By Barry Wilner/The Associated Press
If NFL executives really adore parity, they must be wincing at the early division clinchings by the Broncos, Patriots and Falcons.
Not to mention the Texans securing at least a wild-card berth, with nearly all of December still remaining.
Sure, there could still be some close races, particularly in the NFC North and for the wild cards. But after Sunday’s action, four teams already can make plans to play in January.
The Broncos (9-3) won their seventh straight, 31-23 over Tampa Bay, to take the AFC West.
“It’s one step,” veteran cornerback Champ Bailey said. “It’s not like we’ve done everything we want to do.”
New England (9-3) won its fourth AFC East crown in a row and the 10th for Tom Brady, a record for a quarterback, when it downed Miami, 23-16.
“It means something,” star receiver Wes Welker said after the Patriots’ sixth win in a row. “I guess you get kind of spoiled at times. It’s kind of just another hat and T-shirt, but they are not easy to come by. You just go out there and try to play well and do the things we do. I think you do get spoiled a little bit with the things we do, but I’ll take them as they come.”
Atlanta (11-1) defeated New Orleans 23-13 on Thursday night, and when the Buccaneers fell at Denver, the Falcons owned the NFC South.
“We don’t worry about it,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “We try not to think that far ahead. One of the things I’ve learned in my five years is that if you’re worrying about what you’re going to do in January in September, October, November and December, you’re wasting your time.”
Houston (11-1) didn’t waste any time in its trip to Nashville, winning 24-10 to grab a wild-card slot. The Texans haven’t secured the AFC South yet because they still have two games remaining with runner-up Indianapolis (8-4), which shocked Detroit 35-33 on the final play of their game.
“We’re very happy, I can tell you that,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said of the franchise’s second playoff berth. “But I think they expected to get there, and they got there today. There’s a lot more to work on. We’ve got to continue to push our group.”
Elsewhere, it was Kansas City beating Carolina 27-21 one day after Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend and then took his own life.
“It’s been an incredibly difficult 24 hours for our family and our entire organization,” Chiefs owner Clark Hunt said. “We have so many guys on our team and our coaching staff who are really, really hurting.”
Also Sunday, it was Seattle 23, Chicago 17 in overtime; St. Louis 16, San Francisco 23 in OT; Pittsburgh 23, Baltimore 20; Green Bay 23, Minnesota 14; Cincinnati 20, San Diego 13; Dallas 38, Philadelphia 33; Buffalo 34, Jacksonville 18; the New York Jets 7, Arizona 6; and Cleveland 20, Oakland 17.
The New York Giants (7-4) are at Washington (5-6) in a key NFC East game Monday night.
BRONCOS 31, BUCCANEERS 23
At Denver, Peyton Manning threw three touchdowns, including one to defensive tackle Mitch Unrein.
Manning threw for 242 yards. He now has 29 touchdown passes on the season, moving past Jake Plummer and John Elway for the most by a Denver quarterback in a single year.
Manning threw two of the scores to Demaryius Thomas, who finished with eight catches for 99 yards, and Broncos linebacker Von Miller returned an interception for his first NFL score.
Rookie running back Doug Martin managed only 56 yards on 18 carries for Tampa Bay (6-6).
PATRIOTS 23, DOLPHINS 16
At Miami, Brady was sacked four times and threw an interception, just his fourth all season. But a botched punt, roughing-the-punter penalty and fumble by Miami led to 17 New England points, and another penalty negated a Dolphins touchdown on an interception.
The Patriots (9-3) are assured of their 12th consecutive winning season. Miami (5-7) lost to New England for the fifth straight time.
TEXANS 24, TITANS 10
At Nashville, the Texans set a franchise record for wins in a year and have won six in a row.
Rookie Whitney Mercilus recovered a fumble and had two sacks for a, well, merciless defense. After needing overtime in their past two wins, the Texans forced six turnovers and had six sacks of Jake Locker.
Matt Schaub threw for 207 yards and two touchdowns, and Arian Foster ran for a TD.
The Texans swept Tennessee (4-8), the team they replaced in Houston, for only the second time.
COLTS 35, LIONS 33
At Detroit, top overall pick Andrew Luck guided a sensational 11-play, 75-yard drive that took just 67 seconds. He threw a short pass that Donnie Avery took 14 yards into the end zone with no time left.
The Colts (8-4) stayed in control of the AFC wild-card race one season after going 2-12. Detroit (4-8) lost for the fourth straight time, including three in a row at home after leading in the final quarter.
CHIEFS 27, PANTHERS 21
At Kansas City, Mo., the Chiefs gave themselves a reason to be proud a day after the Belcher tragedy.
Belcher shot his girlfriend multiple times at a residence near Arrowhead Stadium, then drove to the team’s practice facility and turned the gun on himself as general manager Scott Pioli and coach Romeo Crennel looked on.
On Sunday, Brady Quinn threw for 201 yards and two touchdowns, and Jamaal Charles ran for 127 yards as Kansas City snapped an eight-game losing streak during one of the most difficult seasons the franchise has ever experienced.
“I’m just trying to get through the rest of today,” said Quinn, who threw his first two touchdown passes in three years. “The emotions of what has taken place will probably hit home for a few guys the next few days, when they realize what’s taken place.”
SEAHAWKS 23, BEARS 17, OT
At Chicago, the Seahawks (7-5) got only their second road win in seven games — they are perfect at home — when rookie Russell Wilson connected with Sidney Rice on a 13-yard touchdown with 7:33 left in overtime. That finished off a 12-play, 80-yard march with the OT kickoff.
Seattle took a 17-14 edge lead with 24 seconds to go in regulation on Golden Tate’s slaloming 14-yard run after taking a short pass from Wilson. But the Brandon Marshall beat double coverage to haul in a 56-yard pass the set up Robbie Gould’s 46-yard field goal as time expired to send it into OT.
The Bears (8-4) fell into a tie atop the NFC North with Green Bay.
RAMS 16, 49ERS 13, OT
At St. Louis, the Rams (5-6-1) and 49ers (8-3-1) nearly played their second tie of the season. But rookie Greg Zuerlein kicked a 54-yard field goal with 26 seconds left in overtime after booting a 53-yarder to tie it as time expired in regulation.
The Rams scored twice in the final 3:04 of regulation, getting their lone touchdown when rookie Janoris Jenkins rolled 2 yards into the end zone with an errant pitchout by Colin Kaepernick.
San Francisco had a chance to win in OT, but David Akers was barely wide right on a 51-yard field goal.
STEELERS 23, RAVENS 20
At Baltimore, Shaun Suisham kicked a 42-yard field goal as time expired for the undermanned Steelers (7-5).
Playing without injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for a third straight week, the Steelers got a solid effort from third-stringer Charlie Batch: 25 for 36 for 276 yards and a touchdown. He moved the Steelers 61 yards before Suisham’s winning kick.
The Ravens (9-3) could have clinched a playoff berth with a victory. Instead, Baltimore had its 15-game home winning streak snapped and also lost for the first time in 13 games against division opponents.
PACKERS 23, VIKINGS 14
At Green Bay, Wis., James Starks had Green Bay’s first TD on the ground in almost two months, Morgan Burnett picked off Christian Ponder’s throws twice and the Packers (8-4) moved into that tie atop the NFC North with the Bears. Green Bay has won 10 in a row in the division.
Adrian Peterson had an 82-yard TD run and finished with 210 yards for Minnesota (6-6), the most he’s had since suffering major knee injuries last December.
Ponder’s picks were thrown in the end zone and around the Green Bay 10.
BENGALS 20, CHARGERS 13
At San Diego, Andy Dalton’s run up the middle for a 6-yard touchdown with 4:11 left gave Cincinnati (7-5) its fourth straight victory.
Jermaine Gresham caught a 19-yard TD pass from Dalton and BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for 118 yards on 25 carries.
The Chargers (4-8) lost their fourth straight game and for the seventh time in eight games.
COWBOYS 38, EAGLES 33
At Arlington, Texas, Tony Romo threw three touchdown passes to break Troy Aikman’s career franchise record. Romo now has 168.
The Cowboys (6-6) trailed 27-24 when Romo led an 86-yard drive sparked by a 35-yard pass to Dez Bryant on third down. Bryant gave Dallas the lead when took a screen pass from the 6 and got inside the pylon with 5:40 remaining.
The Eagles (3-9) lost their eighth straight game despite 169 yards rushing and two touchdowns from rookie Bryce Brown a week after he set an Eagles rookie record with 178 yards.
But Brown also has fumble issues and Dallas went ahead by 11 when Morris Claiborne returned Brown’s fumble 50 yards for a touchdown.
Damaris Johnson returned a punt 98 yards for Philly with 31 seconds left.
BILLS 34, JAGUARS 18
At Orchard Park, N.Y., Ryan Fitzpatrick led five straight scoring drives. Fitzpatrick threw two touchdown passes and scored on a 1-yard plunge in providing a spark to an injury-depleted offense that finished the game minus its top two receivers.
Fred Jackson had 101 yards rushing and C.J. Spiller scored on a 44-yard run that put Buffalo (5-7) up 34-10 early in the fourth quarter.
The Jaguars fell to 2-10.
JETS 7, CARDINALS 6
At East Rutherford, N.J., third-string QB Greg McElroy stepped in for a struggling Mark Sanchez and led New York (5-7) to its only score.
With Tim Tebow inactive as he heals from two broken ribs, coach Rex Ryan pulled Sanchez for McElroy — as the crowd at MetLife Stadium cheered wildly — late in the third quarter. McElroy led the Jets on an impressive drive, connecting with Jeff Cumberland on a 1-yard touchdown.
The sagging Cardinals (4-8) have their own troubles at quarterback. Ryan Lindley was ineffective in his second NFL start as Arizona lost its eighth straight game after a 4-0 start.
BROWNS 20, RAIDERS 17
At Oakland, Brandon Weeden threw for a career-high 364 yards and a touchdown as Cleveland (4-8) snapped a 12-game road losing streak.
Weeden hit fellow rookie Josh Gordon on a 44-yard score in the second quarter and Trent Richardson scored on a 3-yard run after Sheldon Brown made an interception deep in Cleveland territory when the Raiders (3-9) were driving.
The Browns (4-8) got their first road win since beating Indianapolis 27-19 on Sept. 18, 2011.
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