AP Pro Football Writer
The playoff picture could get crystal clear this weekend. Yeah, it’s early, yet half the division races could be over by Sunday night, with Baltimore, New England, Denver and Atlanta owning titles.
The simplest route can be traversed by the Broncos and Patriots. Win and they’re in: Denver at home to Tampa Bay, and New England at Miami.
"We know it’s a big game. Miami knows it’s a big game. There aren’t many left," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said.
If the Broncos fall to the Buccaneers, they still win the AFC West if San Diego loses at home to Cincinnati.
"It’s important," Denver defensive end Elvis Dumervil said. "Obviously, you want to be champion of your division. It gives you the right to get to the playoffs. That’s an accomplishment, especially when you don’t have to wait on another team to win or lose."
Baltimore can eliminate visiting Pittsburgh from winning the AFC North by beating its archrival, and then can grab the division crown if Cincinnati loses at Oakland.
"Who’s talking about it? You are," Terrell Suggs told reporters. "We’re not worried about it. ... We know what the bigger picture is, the overall goal, and we can’t be satisfied with anything so early in the season."
Considering the rest some regulars might be able to get, that seems somewhat shortsighted.
Houston, which shares the best record in the league with Atlanta at 10-1, can’t clinch the AFC South this week, but it can earn at least a wild-card spot with a victory or losses by two of the following three: Miami, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. The Texans are at Tennessee.
The action began Thursday night with Atlanta’s 23-13 victory over New Orleans. The Falcons improved to 11-1, and the Saints dropped to 5-7.
Tampa Bay (6-5) at Denver (8-3)
Peyton Manning’s first season in Denver has been a mile high success by all measurements, and clinching the division seems a mere formality. If Manning gets nine completions he will pass Dan Marino for second behind Brett Favre for his illustrious career.
Denver’s defense has solidified and linebacker Von Miller is playing as well as anyone in the league, on offense or defense.
His unit will be tested by a Bucs offense that has not scored fewer than 22 points since Week 3, with rookie running back Doug Martin and wideouts Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams particularly effective complementing QB Josh Freeman.
New England (8-3) at Miami (5-6)
An unstoppable offense (407 points, 80 more than the next team), incredible turnover margin (plus-24, AFC-high 32 takeaways and conference-low eight giveaways) and a five-game winning streak have lifted the Patriots back to their accustomed role as a Super Bowl favorite.
The Dolphins rarely challenge the Patriots, who have won 12 in a row overall in December. In their last four wins at Miami, the Pats have averaged 44 points a game.
"Plus 24 is what I see," Dolphins coach Joe Philbin says of the Patriots’ mastery in the division. They take the ball away ... and then they lead the league with only eight giveaways.
"That’s a great place to start if you want to talk about winning football games in the National Football League."
Pittsburgh (6-5) at Baltimore (9-2)
The Ravens won in Pittsburgh two weeks ago and the Steelers are reeling with no passing offense as Ben Roethlisberger recovers from shoulder and rib injuries. This is one of the NFL’s most intense rivalries, and the last thing the Steelers want is to put Baltimore in position to grab the AFC North championship.
Ray Rice gained 30 yards on fourth-and-29 with the game on the line in last week’s Ravens win at San Diego. No matter what the Ravens do Sunday -- or for the rest of the season for that matter -- that figures to go down as the play of the year.
Cincinnati (6-5) at San Diego (4-7)
If the Bengals don’t stumble against weak competition, they will go into the final two weeks of the schedule with a great shot at a wild card. They’ve done well so far during this hiatus from tough competition, beating Kansas City and Oakland, and they finish their stint in the AFC West against the spiraling Chargers, who have lost three straight and six of seven.
Dallas and Philadelphia follow for the Bengals before they close with division rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
Houston (10-1) at Tennessee (4-7)
When the Texans won 10 times last year, making the playoffs for the first time, it was a franchise record. They are on pace to shatter that and are the league’s only unbeaten team on the road at 5-0.
"Yeah, we’ve never been in this position before as a team," receiver Andre Johnson said. "At the same time, we’re learning as we go through this experience, but we know every game gets bigger and that because you have a chance to fight to be the top of the AFC."
Seattle (6-5) at Chicago (8-3)
The Seahawks are the most schizophrenic team in the league, going 5-0 at home and 1-5 away. Their loss at Miami last Sunday, in which they faded down the stretch, means a victory at Soldier Field is even more important for them to stay in control of the final wild-card spot. Seattle has won three of the last four regular-season matchups.
