Football / NFL / Playoffs Taking Shape With a Month to Go

The Atlanta Falcons and Denver Broncos have four-game leads and can earn titles with victories on Sunday.

NEW YORK - More than a month from the end of the NFL season, nearly every division race is decided.

The Atlanta Falcons and Denver Broncos have four-game leads and can earn titles with victories on Sunday, although the Falcons also need Tampa Bay to lose, coincidentally, to the Broncos, who don't need any help if they win to walk off with the AFC West.

The Falcons (10-1) get an early start by hosting New Orleans tommorow. Considering the rivalry, and that Atlanta's only defeat this season has been to the Saints, taking the NFC South crown merely adds to the team's already soaring incentives.

"Ten and one is great, but I'll tell you what I've said since the beginning of the season: We're just jockeying for position," star Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "Right around this time is when you want to start jelling as a team and take it on into the playoffs because that's the most important thing."

Denver (8-3) already has swept San Diego, so one more victory puts Peyton Manning back in the playoffs with his new team. Oddly, Manning's Indianapolis Colts didn't always fare so well after winning their division early, but every coach, including his latest one, John Fox, will say that owning a postseason berth overrides any potential negatives.

Manning's mindset is to keep the foot on the accelerator regardless of the standings. "You certainly always want to get better late in the season," he said. "You either get better, or you get worse and our goal is to get better every week."

The Baltimore Ravens (9-2 ) can grab the AFC North crown by beating visiting Pittsburgh and having Cincinnati lose at San Diego. A division race that most projected to be tight barely will get into December if that happens.

The Ravens should be thankful if that occurs, because they are as banged up as anybody and they wouldn't need to rush defensive leader Ray Lewis back onto the field.

Baltimore also would like nothing more than to spend the entire playoffs at home, where it is 5-0, especially if it can avoid a trip to Houston, where the Texans routed the Ravens 43-13 last month.

Houston (10-1 ) is in the unusual position of owning the AFC's best record, yet not being in line for an immediate clinching. Even if the Texans win at Tennessee on Sunday and the AFC South runner-up, the Colts, fall at Detroit, the division remains unsolved because Indianapolis and Houston meet twice in the final three weeks.

A wild-card berth is within reach for the Texans, but that's hardly what they're aiming for.

No team wants to trek to Foxborough in the playoffs, even if the New England Patriots have been eliminated from the Super Bowl chase at home in two of the last three years. New England (8-3) can wrap up the AFC East by beating Miami on Sunday because the Patriots would own all of the necessary tiebreakers in the division.

Coach Bill Belichick is not likely to let up a bit even when that happens. Did anyone notice how long quarterback Tom Brady was on the field during the 49-19 romp over the Jets on Thanksgiving, a game decided in the second period?

The only truly close division through 11 games is the NFC North, where the Chicago Bears (8-3) have a one-game edge on Green Bay, but have lost to the Packers. The Bears also lost a handful of starters to injuries, so holding off the Packers could be problematic. Of course, Green Bay also is plagued by injuries to stars such as Clay Matthews, Greg Jennings and Charles Woodson.

That one could go down to the season finales, when the Bears are at Detroit and the Packers visit the Minnesota Vikings, who are in the wild-card race. Green Bay is at Chicago on Dec. 16.

Both of last season's NFC championship game teams are in good shape in their divisions, but could be tested before clinching. The Super Bowl champion New York Giants are two games up on the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys, and they are at Washington on Monday. The Redskins have a better record within the NFC East and might push New York to the limit if they can win.

The San Francisco 49ers' rare tie has not hurt them in the standings. At 8-2-1, they lead Seattle by 2 1/2 games, and the Seahawks have dropped all three NFC West contests. The teams meet on Dec. 23 at Seattle, but by then it could be too late to make any difference.