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Pittsburgh was the only contender not to lose to a weak team, falling twice to Baltimore, and to San Francisco and Houston. The Steelers won seven of their last eight as their supposedly aged defense looked fresh and frugal.
"We have a lot of veterans who know what January football is all about," said safety Ryan Clark. "Now's the time to go play it.
"Now we have to go and play better on the road," he added of Sunday's game in Denver. "I believe this team can win anywhere."
When a team is peaking, that certainly is true. The Steelers (2005) and Packers (2010) got going in December and carried their superb play right through the postseason.
Unfortunately for some playoff qualifiers, their recent performances spell early exit.
The banged-up Texans (10-6) lost their final three games, are playing a rookie, third-string quarterback, and have never been in the playoffs. Their opponent Saturday is Cincinnati (9-7), loser of three of its past five, backing into the postseason thanks to other team's defeats in their finales.
Detroit was torrid in going 5-0, tepid in losing five of the next seven. The Lions (10-6), in their first playoffs since 1999, already have lost at New Orleans this season.
Atlanta went 4-4 on the road and, barring a slew of surprises, won't get a home game. The Falcons don't match up well with any of the NFC's other playoff teams except, perhaps, the Giants. A win in the Meadowlands on Sunday wouldn't be shocking, but anything beyond would be.
Then there's Denver (8-8), which sneaked away with the AFC West despite losing its final three games as Tim Tebow stopped performing great escapes. The Broncos have a good defense, a terrific placekicker, and a lot of questions.
"It's what you make it," coach John Fox said of the Super Bowl chase. "I know not too many years ago, there was a team in New Orleans that lost their last three, and I think they won the Super Bowl."
These Broncos don't resemble those Saints at all.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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