Chicago won’t be at full strength after a slew of injuries hit in last weekend’s win over Minnesota.
But if the revamped offensive line can give Jay Cutler enough time to throw, and the defense does its usual job of applying pressure to the quarterback -- in this case, rookie Russell Wilson -- the Bears should be in good shape.
Minnesota (6-5) at Green Bay (7-4)
Green Bay leads the NFC wild-card chase and is one game in back of Chicago in the NFC North, but it could be a rough go the last month for the Packers if they don’t get healthy.
They barely showed up at the Giants last week, and with Clay Matthews, Greg Jennings and Charles Woodson hobbled, their depth is being tested.
The Vikings figure to hand off to Adrian Peterson as much as possible, and if the Packers can’t slow him down, then not having a fully healthy Percy Harvin at wideout won’t be critical for Minnesota.
San Francisco (8-2-1) at St. Louis (4-6-1)
Niners coach Jim Harbaugh seemed amused when asked if this seemed like a continuation of the 24-24 tie of Nov. 11 -- the first NFL draw since 2008.
He definitely was not amused by the lengthy line of questioning he’s gotten about going with second-year QB Colin Kaepernick over incumbent Alex Smith, who sustained a concussion against the Rams but now is healthy.
New York Giants (7-4) at Washington (5-6), Monday night
These teams staged one of the season’s best games at the Meadowlands, a 27-23 Giants win on Oct. 21. Robert Griffin III has helped the Redskins climb back into wild-card contention, and a victory here would put them one game behind the defending Super Bowl champions in the NFC East.
"At the end of the day, you have to step up and play at a certain level," Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said. "Our focus right now is to play our best football ... Our goal is to win the NFC East and to do that, we have to play well."
New York played extremely well last Sunday night in romping past Green Bay, breaking a two-game slide.
Indianapolis (7-4) at Detroit (4-7)
The Colts can reach eight wins one season after going 2-14 and earning the top selection in the draft. Quarterback Andrew Luck has been superb at home, but is 2-3 on the road.
Luck certainly has the playmakers to match up with Detroit’s second-ranked offense in veteran Reggie Wayne and emerging youngsters T.Y. Hilton and Dwayne Allen.
Detroit has lost three straight to winning teams and has only one remaining opponent currently with a losing record.
Philadelphia (3-8) at Dallas (5-6)
Dallas remains on the fringe of playoff contention, which is a lot more than anyone can say about Philly. As the Andy Reid era winds down, the Eagles have lost seven in a row, including to the Cowboys three weeks ago.
For the Cowboys to actually have a shot at making the postseason, they must do better in the turnover department. They are minus-11, which is awful, yet better than Philadelphia’s minus-17.
This is an opportunity for them to take advantage of the Eagles’ charitable ways, but Dallas has lost its last eight Sunday night games.
Arizona (4-7) at New York Jets (4-7)
What does it say about Arizona’s offense when the best quarterback on the field at the Meadowlands will be Mark Sanchez?
The Cardinals, despite having star receiver Larry Fitzgerald and the return of running back Beanie Wells from injury, are impotent. They rank 31st overall with the ball and have scored a measly 180 points, better then only Kansas City.
Sanchez will try not to run into any of his offensive linemen this week as the Jets attempt to avoid the turnovers that have helped derail their season.
Jacksonville (2-9) at Buffalo (4-7)
Chad Henne has provided some spark to a previously dormant offense, and that’s gotten top draft pick Justin Blackmon more involved. Second-year receiver Cecil Shorts III also has emerged.
But the Jaguars still are a weak team, and the Bills can be productive with the ball at home, where they begin a three-game stand -- albeit the Dec. 16 match with Seattle is in Toronto.
Buffalo has averaged 29 points a game at Orchard Park, where the potentially icy conditions wouldn’t help Jacksonville a bit.
Cleveland (3-8) at Oakland (3-8)
Not much to pump up here, although the Browns could win a second straight game for the first time since Sept. 25 -- of last year. Trent Richardson is closing in on the rookie rushing mark for the Browns, held by Jim Brown (942 yards in 1957).
Carolina (3-8) at Kansas City (1-10)
Cam Newton feasted on the Eagles’ inept defense on Monday night. Kansas City is much more of a challenge because at least the Chiefs seem to be trying, despite losing eight straight.
KC can run the ball with Jamaal Charles, which is critical considering how poorly Chiefs QBs have performed.