Quick Links

NFL playoffs taking shape, and still a month to go

201211251242457635241-p2.jpeg

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.

---

Online:http://pro32.ap.org/poll andhttp://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Quick Links

Ravens hope to force Brady into kind of mistakes he rarely makes

Ravens hope to force Brady into kind of mistakes he rarely makes

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has thrown just one interception this season.

That’s one of the many challenges facing the Ravens (7-5) as they prepare for Monday night’s game at New England (10-2). The Ravens’ defense is tied for fifth in the NFL with 22 takeaways – 14 interceptions and eight fumble recoveries. But Brady is a quarterback that rarely turns it over, with 19 touchdown passes and just one interception in 302 passing attempts.

Can the Ravens force Brady into uncharacteristic mistakes? It won’t be easy. Watching Brady on film, coach John Harbaugh sees a quarterback who looks as good as he ever has.

“If he’s lost anything physically, he definitely makes up for it with his mind and his experience,” Harbaugh said. “He’s moving very well. He’s moving around the pocket very well and creating throws for himself in the pocket. I don’t really see any diminished skill set whatsoever.”

Even if the Ravens can’t force Brady into interceptions, their pass rush could make his job a lot more difficult. The more pressure the Ravens can get on Brady, the less time he will have to pick them apart.

When the Seahawks won at New England last month, they sacked Brady twice, intercepted him, and held him without a touchdown pass. That’s the blueprint the Ravens hope to follow. However, the two starting quarterbacks with the best TD-interception ration are Brady (19-1) and Dak Prescott (19-2) of the Cowboys. Prescott threw three TD passes and no interceptions against the Ravens last month and beat them. The Ravens hope for better success against Brady.

Quick Links

Ravens safety Eric Weddle was nearly a Patriot this season

Ravens safety Eric Weddle was nearly a Patriot this season

When Eric Weddle was released by the San Diego Chargers after last season he had plenty of offers to sign with other NFL teams.

One of those teams was the New England Patriots, the team Weddle will play against on Monday Night Football this week. 

When the two-time All-Pro safety hit the open market, he said he was looking to play for a winning organization. He ended up choosing the Ravens over the Patriots because there was a more clear-cut opportunity for playing time. 

“I’m good buddies with Patrick Chung,” he said. “I grew up playing with him and Devin McCourty is one of the best to play, so I don’t know if it would have worked out personnel-wise. But obviously, I could have seen myself fitting in there seamlessly.”

Although the Ravens don't have quite as many wins as the Patriots this season, Weddle clearly made a good choice. The Ravens are tied for first place in the AFC North with the Steelers and Weddle is currently the highest graded safety in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus. 

The Ravens defense is playing dominant football as a whole as well. Through week 13 Baltimore ranks first in the NFL in total defense surrenduring just 296.1 yards per game. 

RELATED: Weddle consumes a gallon of ice cream after Ravens wins