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Huge game in NFC South tops schedule

Saturday - 12/21/2013, 12:02am  ET

BARRY WILNER
AP Pro Football Writer

The Saints know all about big games in December -- and beyond.

Carolina once did, but that was nearly a decade ago, when few current players with the Panthers.

On Sunday, they meet in Charlotte in the kind of matchup the NFL covets around Christmas time. New Orleans and Carolina both are 10-4, tied for the NFC South lead.

"We understand the importance of it," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said.

"Obviously your No. 1 goal every year is to win your division, first and foremost, and we have the opportunity to do that this weekend. It's going to take a great team effort and it's going to take our best performance in order to get it done."

A Saints victory hands them the division crown and a first-round playoff bye.

"You're guaranteed at least one home game and that's always what you strive for is just to be able to have that home-field advantage," Brees added.

Carolina, which lost at New Orleans two weeks ago, can't win the division outright this week. But it clinches a playoff spot with a victory. It also gets in if Arizona and San Francisco lose.

"We're looking at it as, 'Why not us,'" quarterback Cam Newton says. "... If we do what we have to do, if we win this game, we have our confirmation of being in the playoffs."

Denver (11-3) at Houston (2-12)

Indianapolis (9-5) at Kansas City (11-3)

Denver swept Kansas City this season, so the Broncos hold the tiebreaker in the AFC West. They should have a much easier time staying on top of the division against the Texans, who have lost 12 straight and will secure the top spot in the draft with a loss and a Washington win.

Peyton Manning has 47 TD passes, three shy of Tom Brady's record set six years ago. Manning is in range of a slew of records, and that's the most tantalizing.

If he's chomping at the bit to demolish Houston, he's hiding it well.

"They've had 10 games that have been one touchdown or less. All I know is we're facing a good defense," Manning said, without smirking one bit.

The Chiefs, already in the playoffs, found tons of offense the past two weeks, scoring 101 points. Of course, their once dynamic defense has been ravaged by injuries and they don't stop people that well.

That's not the best approach against Andrew Luck and the Colts, who already own the AFC South. Luck needs 248 yards passing to pass Cam Newton (7,920) for the most in a quarterback's first two seasons.

Dallas (7-7) at Washington (3-11)

Chicago (8-6) at Philadelphia (8-6)

New York Giants (5-9) at Detroit (7-7)

Pittsburgh (6-8) at Green Bay (7-6-1)

All of these games are intertwined.

Start with the NFC East, where things are simpler. If the Eagles win and the Cowboys lose, Philadelphia goes from last place to first in one year and clinches. Philly will know before its prime-time kickoff what Dallas did in the afternoon, and a Cowboys win renders this one meaningless for the Eagles, who must win at Dallas next Sunday to take the division.

Both Philadelphia and Dallas come off losses, with the Cowboys' one-pointer against Green Bay the more painful.

Chicago has a one-game lead on Detroit and a half-game edge on Green Bay in the NFC North. Should the Bears and their dynamic offense -- watch for a shootout at the Linc -- outscore the Eagles while Lions and Packers fall, Chicago owns the division title.

The Bears have won the past two meetings, four of the past five and the past two in Philadelphia.

Green Bay, which last met (and beat) Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl to win the 2010 NFL title, has won the final home game each year since Mike McCarthy became coach in 2006.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger needs 85 yards passing to reach 4,000 for the third time in his career. WR Antonio Brown needs five catches to join Hines Ward as the only Steelers with 100 in one season.

The Lions are self-destructive, as they proved last Monday night against Baltimore, but the Giants are the masters in that category. Eli Manning leads the NFL with 25 interceptions and New York was shut out last week for the second time in 2013.

New England (10-4) at Baltimore (8-6)

Miami (8-6) at Buffalo (5-9)

Minnesota (4-9-1) at Cincinnati (9-5)

More intertwining.

The Patriots will take their fifth straight AFC East title and earn a 15th playoff berth in 20 years with a victory. It would be coach Bill Belichick's 11th division title, tied with Don Shula for the most since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. And they surely remember what the Ravens did to them twice last season, including in the AFC championship matchup in Foxborough.

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