- Associated Press - Monday, December 13, 2010

The NFL’s playoff picture might be muddled in the middle. At the top, it’s crystal clear, thanks to the Patriots and Falcons.

New England became the first team into the postseason, locking up its eighth playoff berth in 10 years with a 36-7 pounding of the Chicago Bears on a snowy, blustery, bone-chilling Sunday at Soldier Field.

Atlanta beat Carolina 31-10, and if Minnesota defeats the New York Giants on Monday night in a postponed game that was moved to Detroit, the Falcons clinch a spot.

Tom Brady threw for 369 yards and two touchdowns in New England’s fifth successive win. The Patriots (11-2) grabbed a 33-0 halftime lead and gave coach Bill Belichick his 174th career win, putting him in a tie for 10th place with Mike Holmgren.

Brady was brilliant again despite the brutal conditions, picking apart the league’s third-ranked defense. He completed 27 of 40 passes and went without an interception for the eighth straight game.

“They don’t cancel football games very often,” Brady said. “It’s not like baseball. We don’t play out there in San Diego all the time.”

At Charlotte, Michael Turner ran for 112 yards and three touchdowns, Matt Ryan threw for another and NFC South leader Atlanta (11-2) held onto the best record in the conference.

“With three NFC games left, it’s important. All the games are big now,” defensive end John Abraham said. “All the games can put us in a good situation. We’ve got Seattle, then New Orleans and Carolina again. We want to have that home-field advantage and for us, we have to keep winning.”

Elsewhere Sunday, Jacksonville stayed on top of the AFC South by outlasting Oakland 38-31; Pittsburgh beat Cincinnati, 23-7; Philadelphia downed Dallas 30-27; Detroit stunned Green Bay 7-3; New Orleans took St. Louis 31-13; San Diego routed Kansas City 31-0; Miami defeated the New York Jets 10-6; San Francisco romped over Seattle 40-21; Tampa Bay beat Washington 17-16; Arizona took Denver 43-13; and Buffalo beat Cleveland 13-6.

On Monday night, the Giants face Minnesota at Ford Field after the Vikings’ Metrodome home had the roof deflate during a blizzard, and Baltimore is at Houston.

The weekend began with Indianapolis edging Tennessee 30-28.


Patriots 36, Bears 7(equals)

One week after annihilating the Jets 45-3, the Patriots had no mercy for Chicago (9-4), which nonetheless remained atop the NFC North even with its five-game winning streak smashed.

Deion Branch caught eight passes for a career-high 151 yards, including a 59-yard touchdown at the end of the first half. Wes Welker had eight receptions for 115 yards and the Patriots totaled 475 yards while holding Chicago to 185.

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