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).