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Tight races should provide fitting cap to exciting season

The NFL scheduled each team to have a divisional game in Week 17 in order to create meaningful competition through the end of the season -- and to try and prevent teams from resting key players with a playoff berth already secured.

Remember the uproar when the unbeaten Colts pulled players at the expense of perfection last season?

Well, perfection was an afterthought a month into the campaign and now there's near-unprecedented uncertainty heading into the final month of a season, where no team has emerged as a juggernaut and two 2009 playoff teams with big expectations in 2010 -- Dallas and Minnesota -- fired their coaches.

What's unfolded pretty much assures that starters will be playing through the end of the regular season because playoff spots won't be determined until then.

These games will set playoff course

With matchups like Patriots- Jets still to come, division titles and playoff spots are far from set. Steve Wyche examines the games that will dictate the postseason picture. **More ...**

"Anything you talk about now could have nothing to do with a month from now," said Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo, whose team is tied with Seattle for the NFC West lead at 5-6. "It means nothing. It changes so quickly. Anybody who thinks they're at the end of the road and thinks there's no chance to make the playoffs now could end up in the playoffs a la the New York Jets last season."

Or the opposite could happen. Division leaders like Chicago or Indianapolis or New England could endure two or three losses down the stretch and be left out of the postseason because no team stands alone.

The teams with the best records -- the Falcons, Jets and Patriots (9-2), the Ravens, Steelers and Bears (8-3) -- the Saints share that mark but are second in the NFC South -- all have company atop their divisions. Then there's the majority of teams, mired together, still sorting through their self-made muck, trying to emerge.

The pressure to win won't come later. It starts now, with two division titles at stake in huge Week 13 games.

The Steelers and Ravens meet in an AFC North showdown, with Pittsburgh trying to even the season series and gain a game advantage over its host rival. Monday night, the Jets travel to New England for AFC East supremacy -- at least for a week. Their innate dislike for one another mixed with Jets coach Rex Ryan's brashness and New England's 5-0 mark at home has this pegged as the game of the weekend.

A lot of football remains to be played, but the outcome of these games could dictate not only who wins their respective divisions and gets into the playoffs, but also who claims home-field advantage since these are the two divisions in the AFC where mediocrity isn't the standard.

To the latter point, that mediocrity -- at least record wise -- is what's driving this potentially thrilling December.

Nine teams (Detroit, Buffalo, Carolina, Minnesota, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Denver, Dallas and Arizona) are all but out of the playoff hunt. Though mathematically they're still alive, each team is at least two games back of its division leaders.

Nowhere is the logjam more intriguing than in the AFC South and both Western divisions.

Indianapolis' injuries have caught up to it as it's lost two in a row and is tied with Jacksonville atop the AFC South at 6-5. The Colts won't go eight consecutive seasons with at least 12 wins. They might not even reach double-digit victories -- or the playoffs.

Houston is just a game back as is Tennessee, although the Titans are the one team in the division that seems to be plummeting without a parachute. The Colts have split with Houston and face the Jaguars and Titans in two of their final three games.

In the AFC West, San Diego (6-5) is making its typical late-season charge but now the question remains whether it dug itself too deep of a hole early. While Oakland (5-6) remains in play, the division-leading Chiefs (7-4) don't seem to be going away. Kansas City, which is built to play in inclement weather late in the season because of its punishing run game, opened its season with a victory over the Chargers. The two teams meet again Dec. 12 in San Diego.

Spagnuolo's Rams have taken more than baby steps in getting to five victories after winning just once in 2009. Reaching eight wins might be all that it takes to win the NFC West. St. Louis' season finale at Seattle could be among the handful of divisional games in Week 17 that sets the playoff brackets. Then again, if either or both teams falter much, the door will be open for San Francisco to get involved.

As odd and to some, unappealing as the 7-9 Rams possibly playing host to the 12-4 Saints or the 13-3 Jets traveling to the 9-7 Chiefs in wild-card games, the scenario is real.

It's what the season is and it's why few, if any teams, will even have the option of resting key players at the end of the season.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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