Cowboys, Redskins clinch playoff spots; other clubs on the verge

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With three weeks remaining in the regular season, the National Football League playoff picture is beginning to take shape. Two of the six division races are all but decided, with the Los Angeles Raiders on the verge of clinching the AFC West and Miami in command in the AFC East. The Raiders (10-3) can make it official with a Thursday night win over San Diego, while the Dolphins (9-4) can assure themselves of either a tie or an outright title depending upon the outcome of weekend games.

Things are closer in the other four races, but it's still pretty clear in most cases which teams are likely to be in the playoffs.

The AFC Central, for instance, has turned into a dogfight between the Pittsburgh Steelers, who lost to the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving, and the Cleveland Browns, who have won four of their last five games including Sunday's 41-23 conquest of the Baltimore Colts. Only one game now separates Pittsburgh and Cleveland, with one of them certain to win the division title and the other in the driver's seat for a wild card spot.

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Dallas and Washington, the NFL's two winningest clubs with 11-2 records, have yet to settle their annual NFC East duel, but both already have clinched playoff berths, the first NFL clubs to do so.

The Cowboys beat the St. Louis Cardinals on Thanksgiving Day to seal at least a wild card spot. Meanwhile the defending Super Bowl champion Redskins achieved the same playoff status via a close 28-24 win against the Philadelphia Eagles, who have now lost seven games in a row and scored only 196 points in 13 games, the second worst offensive output in the NFL behind Tampa Bay.

It was another big afternoon for the Redskins' John Riggins, with TDs No. 20 and 21 setting an NFL record for most touchdowns rushing in a single season.

In the NFC West, a first-place tie between the Los Angeles Rams and the San Francisco 49ers was broken Sunday when the Rams won and the 49ers lost to Chi

cago. The offbeat happening in the latter game was provided by Bear quarterback Jim McMahon, who led his team in rushing - make that broken-play scrambles - with 74 yards on nine carries.

In the NFC Central's close-as-pages-in-a-book division, Minnesota lost a chance to hold on to sole possession of first place via a 17-16 upset at the hands of the New Orleans Saints. The Vikings are now tied with Detroit.

Elsewhere in the league this past weekend, the Seattle Seahawks and the Kansas City Chiefs played the third highest scoring game in NFL history, with the Seahawks winning 51-48 via a field goal at 1:36 of the overtime period. In San Diego, quarterback Dan Fouts, who had missed his team's previous five games with a shoulder injury, came back in spectacular fashion against the Denver Broncos. Fouts threw for 299 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-7 Charger victory.

In what must have seemed like a first to network television viewers, rookie quarterback John Elway of the Broncos lined up behind his left guard to take the snap late in the fourth period. Elway, however, is merely one of several NFL quarterbacks, including Hall of Famer George Blanda, to be embarrassed in this way over the years.

Meanwhile, in a battle of the have-nots in Tampa Bay, the Buccaneers won their second game of the season by beating the Houston Oilers, 33-24.

And when Miami routed Cincinnati 38-14 in the Orange Bowl Monday night, it completed a weekend in which every home team won - the first time, according to NFL statisticians, that this has ever happened.

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