Football

Patriots at Dolphins opens 3 weeks of showdowns

Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones knows how it goes this time of the season, with so much at stake for so many teams.

Division titles. Wild card berths. Home field advantage. All those wacky games decided in downpours, blizzards and domes have set the stage for deciding the NFL playoff field in the next three weeks. And right now, that field is about as clear as a wintery afternoon in Philadelphia.

Denver, Indianapolis and Seattle are the only teams that have clinched playoff berths with three weeks left. And the conferences' playoff seeds are still wide open. "If we just win out, we'll be OK," said Jones, whose Bengals are closing in on the AFC North title. "That's all we've got to do. Win out and let everything else take care of itself."

Every other contender is saying the same thing. Easy to say, tough to do. Given the league's unpredictable nature, there are going to be a lot of upsets and unforeseen plot twists in the next three weeks.

Six games with extra significance in the closing weeks: PATRIOTS AT DOLPHINS, Sunday, Dec. 15: New England (10-3) leads the AFC East and currently has the No. 2 seed, a game ahead of Cincinnati (9-3). But the Bengals beat them during the season, so Cincinnati would be No. 2 if they end tied. It'll be New England's first game since losing tight end Rob Gronkowski again, this time to a knee injury. The Patriots went 5-1 without him at the start of the season, but their offense picked up measurably when he returned. Gronkowski had 37 catches for 560 yards in six games, the most by an NFL tight end. They're back to trying to reach the playoffs without him, facing a Miami (7-6) team tied with Baltimore (7-6) for the final wild card slot. The Ravens beat the Dolphins 26-23 on Oct. 6 for the head-to-head tiebreaker.

BEARS AT EAGLES, Sunday, Dec. 22: The game has been flexed to Sunday night because of its significance. Philadelphia (8-5) has won five in a row, including that snowy 34-20 victory over Detroit last Sunday, to take sole possession of first place in the NFC East, a game ahead of Dallas. Chicago's 45-28 win over Dallas on Monday night left the Bears and Lions tied at 7-6 atop the NFC North. Many playoff implications all around in this one.

SAINTS AT PANTHERS, Sunday, Dec.22: The NFC South title could be decided. The Saints (10-3) took a one-game lead with a 31-13 win over the Panthers in New Orleans on Sunday, with Drew Brees throwing for four touchdowns against the NFL's stingiest defense. The Panthers (9-4) are currently in line with San Francisco (9-4) for the two wild card spots.

PATRIOTS AT RAVENS, Sunday, Dec.22: The defending Super Bowl champions have struggled on offense all season, but have managed to hang in there in the playoff chase. The Ravens are 6-1 at home but have a tough closing stretch: at Detroit on Monday night, New England, at Cincinnati. The Patriots also have a tough go, playing at Miami and Baltimore before hosting Buffalo.

49ERS AT CARDINALS, Sunday, Dec. 29: San Francisco (9-4) trails Seattle (11-2) by two games for the NFC West lead, so a wild card seems the more likely route for a team that came up just short in last season's Super Bowl. Arizona (8-5) is a game behind the 49ers and Panthers for the two wild cards. The 49ers play at Tampa Bay and host Atlanta on Monday night before finishing at Arizona. Seattle plays at the Giants before hosting the Cardinals and Rams.

TEXANS AT TITANS, Sunday, Dec. 29: A showdown of sorts — for the top pick in next year's draft. Also, it's open season for coaching changes. Houston started it by firing Gary Kubiak last Friday, a day after the Texans suffered their 11th straight loss. The Texans are at the bottom of the league and the top of the draft list with a 2-11 mark. Washington and Atlanta are a game behind at 3-10, followed by Minnesota at 3-9-1. Houston will have a tough time climbing out of the bottom spot. The Texas finish at Indianapolis, which has clinched the AFC South, and at home against Denver, which leads the AFC, before playing at Tennessee (5-8).

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

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