(Reuters) - Super Bowl contenders have started to emerge from the pack with a handful of teams poised to clinch playoff spots this weekend as the National Football League's (NFL) regular season enters the home stretch.
Heading into final month of the schedule, 26 of the league's 32 teams are within two games of a playoff spot with only the Kansas City Chiefs (1-10) without a chance of making the trip to New Orleans in February for the NFL's championship game.
The playoff picture in the American Football Conference (AFC) could start to take shape this week with a quartet of division leaders, the Houston Texans (10-1), Baltimore Ravens (9-2), New England Patriots (8-3) and Denver Broncos (8-3), all in position to clinch playoff spots.
But the road to the postseason is wide open in the National Football Conference (NFC), with only the Atlanta Falcons (10-1) having an opportunity to secure a playoff berth this week.
It has been business as usual in the AFC with Tom Brady and the Patriots looking dangerous cruising along with a three-game lead in the East division and the Texans, living up to preseason predictions, owning a three-game cushion in the South.
The North division has witnessed another bruising street fight with the Ravens overcoming injuries to defensive lynchpins Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs to open up a three-game edge on the Cincinnati Bengals and the wounded Pittsburgh Steelers, who are down to third string quarterback Charlie Batch.
If there is a surprise in the AFC it has come out of the West division, where in-form quarterback Peyton Manning, back from career-threatening neck surgery, has led the Broncos to the top of the division and a commanding four-game lead over the short-circuiting San Diego Chargers.
A win over Tampa Bay on Sunday or losses by the Chargers would crown the Broncos as best in the West and set Denver's sights on first-round bye.
"Our goal is to keep winning and get to the big one," said Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. "We're going to take every game one at a time, take it week by week and just keep going."
The front runners are being chased by some unexpected dark horses, with rookie quarterback sensation Andrew Luck looking to crash the playoff party by returning the Indianapolis Colts to the postseason.
The worst team in the NFL a year ago at 2-14, the Colts hold the inside track on an AFC wild card spot with a 7-4 mark chased by the 6-5 Steelers and Bengals.
In the NFC, the surprise hangs over who might miss out on the postseason rather than who might advance.
"There's definitely a sense of urgency when you know you cannot stumble," said Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan. "You've got to go out and win each week and it starts with the present game."
No team will be feeling more urgency this week than the New Orleans Saints (5-6) who are in desperate need of a win to keep their fading playoff hopes alive as they travel to Atlanta to face the Falcons.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees has thrown a league-leading 31 touchdowns this season but had two interceptions returned for scores in a loss to the San Francisco 49ers last week that ended a three-game winning street and left New Orleans on the playoff brink.
The Saints, who handed the Falcons their only loss of the campaign earlier in November, will try for a series sweep and keep their NFC South rivals from locking up a playoff berth.
The Green Bay Packers (7-4), a popular preseason Super Bowl pick, trail the Chicago Bears (8-3) by a game in the North but face a tough test against the division rival Minnesota Vikings (6-5) that could impact their playoff chances.
The New York Giants (7-4) also face a key test on Monday when the Super Bowl champions travel to Washington to take on red-hot rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III and the Redskins (5-6) in a battle that could decide the NFC East.
Griffin brought the Redskins back into the playoff picture behind two brilliant performances against the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles but will need to produce more magic if Washington is to see the postseason.
The 49ers (8-2-1), another early Super Bowl favorite, have taken control of the West over the surprising Seattle Seahawks (6-5) but have not dominated in the fashion most expected and cannot afford a stumble this week against the St. Louis Rams (4-6), who battled them to a draw earlier this season.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue)