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.
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 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.