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Saturday Playbook Getting a jump on playoff picture

Week 15 of the NFL schedule begins today with three games that will have a bearing on the postseason picture.

The two-time defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots can punch their playoff ticket with a home victory this afternoon over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Foxborough, Mass. A win clinches the fourth AFC East title in five years for the Patriots. A Miami loss on Sunday against the visiting New York Jets also would give New England the title.

The Buccaneers are tied with the Carolina Panthers for first place in the NFC South, with the Atlanta Falcons a game behind. The Bucs finish with home games against Atlanta and New Orleans.

An interconference meeting in the New Jersey Meadowlands between the Kansas City Chiefs and New York Giants also has playoff implications. A loss would virtually eliminate Kansas City from the AFC West race and hurt the Chiefs' chances of outlasting San Diego and Pittsburgh for an AFC wild card. The Giants can clinch a playoff berth but it would take an unlikely combination including a tie between Dallas and Washington on Sunday.

The least competitive game of the day figures to be Denver's game against the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Broncos are a nine-point favorite over a Buffalo team that has lost four in a row.

The punchless Bills have scored only 18 touchdowns in 13 games. They are one of only five teams with fewer than 20 TDs, including Baltimore (15), the New York Jets (17), San Francisco (18) and Houston (19).

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>Today's games

Buccaneers (9-4) at Patriots (8-5)

TV: Ch. 29, 1:30 p.m.

The line: Patriots favored by 4 1/2

The scoop: Patriots have won four of last five games. A win would give Bucs a franchise record 6-2 road record. . . . Last time Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden led a team in a game at Gillette Stadium was the famous "tuck rule" game when he was coaching the Oakland Raiders in the 2001 AFC playoffs. . . . New England QB Tom Brady banged up his knee while scoring a TD against Bills last week but is expected to start. . . . Pats are 4-2 at home, with losses to San Diego and Indianapolis.

Outlook: Brady is 12-0 as starter when temperature is 40 or colder. New England, 20-17.

Chiefs at Giants

TV: Ch. 4, 5 p.m.

The line: Giants favored by 3

The scoop: Last-minute loss at Dallas last week really hurt the Chiefs, who had won three in a row after loss to Bills. K.C. would have been one game ahead of Chargers and Steelers in wild-card chase if it had held the lead against Dallas. . . . Giants won in overtime at Philadelphia. New York QB Eli Manning leads NFC with 21 TD passes but has 15 INTs. . . . Game could turn on which tight end has bigger day -- Tony Gonzalez of Chiefs or Jeremy Shockey of Giants. Then again it could turn on performances of running backs Larry Johnson of the Chiefs or Tiki Barber of the Giants. Barber is second in league with 1,357 rushing yards. Johnson is second in AFC with 1,251 but has 14 touchdowns to six for Tiki.

Outlook: Defense gives Giants edge, 31-24.

Broncos at Bills

TV: ESPN, 8:30 p.m.

The line: Broncos favored by 9.

The scoop: Buffalo outlook is bleakest since 1984-85 with GM, coach and players under fire. . . . Kelly Holcomb will make sixth start of season at quarterback for injured J.P. Losman (shoulder). Bills were 2-2 in games Holcomb started and finished. . . . Broncos' first visit to Orchard Park since 1997. . . . Bills' longest run from scrimmage so far is only 27 yards, which equals franchise low set in 1993.

Outlook: Bills can't keep up, even in wintry conditions. Broncos, 24-3.

e-mail: mnorthrop@buffnews.com

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