The road to the Super Bowl has four branches: the ins, the outs, the wannabes and the NFC Central Division.

The ins - the San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers - know the postseason road well, having won 14 Super Bowls between them. The San Diego Chargers and Cleveland Browns have also clinched postseason berths.Sixteen of the 28 clubs won't make it into the playoffs, and the Buffalo Bills, for a change, will be on the outside looking in. The Bills have been in the loser's locker room the last four Super Bowls.

Monday night's Dallas victory over New Orleans ended the Saints' chances, slicing to nine the number of clubs in the running for the remaining six playoff spots. Those nine include four-fifths of the NFC Central.

Among the group of uncertain teams are one that lost seven straight (the New York Giants), one that has done almost all its winning behind a backup quarterback (the Chicago Bears) and one that seems to win despite itself (the Los Angeles Raiders).

A lot of things must happen in a short time, one week to be exact. But Dallas made the list a little shorter, defeating New Orleans 24-16 Monday night to eliminate the Saints.

That leaves six teams going for four NFC berths - the Central title and three wild cards. None of those combatants plays each other, but the Bears play the Patriots, who must win at Chicago or have Kansas City lose to the Raiders to get an AFC wild card. The Patriots also could win the AFC East by beating the Bears and having Miami lose to Detroit on Christmas night.

Detroit also resides in that silly Central, where everybody but, naturally, Tampa Bay, has a shot at the division crown and a wild card. In fact, the pecking order is clear in the NFC Central: Minnesota, Detroit, Chicago and Green Bay, in that order.

If all four win, all are in, with Minnesota taking the division. If any of them lose, they're in danger of having the Giants or Cardinals steal away the wild-card berth.

"I would rather be in our situation and have the pressure," Packers coach Mike Holmgren said of Saturday's game at Tampa.

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The Vikings might have the toughest task. They need a final-game victory to finish 10-6 and win the division. But that victory must come against the best team in the league, the 49ers, on Monday night, after everyone else has finished.

And if they lose, while the other three Central teams win, they could sink to fourth in the division, and out of the playoffs if Arizona beats Atlanta and Dallas beats the Giants.

Four of the contenders meet Saturday: The Patriots vs. the Bears, and the Chiefs vs. the Raiders. The winner of Kansas City-Los Angeles is in, no matter what the Patriots do.

Two contenders meet Sunday night, the Lions and Dolphins. Two others, Arizona (Atlanta) and Green Bay (Tampa Bay) have the possible good fortune of playing also-rans.

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