The NFL regular season is down to its final three weeks and while the NFC is down to only seven clubs in contention, the AFC is bogged down with 11 teams fighting for six playoff spots, making clear-cut choices nearly impossible.
With the only two division clinchers - the NFC's Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers - meeting at Candlestick on Sunday, action around the league promises to be exciting as teams fight to stay alive.
Key games in the AFC, which will help to clear a cloudy picture, include:
- Kansas City at Denver - With both teams 7-6, the team that loses will sit at home come January. Priest Holmes, this year's Marshall Faulk in combined yards, leads the Chief attack against a hungry Clinton Portis and the Broncos.
- Oakland at Miami - The Raiders (9-4), who are the most dangerous team in the league when they're on, face the Dolphins (8-5) and Ricky Williams, who has rushed for 200-plus yards in the past two games to join O.J. Simpson and Earl Campbell as the only running backs to accomplish the feat.
- Indianapolis at Cleveland - The Colts (8-5), a team that boasts as dangerous an offense as there is with Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James, could knock out the Browns (7-6), whose last-second Hail Mary win last week is most likely their final prayer to be answered.
- New England at Tennessee - Prime-time Monday night for the defending Super Bowl champs (8-5) and a surging Titans team (8-5) led by an underrated Steve McNair.
Going out on a limb in the NFC, count on the 49ers, Packers, Philadelphia (10-3) and Tampa Bay (10-3), with the Eagles and Buccaneers on their way to the East and South division titles, respectively. New Orleans (9-4) and Atlanta (8-4-1) will grab the two wild cards out of a strong South.
The AFC, however, will most likely come down to the final week of action.
Oakland is the only team other than Pittsburgh (7-5-1) with a division lead, with the Steelers holding a half-game lead over Cleveland.
Miami and New England are tied in the East and Tennessee and Indianapolis are deadlocked in the South.
Making Super Bowl picks is no easy task.
Nevertheless, here goes.
The 49ers, needing a win over the Packers on Sunday to keep any hopes of home-field advantage alive, will once again be outdone by Brett Favre, who is 8-1 all-time against San Francisco.
As a result, the 49ers will get the No. 4 seed, host a wild card game, then fall on the road.
Green Bay, on the other hand, will lose its Frozen Tundra power over Tampa Bay and fall to the Buccaneers at the Sombrero.
And in an ironic twist in the NFC Championship, a rejuvenated Eagles team with Donovan McNabb returning will take advantage of Tampa Bay's cold weather curse, keeping the Buccaneers winless when temperatures drop below 40 degrees.
In the AFC, Oakland will once again blow a favorable home-field game and lose.
Miami, led by Williams, will come up short against Indianapolis, while Pittsburgh will be plowed over by Tennessee.
The Colts, with a much improved defense down the stretch of the season, will meet the darkhorse Titans in the AFC Championship and memories of Jim Harbaugh will be joined with another blown chance to make it to the big dance with Air McNair and Eddie George running roughshod en route to the AFC title.
And in a matchup of running quarterbacks (McNabb, McNair), the Eagles will finally claim their first-ever title and Tennessee will be forced to settle for second fiddle, only this time it won't come down to a final play as Philadelphia will dominate the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball all game long in a double-digit triumph.
Jeff Sutton is the News-Sentinels sports reporter. He can be reached at (209) 369-7035; at 125 N. Church St., or via e-mail.
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