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Falcons have reason to feel holiday spirit<br> Ravens, Chiefs, Colts help their playoff chances

This is the most wonderful time of the year, when teams that have been good close in on the ultimate Yuletide gift: a trip to the playoffs.

Christmas came early for the Atlanta Falcons, who clinched a playoff spot shortly after kickoff in Seattle thanks to a scintillating comeback by Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles against the Giants at New Meadowlands Stadium. Atlanta joined New England and Pittsburgh, which clinched a playoff spot via strength-of-schedule tiebreaker despite losing to the Jets, as the only teams to secure playoff spots with two games left in the regular season.

Meanwhile, Baltimore, Kansas City and Indianapolis are still hopeful they'll receive their Christmas wishes after earning clutch, late-season triumphs over teams with playoff aspirations of their own.

Detroit is playing out the string but earned a nice stocking stuffer at the expense of the playoff-hopeful Buccaneers.

The Lions ended their NFL record 26-game road losing streak with an overtime triumph at Tampa Bay -- their first away from the Motor City since beating the Bears in Chicago on Oct. 28, 2007. The loss prevented Tampa Bay (8-6) from making up ground on the Giants (9-5) in the NFC wild-card race.

>The contenders

Colts 34, Jaguars 24

The scoop: Colts prevent Jacksonville from clinching AFC South outright while keeping hope alive they'll win the division for the seventh time in eight years. Former UConn standout Donald Brown rushed for career-high 129 yards and a 43-yard TD on 14 carries (9.2 yards-per-carry average) for Indy. WR Austin Collie had two TD catches before suffering his second concussion in seven weeks in the second quarter.

Why the Colts won: The Colts prevented Maurice Jones-Drew and the Jags (67 yards on 22 rushes) from running wild. Jones-Drew rushed for 46 yards on 15 carries after getting 105 yards in an Oct. 3 triumph between the teams.


Ravens 30, Saints 24

The scoop: Billy Cundiff's two fourth-quarter field goals, the last with nine seconds left, were the difference as the Ravens (10-4) pulled into tie for first in AFC North with the Steelers while preventing the Saints (10-4) from clinching a playoff berth. Ray Rice finished with 233 yards and two TDs in total offense, including 153 rushing. Saints quarterback Drew Brees went over 4,000 yards passing for the fifth consecutive season, a feat performed previously by only Peyton Manning.

Why the Ravens won: They rushed for 208 yards while limiting the Saints to 27.


Chiefs 27, Rams 13

The scoop: Eleven days after having an emergency appendectomy, Matt Cassel (15 for 29 for 184 yards) went the distance to help the Chiefs (9-5) maintain their one-game lead in the AFC West over San Diego. For the Chiefs, Jamaal Charles rushed for 126 yards and a TD, and Thomas Jones became the 25th player to rush for more than 10,000 career yards. The Rams (6-8) were held to just 224 yards at home as they missed a chance to take control of the NFC West.

Why the Chiefs won: Chiefs rushed for 213 yards, and the Rams rarely hit Cassel -- except for two third-quarter sacks.


Falcons 34, Seahawks 18

The scoop: Falcons (12-2) moved a step closer to securing home-field advantage in the NFC. Quarterback Matt Ryan threw for two of his three TDs in the first half, including a 24-yarder to Michael Jenkins in the final minute that broke a 10-10 tie. Seahawks signal-caller Matt Hasselbeck was replaced by Charlie Whitehurst after a stretch in which he fumbled and threw two picks on consecutive third-quarter series.

Why the Falcons won: Atlanta put away game with a 17-point third quarter aided by Hasselbeck's turnovers.

Play of the Game: Jonathan Babineaux's fumble recovery in end zone on the Seahawks' first second-half play after Jamaal Anderson of the Falcons appeared to get away with grabbing a face mask while sacking Hasselbeck.


>Best of the rest

Lions 23, Buccaneers 20

The scoop: Dave Rayner's third field goal, a 34-yarder with 9:51 left in overtime, gave Detroit the victory. Rayner booted a 28-yarder as time expired to force OT. Receiver Calvin Johnson finished with 10 receptions for 152 yards, becoming the first Detroit player with two seasons with at least 1,000 yards and 12 or more TD receptions.

Why the Lions won: Maurice Morris and Jahvid Best rattled off consecutive runs of 26 and 14 yards, respectively, on first two plays of overtime to position Detroit for the win.


Cowboys 33, Redskins 30

The scoop: David Buehler's 39-yard field goal with 50 seconds left saved Dallas, which blew a 20-point, third-quarter lead to the Redskins' Rex Grossman, who threw for four TDs and 322 yards in place of demoted Donovan McNabb.

Why the Cowboys won: As bad as Dallas' defense has been lately (giving up 30 points in four straight games for first time since 1989), the Redskins have been worse. Cowboys piled up 434 total yards against a Washington crew yielding an NFL-worst 397.6 yards per game.


Raiders 39, Broncos 23

The scoop: Jason Campbell threw a 73-yard touchdown pass to Marcel Reece and Jacoby Ford scored on a 71-yard run to help Oakland (7-7), which kept slim playoff hopes alive by overcoming Broncos rookie QB Tim Tebow's two long touchdowns in his first career start. Tebow became third player ever to throw a TD pass of at least 30 yards and run for a score of at least 40 yards in the same game but didn't look smooth passing (8 for 16 for 138 yards).

Why the Raiders won: Oakland rushed for 264 of its 502 total yards and held the Broncos to 2 for 12 on third down.


Titans 31, Texans 17

The scoop: Kerry Collins threw for two touchdowns and 237 yards and Chris Johnson ran for a TD and 130 yards as Tennessee (6-8) snapped a six-game losing streak and kept slim playoff hopes alive. Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan and Texans receiver Andre Johnson didn't stage a rematch of their on-field fight.

Why the Titans won: The Titans scored on their first three possessions.


Bengals 19, Browns 17

The scoop: Cedric Benson ran for a season-high 150 yards and a touchdown, and Cincinnati ended a 10-game losing streak that matched the longest in franchise history. Wideout Terrell Owens watched most of game on the sideline after aggravating his sore left knee.

Why the Bengals won: The Bengals outrushed Cleveland, 188-59.


>Dog of the day

Panthers 19, Cardinals 12

The scoop: Jimmy Clausen outplayed John Skelton in a matchup of rookie quarterbacks. John Kasay kicked four field goals as Carolina snapped a seven-game losing streak.

Why the Panthers won: Jonathan Stewart ran for 137 yards as Carolina had a 177-43 edge in rushing.

Compiled from Associated Press and News wire services

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