 49ers. The Saints have to beat the other NFC powerhouses for any chance at a run.

»The Chargers can forget about the AFC West. Any realistic chance for a wild card spot has to start with a win against Baltimore.

Packers path

The Green Bay Packers already have three losses, including one to another contender for a playoff bye (San Francisco). Green Bay will also lose any tiebreaker to the Seattle Seahawks. The Packers have a lot of big games left, but any path to a bye will be drastically diminished if they lose to the New York Giants.

Big week

There are 20 teams on the playoff picture page. Ten of them face each other in Week 12: Jets-Patriots, Bears-Vikings, 49ers-Saints, Bucs-Falcons, Packers-Giants, and Ravens-Chargers. We'll learn a lot by the end of Sunday.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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