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NFL playoffs taking shape, and still a month to go

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NFL playoffs taking shape, and still a month to go

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.

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Ravens' Breshad Perriman eager to play Thursday, though decision up to coaches

Ravens' Breshad Perriman eager to play Thursday, though decision up to coaches

OWINGS MILLS – Wide receiver Breshad Perriman is eager to make his Ravens debut Thursday night against the Saints, saying he is fine physically, and not thinking about his knees during practice.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh has been coy about his plans for preseason playing time, but Harbaugh said Monday that he hoped Perriman would play.

After more than a year of dealing with knee injuries, Perriman is understandably pumped to see action.

“Very exciting,” said Perriman, after doing extra work after practice Tuesday. “I’ve been waiting for a long time. It’s finally coming.

“It’s up the coaches. I’m ready to go.”

Perriman was the Ravens first-round pick in 2015 (25th overall), but missed his entire rookie season with a partially-torn PCL in his right knee. Then Perriman suffered a partially torn ACL in his left knee in May, which kept him out of action until Aug. 18, when he was activated off the PUP list.

Perriman’s combination of size (6-foot-2, 218 pounds) and sprinter’s speed could make the Ravens a different-looking offensive team if he can stay healthy. In his final college season at Central Florida, Perriman averaged 20.9 yards per catch, had 1,044 yards receiving, and had nine touchdown catches.

The immediate plan is for Perriman to finally take the field Thursday, shed some rust, take a few hits, and gain more confidence heading into Week 1. Returning to practice has already given Perriman a better feel for working with starting quarterback Joe Flacco.

“Me and Joe getting the chemistry back,” Perriman said. “It’s real good.”

Perriman hopes his serious injuries are a thing of the past. And why he hasn’t been able to play, Perriman setbacks have made him a stronger person.

“When you go through all the stuff that I’ve been through, this year, and last year, it definitely makes you stronger mentally,” said Perriman. “You just can’t let things break you.”

MORE RAVENS: Ravens trim roster to 75, send RB to reserve PUP

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Lorenzo Taliaferro goes to reserve PUP as Ravens trim roster to 75

Lorenzo Taliaferro goes to reserve PUP as Ravens trim roster to 75

OWINGS MILLS – Third-year running back Lorenzo Taliaferro was placed on the reserve PUP list, backup kicker Wil Lutz was waived, and offensive lineman Stephane Nembot and rookie defensive end Bronson Kaufusi were both placed on the injured list, the Ravens announced Tuesday.

Those four moves brought the Ravens down the 75-player active player limit by Tuesday’s 4 p.m. deadline.

Taliaferro has not practiced during training camp, still recovering from a knee injury. Moving Taliaferro to the regular season PUP list means he will not be eligible to play until at least Week 7.

The Ravens have four other running backs on the 53-man roster – Justin Forsett, Buck Allen, Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon, although Dixon will be out four to six weeks with a knee injury.

Putting Taliaferro on PUP gives him more time to recover, and more time for the Ravens to decide if he will have a future role with them.

Kaufusi broke his ankle during training camp, while Nembot’s injury has not been disclosed.

Lutz looked good as a kicker, but the Ravens have one of the league’s best in Justin Tucker, and Tucker recently signed a new contract. Perhaps Lutz will get an opportunity elsewhere.

MORE RAVENS: Fifth-round pick looks poised to help Ravens pass rush

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Lutz, Nembot expected to be among four roster cuts Tuesday

Lutz, Nembot expected to be among four roster cuts Tuesday

OWINGS MILLS – Backup kicker Wil Lutz and offensive lineman Stephane Nembot are likely two of the four roster moves the Ravens will make to reach the 75-player limit by Tuesday’s 4 p.m. deadline. Neither Lutz nor Nembot were at practice Tuesday morning.

Meanwhile, the Ravens continued to deal with injuries as they prepared for Thursday’s preseason finale against the Saints in New Orleans. Left guard John Urschel was not at practice, along with running backs Kenneth Dixon and Lorenzo Taliaferro, tight ends Dennis Pitta and Maxx Williams, defensive backs Kendrick Lewis, Shareece Wright, and Jerraud Powers, linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Za’Darius Smith, and defensive tackle Brandon Williams. Wright and Dumervil were new absences.

The Ravens hope to have Pitta (fractured finger) and Maxx Williams (undisclosed injury) back at practice next week, as they prepare for the Sept. 11 regular-season opener against the Bills. The Ravens lost tight end Ben Watson to a season-ending Achilles injury on Saturday, and backup tight ends Darren Waller and Nick Boyle will both begin the regular season on the suspended list.

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