By Simon Evans
Dec 16 (Reuters) - The Green Bay Packers beat the Bears 21-13 in Chicago on Sunday to secure a place in the playoffs while the Atlanta Falcons showed they will be a force to be reckoned with in the postseason by smashing the New York Giants 34-0.
The Giants' first shutout since 1996 blew the race for top spot in the NFC East wide open, with the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys joining New York in a three-way tie at 8-6.
The Cowboys' thrilling 27-24 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Steelers handed Baltimore a post-season berth for the fifth straight year despite the Ravens suffering a third consecutive defeat, this time to the Denver Broncos.
The Houston Texans secured the AFC South title with a 29-17 win over division rivals Indianapolis.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw three touchdown passes to James Jones as Green Bay moved to 10-4, putting them out of reach of the Bears, who slipped to 8-6.
After starting the season 7-1, the Bears have now lost five of their last six and their only hope of making the playoffs is with a wildcard.
Green Bay receiver Jones caught touchdown passes of 29 and eight yards in the second quarter as the Packers fought back to take the lead after a 15-yard Jay Cutler pass to Bears receiver Brandon Marshall had opened the scoring.
After the third Rodgers-Jones combination in the third quarter, the Bears could manage only two field goals as their old rivals sealed their second successive divisional title.
With two games left to play, the NFC East is suddenly the most fascinating division in the league with the Giants now overtaken by the Redskins, who have the tie-break advantage in divisional games.
New York have won just two of their last six games and along with the Redskins, the Dallas Cowboys could yet have a say in the outcome of the division.
Atlanta's victory was a statement of their intent in the postseason as Mike Smith's team confirmed their status as the top team in the NFC.
Matt Ryan threw three touchdowns and finished with 270 yards as the Falcons dominated from the outset, going 14-0 up in the first quarter thanks to a one-yard Michael Turner run and a 12-yard Ryan pass to tight end Tony Gonzalez.
Receiver Julio Jones caught a 40-yard touchdown pass from Ryan in the third and then finished off with a three-yard catch in the final quarter.
The Cowboys kept their playoff dreams alive with a third win a row thanks to some overtime drama.
Brandon Carr intercepted a pass from Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and returned it 36 yards, a yard short of the end-zone, to set up a game-winning 21-yard field goal from Dan Bailey.
The loss was the fourth in five games for the Steelers, who remain in the playoff hunt at 7-7.
The question hanging over the Redskins as they traveled to Cleveland was whether they would be able to cope with the absence of injured quarterback Robert Griffin III.
Another rookie, Kirk Cousins, was given the start in place of 'RGIII' and did not disappoint. The 102nd pick in this year's draft had 329 passing yards and two touchdowns to earn the Redskins a vital win.
Making his first career start after Griffin's knee sprain, Cousins's 54-yard scoring pass to Leonard Hankerson canceled out a six-yard Trent Richardson rushing touchdown in the first.
Cousins found Hankerson again with a two-yard pass in the third as the Redskins secured their fifth consecutive win with the help of touchdown runs from Evan Royster and Alfred Morris.
The Texans (12-2) had already assured themselves of a place in the postseason but their win over the Colts secured them the AFC South title.
Indianapolis are not yet sure of a wild-card place although at 9-5 they remain in a strong position.
Running back Arian Foster rushed for 165 yards for Houston while Andre Johnson had 151 yards receiving and scored on a three-yard Matt Schaub pass in the first quarter to put the Texans 10-0 up.
The game turned decisively in Houston's direction in the second quarter when Bryan Braman returned a blocked punt eight yards for a touchdown.
The contrasting form of Denver and Baltimore continued with Peyton Manning and the Broncos enjoying a ninth straight win in a 34-17 victory that dropped the Ravens to 9-5.
Drew Brees threw four touchdowns as the New Orleans Saints (6-8) crushed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 41-0. (Reporting By Simon Evans, editing by Gene Cherry/Peter Rutherford)
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