Patriots clinch division, Ravens and Steelers in

December 18, 2011 - 9:17 PM
Patriots Broncos Football

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) and Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow (15) meet at midfield after an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011, in Denver. New England won 41-23. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

The Patriots own the AFC East title again.

New England won its ninth division crown in the 11 seasons Tom Brady has been the starting quarterback, beating Denver 41-23 on Sunday. The Patriots (11-3) are in position to gain a first-round playoff bye or even home-field advantage in the AFC, especially with South division winner Houston falling to 10-4 with a loss to Carolina.

Baltimore and Pittsburgh, who were tied for the AFC North lead at 10-3 heading into Week 15, also earned postseason berths before even taking the field. The Ravens, who were at San Diego at night, got in thanks to losses by the Jets, Raiders and Titans. The Steelers, who play Monday night at San Francisco, used a similar route.

"Never gets old," defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said of the Patriots' big win. "You work so hard the whole year to get to just one step. That's just one of them. To come out division champs, that's awesome."

In the NFC, Green Bay (13-1) finally lost but already has the North crown and a first-round bye. The Packers need one more victory to clinch home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs. The 49ers (10-3) already have won the West and are battling New Orleans (11-3), which leads the South, for the other first-round bye.

The Saints have a two-game division lead over Atlanta and play the Falcons in New Orleans on Dec. 26.

Dallas (8-6) grabbed back the NFC East lead when it beat Tampa Bay and the Giants lost to Washington. Still, the Giants (7-7) will win the division if they sweep their final two games, against the Jets and Cowboys. Barring that, Dallas takes the division.

But Philadelphia (6-8), which beat the Jets on Sunday to hurt New York's wild-card chances, also can win the division — only if the Eagles win at Dallas and at home against Washington, and the Giants to lose to the Jets before beating the Cowboys.

Got that?

"It feels good to still have a chance to even be considered in the playoff race," Eagles QB Michael Vick said. "We've been through a lot, but we're resilient."

Everyone in the AFC West was still alive, but Denver's loss wasn't too damaging because Oakland (7-7) fell to Detroit. Even if San Diego (6-7) beat Baltimore on Sunday night, the Broncos have a one-game lead with two left: at Buffalo (5-9) and home for Kansas City (6-8).

"I definitely feel like we're all right," Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow said after falling to 7-2 as a starter. "We've got two big games and ... we're excited about where we're at. We're going to continue to be positive and stay motivated and just try to improve like we've done every single day in practice."

The AFC wild-card races couldn't be more muddled. Either Pittsburgh or Baltimore, whichever finishes second in the North, will get one spot. The other will go to either the Bengals (8-6), Jets (8-6), Raiders, Titans (7-7) or Chargers (6-7).

"Go into the game thinking we have to run the table to control our own destiny, and we come out of the game needing to win out to control our own destiny," Jets coach Rex Ryan said.

Atlanta and Detroit have that control in the NFC. Each is 9-5 and could get in even with two losses. A victory by each sews up those spots.

After visiting New Orleans, the Falcons finish by hosting Tampa Bay. The Lions host San Diego and travel to Green Bay to conclude the schedule.

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AP Pro Football Writers Arnie Stapleton in Denver and Rob Maaddi in Philadelphia contributed to this story.