AP Pro Football Writer
Start the playoffs now.
Well, just about.
More than a month from the end of the NFL season, and nearly every division race is decided. Atlanta and Denver have four-game leads and can earn titles with victories 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 on Thursday night. 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 tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "We just want to put ourselves in the best position, playing the best football. 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 Colts didn’t always fare so well after early clinchings, but every coach, including his latest one, John Fox, will say that owning a postseason berth overrides any potential negatives.
"We can’t influence what everyone else does over the last five games," Fox said. "We know we have to take care of this week and that’ll be our mindset."
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."
Baltimore (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 go down to the wire 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 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 the necessary tiebreakers in the division.
Bill Belichick is not likely to let up a bit even when that happens. Did anyone notice how long Tom Brady was on the field during the 49-19 romp over the Jets on Thanksgiving night, a game decided in the second period?
The only truly close division through 11 games is the NFC North, where Chicago (8-3) has a one-game edge on Green Bay, but has lost to the Packers. The Bears also lost a handful of starters to injuries Sunday, 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 Vikings, who are in the wild-card derby. 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 Giants are two games up on Washington and Dallas, and they are at the Redskins on Monday night. The Skins have a better record within the NFC East and might push New York to the limit if they can win in prime time.
The 49ers’ rare tie has not hurt their standing 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 Dec. 23 at Seattle, but by then it could be too late to make any difference.