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West Coast clash heads drama for playoff spots

By Simon Evans

(Reuters) - Sunday's divisional clash between the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers headlines a fascinating penultimate weekend of regular season National Football League (NFL) action where playoff dreams are on the line.

Nineteen teams still have a mathematical shot at qualifying for the playoffs but the field of hopefuls dreaming of a berth in February's Super Bowl will be cut after the weekend action.

The New England Patriots (AFC East), Houston Texans (AFC South), Denver Broncos (AFC West), Green Bay Packers (NFC North) and Atlanta Falcons (NFC South) have already secured their respective division titles.

The Baltimore Ravens and 49ers, still looking to lock up their division titles, are guaranteed places in the 12-team playoff where five more spots are up for grabs.

Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck, who took over a team that finished with the NFL's worst record last season, can cap a remarkable Colts turnaround as a win at the Kansas City Chiefs or a Pittsburgh Steelers loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, would give his team a playoff berth.

A victory by the Bengals, who enter the game having won five of their last six contests, will give head coach Marvin Lewis's team a surprise ticket to the playoffs and knock the Steelers out contention.

Several other teams know that a win on Sunday keeps their playoff hopes alive going into the final day of the regular season on December 30.

There is much at stake in Seattle this week where two stingy defenses meet when the Seahawks, undefeated at home this season, host the 49ers in a matchup featuring two teams chasing the NFC West division crown.

The 49ers are ranked first in scoring defense, allowing just 15.6 points per game, while Seattle have given up just one more point over the season.

Seattle, riding a three-game winning streak and enjoying solid form from rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, need a win to secure a playoff spot while a victory for the 49ers secures them the divisional title.

"We have got our work cut out this week, we have to keep him contained," 49ers safety Dashon Goldson said about Wilson.

"He looks a lot more comfortable back there. He is making a lot of plays with his feet. He's scoring touchdowns and making big runs."

The 49ers have also hit form at the right time. Since Colin Kaepernick took over at quarterback from Alex Smith, San Francisco have gone 4-1.

"Colin is giving them a spark that they obviously really favor," said Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll. "He has such a strong arm and he really can fire the ball downfield and when he gets out and runs he can really go."

The defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants have won just two of their last six games and need another late-season turnaround to make it out of the tough NFC East, starting at Baltimore on Sunday.

The Minnesota Vikings are one of the teams hoping their ambitions last until at least the final week of the season but they face a tough test at Houston.

While the focus is on team achievement at this crucial stage of the campaign, the Vikings can be forgiven for celebrating if their running back Adrian Peterson reaches an individual goal.

Peterson is 188 yards shy of his first 2,000-yard season and also has a chance to beat Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards, set in 1984.

The Vikings running back's numbers are impressive enough in themselves but are remarkable when in the context of a recovery from major reconstructive knee surgery a year ago.

(Reporting by Simon Evans in Miami; Editing by Frank Pingue)

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