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 dont 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 Atlantas only defeat this season has been to the Saints, taking the NFC South crown merely adds to the teams already soaring incentives.
Ten and one is great, but Ill tell you what Ive said since the beginning of the season: Were 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 thats 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, Mannings Colts didnt 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 cant influence what everyone else does over the last five games, Fox said. We know we have to take care of this week, and thatll be our mindset.
Mannings 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 wouldnt need to rush defensive leader Ray Lewis back from an injury.
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 AFCs 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 thats hardly what theyre 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.
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 beating out 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.
Both of last seasons 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 2½ 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.