By Larry Fine
EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey, Dec 15 (Reuters) - The Seattle Seahawks hit the mark for what they hope is their Super Bowl rehearsal by blanking the New York Giants 23-0 on Sunday at the winter-weather site of Super Bowl 48.
The Seahawks, who have already reached the playoffs with an NFC-best mark of 12-2, coolly closed in on securing a first-round bye as West Division winners on a Week 15 schedule in which nearly every game held playoff implications.
Seattle's top-rated defense stole the show, intercepting two-time Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Eli Manning five times in shutting down the hosting Giants (5-9). The Seahawks hope to return to the Meadowlands for a Super Bowl appearance on Feb. 2.
New England (10-4) appeared poised to notch a fourth straight come-from-behind win and clinch the AFC East title before quarterback Tom Brady's fourth-down pass was intercepted by safety Michael Thomas in the end zone with two seconds left to preserve a 24-20 win for the Miami Dolphins.
The Dolphins (8-6), desperately needing a win to stay in the thick of the AFC wildcard race, recovered from a 20-17 deficit when quarterback Ryan Tannehill hit Marcus Thigpen with a 14-yard touchdown pass with 1:21 left in the game.
Miami snapped a string of seven consecutive losses against the Patriots, who lost ground in their quest to snare the top seeding in the AFC.
The San Francisco 49ers set themselves up for a possible playoff clinching later on Sunday by walloping the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 33-14.
San Francisco (10-4) dominated possession, outgaining Tampa Bay 187 yards to 39 on the ground while quarterback Colin Kaepernick completed 19 of 29 passes including two TD connections.
The Niners, who controlled the ball for nearly 40 minutes, will clinch a spot in the playoffs should Arizona (8-5) lose at Tennessee (5-8).
The Philadelphia Eagles suffered a damaging defeat, falling 48-30 to the Minnesota Vikings, who were playing without Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson and his back-up Toby Gerhart.
Philadelphia entered the contest with a one-game lead over the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East, but slipped to 8-6 as Vikings quarterback Matt Cassell completed 26 of 35 for 382 yards and two touchdowns.
Minnesota (4-9-1) led 27-9 in the third quarter before the Eagles clawed back with two scores to pull within 27-22 going into the fourth quarter. Philadelphia's defense, however, could not hold down the Vikings, who responded with two fourth-quarter touchdowns to restore the cushion.
The Chicago Bears looked in danger of losing ground in the tight NFC North race before battling back to beat the Cleveland Browns 38-31 in a winning return by quarterback Jay Cutler.
Cutler, who missed the previous four games due to a sprained ankle, shook off some early rust and tossed three touchdown passes for Chicago, who trailed 24-17 after three quarters.
Taking the reins back from back-up Josh McCown, Cutler connected on 22 of 31 throws for 265 yards.
The Bears, who began the day tied with the Detroit Lions for the division lead, improved their record to 8-6.
AFC South champions the Indianapolis Colts took out their frustrations over a 42-28 loss last week to the Cincinnati Bengals by thumping the woeful Houston Texans (2-12) 25-3.
The victory improved the Colts to 9-5 and fueled their hopes of improving their seeding for the playoffs. (Reporting by Larry Fine, Editing by Gene Cherry)