NEW YORK (AP) — The NFL playoff picture could become crystal clear this weekend. Yes, it's early, yet half of the division races could be over on Sunday, with the Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots, Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons 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. "We're not worried about it," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "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. The Houston Texans, who share 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.
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 against visiting Tampa Bay he will pass Dan Marino for second on the all-time list behind Brett Favre.
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 Buccaneers 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 quarterback Josh Freeman.
Meanwhile, the Patriots are back in their accustomed role as a Super Bowl favorite thanks to an unstoppable offense (407 points, 80 more than the next team), incredible turnover margin (an AFC-high 32 takeaways and conference-low eight giveaways) and a five-game winning streak.
The Dolphins rarely challenge the Patriots. In their last four wins at Miami, the Patriots have averaged 44 points a game. They take the ball away ... and then they lead the league with only eight giveaways," Dolphins coach Joe Philbin says of the Patriots' mastery in the division. "That's a great place to start if you want to talk about winning football games in the National Football League."
Also on Sunday, it's Seattle at Chicago, Minnesota at Green Bay, San Francisco at St. Louis, Indianapolis at Detroit, Philadelphia at Dallas, Carolina at Kansas City, Arizona at the New York Jets, Jacksonville at Buffalo, and Cleveland at Oakland.
On Monday, the New York Giants are in Washington. The action began on Thursday with Atlanta beating New Orleans 23-13, exploiting a career-worst five interceptions by Saints quarterback Drew Brees.