With only three weeks remaining in the regular season, the battle to secure a play-off place is coming down to a complicated game of mathematics. Only the Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks are assured of post-season play. That leaves 10 play-off berths open, with 16 teams contesting them, and no clear picture of who will make it.
Take the Chicago Bears, for example. An eight-game winning streak had them looking comfortable, but they were upset 21-9 by a Pittsburgh Steelers side who had lost three in succession. The veteran running back Jerome Bettis enjoyed his first 100-yard rushing game of the campaign in snowy conditions, and his two touchdowns proved the difference.
"We were desperate," said the Steelers' Hines Ward. "It's a one-game season every week for us. We've got to play like it's the play-offs because we don't have a lot of room for error." There was more joy for Pittsburgh as two of their main rivals were beaten. The San Diego Chargers surprisingly lost 23-21 at home to the Miami Dolphins, who thereby kept their own slender hopes intact, while the Kansas City Chiefs fell 31-28 in Dallas.
The Chiefs had forged a 28-24 lead on the strength of Larry Johnson's 143 rushing yards and three touchdowns, but with 22 seconds left, Drew Bledsoe threw his third touchdown of the game, a one-yarder to Dan Campbell, to put the Cowboys in front. Even then the Chiefs could have tied it, but their kicker, Lawrence Tynes, missed a 41-yard attempt as time expired.
The New York Giants were made to work hard for a 26-23 overtime result in frosty Philadelphia. With little to play for, the Eagles played with surprising passion, and in the rookie running back Ryan Moats, they may have unearthed a future gem. However, the star turn proved to be New York's kicker, Jay Feely. Two weeks ago, he missed three field goals as his side lost in overtime in Seattle. This time he was able to atone, a 36-yard effort settling what had been a spirited dispute between bitter enemies.
Cincinnati and Denver ground out dour victories over Cleveland and Baltimore respectively to stand on the threshold of the post-season, while Minnesota's renaissance continued with a 27-13 verdict over the St Louis Rams, their sixth victory in succession.
There is no slowing Seattle and Indianapolis. The Seahawks thrashed San Francisco 41-3 and, for once, their star was not the running back Shaun Alexander. Matt Hasselbeck threw a season-high four touchdowns to confirm that there is more to this team than simply Alexander's power on the ground.
"All you hear about is Shaun, which is great because he deserves it," said Seattle's Robbie Tobeck. "But Matt's done a great job with this team. You can't win in the play-offs without a quarterback who isn't playing well."
The Colts' 26-18 win over Jacksonville meant theynot only clinched home field advantage throughout the play-offs, they also became only the fourth team in history to start a season 13-0. Belief is growing that the Colts can emulate the 1972 Miami Dolphins and go through a season undefeated, although their head coach, Tony Dungy, is trying to maintain a sense of perspective.
"Going 16-0 would be great, but it's not the most important thing," he said. "I like history. I appreciate it. But I think it's best not to look too far ahead."