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Nerves fraying as teams enter home stretch of playoff races

Dec 15, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) throws a pass in the first half against the Washington Redskins at
Dec 15, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) throws a pass in the first half against the Washington Redskins at

By Larry Fine

NEW YORK (Reuters) - With two weeks left in the National Football League's (NFL) competitive regular season, many teams are starting to show frayed nerves - particularly in the NFC East.

A pair of two-time Super Bowl-winning coaches let off steam following conference defeats on Sunday.

Beleaguered Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan walked out of his news conference and New York Giants helmsman Tom Coughlin called his offense "pathetic" and questioned the effort of some of his players.

Frustration on losing teams like the Redskins (3-11), who fell 27-26 to the Atlanta Falcons, and New York Giants (5-9), 23-0 losers to the NFL-best Seattle Seahawks, is hardly a surprise as the days dwindle down.

But the Dallas Cowboys need to regroup in a hurry after their stunning 37-36 home loss to the Green Bay Packers because their playoff future still rests in their own hands despite dropping to 7-7.

"This is one of the hardest losses that I've experienced," said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, whose team led 26-3 at halftime. "That's a shame that we've lost that ballgame."

Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant, who had 11 catches for 153 yards and a touchdown, agreed but brought some shame on himself by walking off the field with 1:21 left in the game.

"I was wrong," Bryant told reporters on Monday during a visit to a children's hospital. "I couldn't watch Green Bay kneel the ball down on the field after a tough loss like that.

"I was very emotional. I cried when I got into the locker room. I didn't want to show that stuff on the sideline."

Stakes are high, especially for teams in the hunt to join the Super Bowl tournament.

Only the Seahawks (12-2) have clinched a playoff spot in the NFC ahead of Monday night's game between the Baltimore Ravens and Detroit Lions, while three AFC teams have booked their berths leaving eight positions waiting to be secured.

The Cowboys can still advance and host a playoff game if they can beat Washington on the road next week and NFC East-leading Philadelphia in Dallas in their regular season finale.

Dallas seemed to be in disarray as quarterback Tony Romo threw two interceptions in the last three minutes, and coach Jason Garrett said Romo should not have switched a call from a running play to a passing play that led to a pick.

"I think he'll be the first one to tell you he probably should have run the ball in that situation," Garrett said.

Dallas abandoned a running game that had been productive earlier in the contest, and the defense could not make stops.

Green Bay scored touchdowns on all five second-half possessions before taking a knee to run out the clock at the end. Dallas, banged up on defense, has yielded 82 points in losing their last two games against back-up quarterbacks.

"The second half was a complete debacle," cornerback Brandon Carr said. "We couldn't get off the field once again."

Shanahan abruptly left his news conference, tired of being asked about his future with the Skins after announcing last week he was benching last year's brilliant rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III to safeguard against possible injury.

Coughlin, winner of two NFL titles in the last seven years, said after the Seattle whitewashing: "I told the players who prepared and gave great effort that I appreciated what they did.

"And I told those that were obvious they had not, that I felt sorry for them because they're missing the whole point."

Even three-time Super Bowl-winning QB Tom Brady showed frayed nerves in a quick post-game press conference following the New England Patriots' 24-20 loss to AFC East rivals Miami that kept the Pats from clinching the division title.

"We had plenty of chances all day," said Brady. "We made some good plays, and we made some (expletive) plays. Thank you."

(Editing by Frank Pingue)

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