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NFL schedule plot working

The NFL wanted meaning in the final week of the season. Its wish has been granted.

The decision to schedule at the end of the season has proven to be a wise one. Nearly every division matchup this weekend has some kind of playoff implication.

Instead of all the headache-inducing playoff scenarios, here's a more simplistic look at each division through Week 16:

*AFC East: New England (13-2) owns home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, so its home finale against Miami is meaningless. But with a week off before the next game, don't be surprised if Bill Belichick plays quarterback Tom Brady and other key veterans for at least a half, if not more. The New York Jets (10-5) don't need a home win against the Bills because they're in. But there is a chance to move up one spot to the fifth seed with a win. There's also something to be said about momentum. Jets coach Rex Ryan might not want his team going into the playoffs losing four of its last five games.

*AFC North: The division title, No. 2 seed and first-round bye is at stake on Sunday. Pittsburgh (11-4) can clinch all three with a win at Cleveland. But a Steelers loss combined with a Baltimore home victory over Cincinnati would lift the Ravens (11-4) from the fifth seed to No. 2, while the Steelers would fall to the sixth seed behind the Jets.

*AFC South: It's simple for Indianapolis (9-6) -- beat Tennessee at home and the Colts win another title and the division's lone playoff berth. Two weeks ago, Jacksonville (8-7) was one win away from winning the division. But after two straight losses, the Jaguars need a win at Houston and a Colts loss to advance. The teams would tie at 9-7 but the Jaguars have the tiebreaker advantage due to a better division record, 4-2 for Jacksonville, 3-3 for Indy.

*AFC West: Kansas City (10-5) won the division by beating Tennessee, but would have captured it anyway after San Diego's inexplicable lopsided loss at Cincinnati. The Chiefs' game at Oakland is still important because a win secures the third playoff seed. Speaking of the Raiders (7-8), beating Kansas City would earn them the distinction of being the first team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to go undefeated in divisional play and not win its division or make the playoffs.

*NFC East: The Giants' loss at Green Bay means Philadelphia (11-4) goes into tonight's game against visiting Minnesota with the division title in hand. The Eagles still want to finish with wins over the Vikings and Dallas because they have an outside shot at the conference's top seed. As for the suddenly-reeling Giants (9-6), they'll need to beat Washington and get a lot of help to make it.

*NFC North: Chicago (11-4) has won the division and clinches the No. 2 seed with a win at Green Bay (9-6), which would punch its own playoff ticket by beating the Bears. A loss means the Packers would only make it if the Giants and Tampa Bay lost their final games. Like the Eagles, the Bears are still in contention for the top seed depending on what happens in the NFC South.

*NFC South: Atlanta (12-3) missed a chance to lock up the division title and the No. 1 seed when it lost to New Orleans Monday night. The Falcons can still accomplish both by beating lowly Carolina (2-13) at the Georgia Dome. The Saints can clinch the top seed with a home win over Tampa Bay and if the Falcons somehow manage to lose to the Panthers. For now, it looks like New Orleans will be the fourth seed, which isn't a bad thing because its first-round matchup will be at the winner of the woeful NFC West. Tampa Bay (9-6) needs to beat the Saints and have the Giants and Packers lose to get in.

*NFC West: The NFL's worst division has come down to Sunday's showdown between St. Louis (7-8) and Seattle (6-9). The league won't admit it, but you would have to believe it is quietly rooting for the Rams to avoid the embarrassment of having a team with a losing record in the playoffs. The only time that happened was during the strike-shortened 1982 season when Cleveland and Detroit made it at 4-5 because the league expanded the postseason to eight teams in each conference.

In other Week 16 developments:

*St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford, the odds-on favorite to win the rookie of the year award, strengthened his case with a record-setting performance Sunday. His 28 completions against San Francisco give him 335 for the season, passing Peyton Manning (326 in 1998) for the most in a season by a rookie.

*With two touchdown catches against the Bills, New England's Rob Gronkowski has nine for the season. That ties the Amherst native with Atlanta's Junior Miller (1980) for the second-most by a rookie tight end. The league record is 12 set by Hall of Famer Mike Ditka in 1961.

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Super rookie class

The guys running Tampa Bay's front office deserve raises for the production the team has gotten out of its first-year players. The Buccaneers are the first team since the 1970 merger to start at least 10 different rookies in a season and finish with a winning record. Wide receiver and Buffalo native Mike Williams (fourth round) tied a franchise record with 10 touchdown receptions. He's 76 yards shy of 1,000 receiving yards.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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