Division races taking shape

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Division races taking shape

As the NFL heads into December, nearly every division race has an outright favorite. Some - Denver, Atlanta, New England, Houston and Baltimore - are on the verge of clinching playoff spots.

The Broncos, Falcons, Ravens, Texans and Patriots took big steps toward making the postseason with victories this week. Denver in the AFC West and Atlanta in the NFC South both have four-game leads after tight road wins Sunday, while Baltimore went to overtime to secure a three-game margin in the AFC North.

Houston and New England did their work on Thanksgiving Day to grab three-game cushions in the AFC South and East, respectively. San Francisco's victory and a loss by Seattle pushed the 49ers' edge to 2 1/2 games in the NFC West. The New York Giants are up two games in the NFC East and dropped Green Bay to one game behind Chicago in the NFC North. Bears-Packers is the only truly close chase through 11 games.

Denver (8-3) had it much tougher than expected at Kansas City (1-10), but rallied for its sixth straight win as Peyton Manning threw for 285 yards and two touchdowns.

``It's a division opponent; you have to win,'' Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. ``You have got to win those games. It is what is going to prepare you for the playoffs.''

Manning hit tight end Jacob Tamme late in the first half and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas in the third quarter for scores, and that was more than enough to overcome three field goals by the Chiefs' Ryan Succop as Kansas City lost its eighth straight. Knowshon Moreno added 85 yards rushing in place of Willis McGahee, who went on injured reserve this week with a knee injury.

Jamaal Charles ran for 107 yards for the Chiefs.

The victory, combined with San Diego's 16-13 home loss to Baltimore, put the Broncos in position to win the division next week.

``We have to keep going,'' Thomas said. ``Our goal is to keep winning and get to the big game.''

Atlanta (10-1) edged Tampa Bay 24-23 as Matt Ryan threw for 353 yards and overcame two big turnovers by leading another late touchdown drive. Ryan teamed with Julio Jones on an 80-yard TD in the third quarter, but needed Michael Turner's 1-yard TD run with 7:55 left to win.

Connor Barth missed a 56-yard goal for Tampa Bay (6-5) in the closing minutes, and the Bucs' four-game winning streak ended.

``Ten-and-1 is great, but I'll tell you what I've said since the beginning of the season: We're just jockeying for position,'' 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.''

Elsewhere Sunday, it was San Francisco 31, New Orleans 21; the Giants 38, Green Bay 10; Chicago 28, Minnesota 10; Indianapolis 20, Buffalo 13; Cincinnati 34, Oakland 10; Cleveland 20, Pittsburgh 14; Miami 24, Seattle 21; St. Louis 31, Arizona 17; and Jacksonville 24, Tennessee 19.

On Thursday, Houston won at Detroit 34-31 in overtime; New England routed the New York Jets 49-19; and Washington beat Dallas 38-31.

Monday night, it is Carolina (2-8) at Philadelphia (3-7).

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RAVENS 16, CHARGERS 13 OT

At San Diego, the Ravens pulled off a fourth-and-29 conversion to stay alive, then Justin Tucker kicked a 38-yard field with 1:07 left in overtime to complete a stunning comeback.

San Diego (4-7) led 13-3 on Nick Novak's 30-yard field goal and seemed headed for its first win against a team with a winning record this season. But Ray Rice caught a short pass from Joe Flacco and weaved through the defense to the San Diego 33 with 1:37 to play. After a review, the ball was moved back to the 34 and the refs measured. The new spot gave the Ravens a first down by the length of the ball.

Six plays later, Tucker kicked a 38-yard field goal to tie the game as regulation expired.

The Ravens (9-2) won their fourth straight and for the eighth time in nine games.

49ERS 31, SAINTS 21

At New Orleans, the San Francisco defense stymied Drew Brees and ended the Saints' three-game winning streak. Ahmad Brooks and Donte Whitner each returned interceptions for touchdowns and the 49ers (8-2-1) sacked Brees five times.

Colin Kaepernick ran for one score that he made look easy and threw for a touchdown in another performance that validated coach Jim Harbaugh's decision to start him ahead of Alex Smith.

Brees finished with 267 yards and three TDs for New Orleans (5-6).

GIANTS 38, PACKERS 10

At East Rutherford, N.J., Eli Manning threw for three touchdowns, giving him 200 for his career, a team record, and New York sacked Aaron Rodgers five times.

Coming off their bye, the Giants (7-4) put to rest concerns about a dormant offense and a tired arm for Manning. He connected with rookie Rueben Randle, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks for scores, and Ahmad Bradshaw had a combined 119 yards, including a 59-yard sprint on a screen pass to begin the onslaught.

Mathias Kiwanuka had two of the sacks as Rodgers never got comfortable. Green Bay (7-4) had its five-game winning streak snapped.

FALCONS 24, BUCCANEERS 23

At Tampa, Fla., Matt Ryan threw for 353 yards and overcame two big turnovers by leading another late touchdown drive to end Tampa Bay's four-game winning streak.

