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GREEN BAY TO CHEER FOR 49ERS TONIGHT

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Even after 16 games, the Green Bay Packers don't know how their season ended.

Thanks to the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins, the Packers (9-7) are still in the running for the NFC Central title. They'll find out, finally, if it is to be theirs when San Francisco meets the Minnesota Vikings tonight in the final NFL regular-season game.A Minnesota victory will give the title to the Vikings, but a loss will make Green Bay the champion.

"It's a special day," Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren said after the Packers closed the season with a 34-19 victory Saturday over Tampa Bay. "We've had our backs to the wall all season. If the breaks fall right, we'll host a playoff game next week."

New England did its part for the Packers by beating the Chicago Bears 13-3, and Miami followed through with a 27-20 victory Sunday night over Detroit.

That eliminated those two playoff-bound NFC Central teams from the title chase. If San Francisco, at 13-2 the team with the best record in the league, can finish off Minnesota, Green Bay would open the playoffs next week at home against Chicago.

"We're peaking," quarterback Bret Favre said after the Packers' third consecutive victory. "I think everybody would agree that this 9-7 team is much better than last year's 9-7."

The victory over Chicago kept alive, for a day, New England's hopes of winning the AFC East title. Miami ended that hope, however, by winning Sunday night. Miami and New England finished 10-6, but the Dolphins got the title by virtue of beating the Patriots twice.

Still, the Patriots are in the playoffs - and a lot faster than many figured possible for a team that lost 14 games only two seasons ago.

"The lesson is that it's always a little premature to talk about the contenders or the (non-contenders) because a lot could happen," coach Bill Parcells said. "This is perfect evidence . . . where you can win seven straight and make something on the last day of the season."

Parcell's Patriots are riding a seven-game winning streak, second-longest current run in the NFL. The next longest is the six-game run of the New York Giants, who missed the playoffs despite a 9-7 record when Green Bay beat Tampa Bay.