NFL Playoff Picture: Panthers in, spots still open

Tom Brady and Peyton Manning clinched division titles, Cam

Newton reached the postseason for the first time and a pair of

all-or-nothing games loomed on the final weekend in a scrambled NFL

playoff race.

The Chicago Bears missed a chance to seal a spot with a 54-11

loss at Philadelphia on Sunday night. Now, they’ll host Green Bay

next Sunday – the winner takes the NFC North, the loser is

done.

Several hours later, in the last game of the regular season, the

Dallas Cowboys will host the Philadelphia Eagles. The Sunday night

showdown decides who wins the NFC East and who goes home.

”Today we felt like we were playing for everything,” Tony Romo

said after his fourth-down TD pass with 1:08 left Sunday sent

Dallas over Washington 24-23. ”Next week will be the same

thing.”

Meanwhile, all the AFC division titles got settled. Denver, New

England and Cincinnati won to join Indianapolis with crowns.

Kansas City is assured of one AFC wild-card spot. Defending

Super Bowl champion Baltimore, Miami and San Diego are tied at 8-7

for the other slot with even Pittsburgh at 7-8 still in it.

”You know, we’re used to going out there and playing well when

we need to when the playoffs are on the line,” said Baltimore

quarterback Joe Flacco, who threw two interceptions in a 41-7 loss

to Brady and the Patriots.

Newton and his Carolina Panthers, along with Seattle, are the

only NFC teams with guaranteed playoff berths.

San Francisco (10-4) can clinch a playoff spot Monday night with

a win against visiting Atlanta.

Newton threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon with 23

seconds left to beat New Orleans 17-13, putting the Panthers in the

playoffs for the first time since 2008.

Carolina (11-4) can wrap up the NFC South and a first-round bye

in the playoffs with a win next Sunday at Atlanta.

”When we were 1-3 there was a lot of what-ifs, a lot of people

that were jumping off the bandwagon,” Newton said. ”It was a lot

of finger-pointing and saying, `I told you so.’ But as a team we

stuck together and didn’t veer off and had faith in each

other.”

The 49ers, New Orleans and Arizona are competing for the last

two NFC playoff slots.

Manning set an NFL record with 51 touchdown passes in a season.

He threw four as the Broncos (12-3) handed Houston its 13th

straight loss. Manning broke the mark of 50 set by Brady in

2007.

”I really feel like it’s a team accomplishment, certainly an

offensive accomplishment,” Manning said. ”There’s a lot of people

that played roles in this.”

The Patriots (11-4) won their fifth straight AFC East title.

Brady has guided New England to 11 division crowns, two more than

any other starting quarterback in NFL history.

”They’re all special. It’s hard to come by, and this team’s

really fought hard all year,” Brady said. ”We’ve earned it.

Eleven wins in the NFL’s not easy, and to win a division title’s

not easy.”

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org