Michael Turner's 1-yard TD run put Atlanta ahead for good with 7:55 left. Connor Barth missed a 56-yard goal for Tampa Bay (6-5) in the closing minutes, and Josh Freeman's desperation pass fell incomplete in the end zone with no time remaining.

The win enabled the Falcons (10-1) to keep pace with Houston for the NFL's best record.

BEARS 28, VIKINGS 10

At Chicago, Jay Cutler threw for 188 yards and a touchdown after missing a game because of a concussion as Chicago (8-3) ended a two-game losing streak.

The Bears grabbed a 25-3 halftime lead thanks to Cutler's pinpoint passing. The defense held Adrian Peterson in check early on, although he finished with 108 yards rushing for Minnesota (6-5).

The win could prove costly. The Bears lost wide receiver Devin Hester (concussion), running back Matt Forte (ankle), cornerback Charles Tillman (ankle) and both starting guards to injuries.

BRONCOS 17, CHIEFS 9

At Kansas City, Mo., Peyton Manning threw for 285 yards and two touchdowns, and Denver (8-3) rallied for its sixth straight win.

Manning hit tight end Jacob Tamme late in the first half and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas in the third quarter, and that was more than enough to overcome three field goals by the Chiefs' Ryan Succop as Kansas City lost its eighth straight game.

Jamaal Charles ran for 107 yards for the Chiefs (1-10), who haven't scored a touchdown since the first quarter against Pittsburgh on Nov. 12, a span of more than 11 quarters and 173 minutes of game time.

COLTS 20, BILLS 13

At Indianapolis, T.Y. Hilton scored on a 75-yard punt return and caught an 8-yard TD pass from Andrew Luck. He is the first player in franchise history to score by punt return and pass reception in the same game.

Luck was 20 of 37 for 240 yards with a TD and an interception as Indy improved to 7-4.

Buffalo (4-7) ended its red-zone drought with 11:30 left with a 1-yard TD pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Lee Smith. But the Bills moved closer to extending their string of non-playoff seasons to 13.

BENGALS 34, RAIDERS 10

At Cincinnati, Andy Dalton threw three touchdown passes in outdueling Cincinnati's former quarterback, Carson Palmer. BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran for 129 yards and a touchdown against the NFL's most generous defense. He had runs of 48 and 39 yards - the longest of his career - to set up scores for the Bengals (6-5).

Palmer had a tough time all-around in his return to Cincinnati, going 19 of 34 for 146 yards with four sacks and an interception.

Oakland (3-8) lost its fourth in a row.

A brawl in the fourth quarter resulted in Oakland's Tommy Kelly and Lamarr Houston and Cincinnati's Andrew Whitworth getting ejected.

BROWNS 20, STEELERS 14

At Cleveland, the Steelers (6-5) committed eight turnovers and third-string quarterback Charlie Batch struggled as the Browns (3-8) beat Pittsburgh for just the second time in 18 games.

Chris Rainey's fumble with 2:25 left was recovered by Cleveland's Phil Taylor to clinch it.

Batch, starting for Pittsburgh because of injuries to Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich, was picked off three times and the Steelers lost five fumbles, the last on the final play of the game.

Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden sustained a concussion in the final minutes when he banged his head while falling awkwardly after an incompletion. Backup Colt McCoy, who suffered a concussion when the teams met late last season, came in and finished off the win without attempting a pass.

DOLPHINS 24, SEAHAWKS 21

At Miami, Dan Carpenter kicked a 43-yard field goal on the final play, capping a rally by Miami (5-6), which scored 17 points in the last 8:08.

Rookie Ryan Tannehill drove Miami 65 yards in the final 92 seconds to set up the winning kick. He finished 18 for 26 for 253 yards and a score.

Leon Washington returned a kickoff for a touchdown for the eighth time to tie the NFL career record and put Seattle ahead with eight minutes left. Miami answered with an 80-yard drive capped by Tannehill's 29-yard scoring pass to Charles Clay, making it 21-21.

The Seahawks (6-5), who are unbeaten at home this year, lost for the fifth time in six road games.

RAMS 31, CARDINALS 17

At Glendale, Ariz., Janoris Jenkins became the first player in Rams history and the first NFL rookie since 1960 to return two interceptions for touchdowns in the same game and St. Louis (4-6-1) handed the Cardinals (4-7) their seventh loss in a row.

Jenkins' returns of 36 and 39 yards emphatically ended the Rams' streak of five straight games without an opponent turnover. Arizona rookie Ryan Lindley was intercepted four times in his first NFL start.

Sam Bradford had a pair of 37-yard touchdown passes to Lance Kendricks and Chris Givens as the Rams snapped a five-game winless streak. Steven Jackson rushed for 139 yards in 24 carries.

JAGUARS 24, TITANS 19

At Jacksonville, Chad Henne threw two touchdown passes, sparking the NFL's worst offense for the second consecutive week.

The Jaguars (2-9) snapped a seven-game losing streak and were competitive at home for the first time this season.

