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NFL playoffs nearly set

The Lions and Falcons are in; the Eagles are out. Cincinnati is closing in on a playoff berth, while the Jets and Raiders need some help.

All part of a wild closing act to the NFL season.

With one game remaining this weekend before teams hunker down for their finales (Atlanta at New Orleans tonight), the most notable news was made by Detroit.

The last time the Lions were a force, Barry Sanders was in their backfield. Sanders retired after the 1998 season, and Detroit made the postseason the next year then plummeted to the bottom of the league. In 2008, the Lions posted the only 0-16 record in NFL history.

Now, they’re in the chase for the championship. Their 38-10 rout of San Diego secured an NFC wild card.

“Once you get to the playoffs, it’s anybody’s ballgame,” defensive end Cliff Avril said. “The city of Detroit needs it. They’ve been waiting on us to win for a while. It’s such a football town and we haven’t been winning, so it’s huge.”

At 10-5, the Lions join North champion Green Bay, West winner San Francisco and South leader New Orleans in the postseason parade. Either Dallas or the New York Giants also will get there – they meet next Sunday night at the Meadowlands in a winner-take-all matchup.

So if the Cowboys and Giants, both 8-7, are battling for the NFC East crown, where does that leave the Eagles, the most disappointing team in the league?

Dreaming of the playoffs.

The team that “won” free agency after the NFL lockout by signing such prizes as cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, defensive end Jason Babin and receiver Steve Smith needs to beat Washington next Sunday to finish at .500. Not much return on the dollar for Philly.

“If we had gotten into the playoffs, we would have definitely done some damage,” Michael Vick said after the Eagles (7-8) beat Dallas 20-7 on Sunday. “It’s unfortunate we didn’t. That’s the game of football. We made some mistakes early (this season) and got behind in the win-loss column. But we’re just happy we’re finishing strong.”

Finishing strong but going to the playoffs: New England, which won its seventh in a row by rallying from a 17-0 hole to beat Miami 27-24. It was the 10th time this season a team has come back from at least 17 points to win, the most in a single NFL season.

“All the while, we never gave up on one another and never said anything negative to one another,” defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said. “Going down 17-0 is a pretty big deficit, but once again this team showed its character.”

The AFC East champion Patriots (12-3) would get home-field advantage for the playoffs by beating Buffalo next weekend.

Green Bay (14-1) clinched home-field edge in the NFC with its win over Chicago on Sunday night.

That’s the simple stuff. As for the chaotic, well, just one look at the AFC wild-card race after Sunday’s results can make your head spin.

Suffice to say that the Bengals (9-6) are in control. But if they lose to Baltimore (11-4), which needs a win to clinch the AFC North over Pittsburgh (11-4), it brings three teams into play for the final AFC berth: Tennessee, Oakland and New York Jets.

The Jets (8-7), like Philadelphia, are one of the NFL’s major flops this year. For much of the stretch drive, the Jets were in charge of the chase for the second AFC wild card. They kept messing up, though, and after Sunday’s ugly 29-14 loss to the Giants, they barely are relevant.

Unless everyone else in the AFC wild-card scramble loses, the Jets can forget the Super Bowl this winter.