Henne, making his first start in more than 13 months, found Cecil Shorts III on a 59-yard touchdown play in the third quarter and hooked up with rookie Justin Blackmon for a 7-yard score in the fourth.

The Titans (4-7) cut the lead to 21-19 on Jake Locker's 6-yard pass to Kenny Britt with 4:52 remaining and had the ball with a chance to take the lead. But Russell Allen tipped Locker's pass over the middle, and Dwight Lowery - back on the field after a five-week absence - had his first interception of the season.

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Will Matt Elam make Ravens in 2016 after fifth-year option declined?

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Will Matt Elam make Ravens in 2016 after fifth-year option declined?

It was no surprise the Ravens did not pick up the fifth-year option on safety Matt Elam by Monday’s deadline. The bigger question is whether Elam even makes the team next season.

The 32nd pick in the 2013 draft, Elam has been one of the biggest first-round busts in team history. Some of the standout players who went after Elam in that draft include Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short (44th), Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell (48th), and Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins (52nd).

Elam missed all of last season with a torn biceps, after underperforming in 2013 and 2014. Elam was a big hitter in college at Florida, but has struggled with missed tackles as a Raven, and has been even worse in pass coverage. With the Ravens acquiring safety Eric Weddle in free agency, and Lardarius Webb switching from cornerback to safety, Elam is expected to be a backup at best. He will compete with Terrence Brooks, Kendrick Lewis, and others for a backup role.

Elam is scheduled to make $1.327 million next season, before becoming a free agent in 2017.  However, Elam’s first priority is to secure his place with the Ravens in 2016.  

AFC North: Steelers LB James Harrison will return for 2016

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AFC North: Steelers LB James Harrison will return for 2016

The Ravens can expect to see Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison as an opponent again in 2016. Harrison confirmed on his Instagram account Monday that he would return for another season.

Harrison will turn 38 years old Wednesday (May 4), but he was still effective in 2015 with five sacks and 40 tackles playing in the Steelers’ linebacker rotation. With his announcement that he was returning, Harrison wrote “I’m feeling just like a fine wine. Getting better with age.”

Despite Harrison’s age, the Steelers believe they got younger and better on defense through the draft. Five of the Steelers’ seven picks were on defense – cornerback Artie Burns (first round), safety Sean Davis (second), defensive tackle Javon Hargrave (third round), outside linebacker Travis Feeney (sixth round), and inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich (seventh round).  

Clearly, there will be plenty of new names in the Ravens-Steelers rivalry, with both teams looking to get younger and faster. However, Harrison plans to be part of the mix for at least another season. The Ravens host the Steelers in Week 9, and visit the Steelers on Christmas afternoon.

MORE RAVENS: BISCIOTTI GETS HIS WISH WITH BOLSTERED PASS RUSH

Bisciotti gets his wish with draft class full of pass rushers

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Bisciotti gets his wish with draft class full of pass rushers

At the team's "State of the Ravens" end-of-season news conference, owner Steve Bisciotti made no bones about where he thought the Ravens needed to improve in 2016: rushing the passer.

So although Bisciotti didn't speak to the media after the draft, he had to be pleased with the results.

With two of their first three picks, the Ravens selected players who figure to pressure the quarterback -- Boise State linebacker Kamalei Correa and Brigham Young defensive end Bronson Kaufusi.

"They both have pass rush ability," coach John Harbaugh said. "They both get sacks, they are both high-motor players and high-energy pass rushers. These two guys are going to run to the ball. These two guys are going to run to the ball 100 miles an hour every single play. That’s really important on defense.”

The next day, the Ravens added Grand Valley State defensive end Matt Judon -- who had 20 sacks last year -- in the fifth round. Just for good measure, they also reportedly agreed to sign undrafted rookie linebacker Victor Ochi of Stony Brook, who led the Football Championship Subdivision with 13 sacks.

Harbaugh said after the draft that "I don't think it was a secret" that Bisciotti wanted the Ravens to upgrade the pass rush, "and we were able to fill (that need). I’m really fired up about that. I’m really excited about these guys getting to the quarterback.”

Bisciotti said in January that losing Terrell Suggs to a season-ending injury in Week 1 had a "domino effect" that greatly disrupted the defense. Elvis Dumervil was forced into more of a three-down role, and Courtney Upshaw never came close to replacing Suggs' sack numbers. Dumervil dropped from 17 sacks to six, and overall the Ravens dropped from 49 sacks in 2014 to 37 last season.

When the pass rush failed to pressure the quarterback, coverage linebackers or defensive backs were frequently exposed.

"I think I have a true appreciation of what pressure means, and so that’s what I think we need to do," Bisciotti had said in January. "I think we need to focus on our free agency and our draft, and I think we have to have multiple pass rushers in order to let everybody else be effective.”

Suggs turns 34 in October and is coming off his second major Achilles injury. Dumervil is 32. So the need to develop good young pass rushers is obvious. The Ravens hope they took a big step in that direction over the weekend.

MORE RAVENS: EVALUATING ALL FIVE 4TH-ROUND SELECTIONS