NFL division leaders looking solid


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 2½ 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.

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.

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.

STARSPassing

• Joe Flacco, Ravens, was 30 of 51 for 355 yards and a touchdown as Baltimore outlasted San Diego 16-13 in overtime.

• Matt Ryan, Falcons, threw for 353 yards and a touchdown on 26-of-32 passing in Atlanta’s 24-23 victory at Tampa Bay.

• Colin Kaepernick, 49ers, threw for 231 yards and a score and ran for a TD in his second career start, leading San Francisco to a 31-21 win at New Orleans.

Rushing

• Steven Jackson, Rams, ran for 139 yards on 24 carries as St. Louis topped Arizona 31-17.

• BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Bengals, rushed for 129 yards and a score on 19 carries in Cincinnati’s 34-10 over the Oakland Raiders.

• Adrian Peterson, Vikings, had 108 yards rushing on 18 attempts in Minnesota’s 28-10 loss at Chicago.

Receiving

• Julio Jones, Falcons, caught six passes for 147 yards and a touchdown as Atlanta edged Tampa Bay 24-23.

• Davone Bess, Dolphins, had seven receptions for a career-high 129 yards in Miami’s 24-21 victory over Seattle..

Special Teams

• Leon Washington, Seahawks, returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown, the eighth of his career to tie the NFL record by Cleveland’s Josh Cribbs, in Seattle’s 24-21 loss to Miami.

• Mike Nugent, Bengals, kicked a 55-yard field goal that tied the club record in Cincinnati’s 34-10 win over Oakland.

Defense

• Janoris Jenkins, Rams, returned interceptions 36 and 39 yards for TDs in St. Louis’ 31-17 win at Arizona, becoming the first rookie since 1960 — and first player in team history — to have two INT returns for scores in a game.

• Ahmad Brooks and Donte Whitner, 49ers, brought back interceptions of Drew Brees for scores as San Francisco rolled to a 31-21 victory at New Orleans.

Milestones

Peyton Manning led Denver to a 17-9 victory at Kansas City on Sunday, breaking a tie with his boss and Broncos vice president John Elway with his 149th win as a starting quarterback, trailing only Brett Favre (186) for most in NFL history. … Indianapolis’ Reggie Wayne broke Cris Carter’s NFL record for most consecutive games with multiple catches. Carter had done it 58 times in a row. Wayne’s streak is now at 59. He also passed Art Monk and Derrick Mason on the NFL’s career receptions chart and with 946 is now within five of moving into the top 10.

CLUTCH PLAY

On a fourth-and-29 play and the game on the line, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco took a shotgun snap and threw a short pass to Ray Rice, who weaved through San Diego’s defense, found a big hole in the middle of the field and made it to San Diego’s 33 before he was tackled with 1:37 to play. After a lengthy review, the ball was moved back to the 34 and the refs measured. The new spot still gave the Ravens a first down by the length of the ball. The Ravens forced overtime on Justin Tucker’s 38-yard field goal, and then won it 16-13 on another 38-yarder with 1:07 left.

SLOPPY STEELERS

Pittsburgh committed eight turnovers, including three interceptions by third-string QB Charlie Batch, in a 20-14 loss to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. The last time an NFL team forced eight turnovers was New Orleans against St. Louis on Oct. 28, 2001.

SHOWING SUPPORT

Two Colts cheerleaders shaved their heads in support of coach Chuck Pagano, who has lost his hair as he continues to undergo chemotherapy treatments, between the third and fourth quarters of Indianapolis’ 20-13 win over Buffalo as part of a promise for a fundraising effort for leukemia research. During a fourth-quarter break, team owner Jim Irsay and Pagano walked out of the owner’s box together and waved to crowd, which gave them a standing ovation.

COMEBACK KID

Atlanta’s Matt Ryan led the Falcons to a 24-23 victory at Tampa Bay, his fifth fourth-quarter rally this year. He has 21 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime since entering the league in 2008 — four against the division-rival Buccaneers.

STAGNANT OFFENSE

Kansas City fell to Denver 17-9 as the Chiefs failed to score a touchdown since the first quarter against Pittsburgh on Nov. 12, a span of more than 11 quarters and 173 minutes. They could only manage field goals by Ryan Succop for the second straight game.

STEPPING IN

Colin Kaepernick was solid in his second career start while Alex Smith, deemed healthy enough to suit up after recovering from a concussion, watched from the sideline in San Francisco’s 31-21 win at New Orleans on Sunday. Kaepernick passed for 231 yards, including a short touchdown to Frank Gore, and also ran for a 7-yard score. … Chad Henne made his first start in more than 13 months, filling in for the injured Blaine Gabbert in Jacksonville’s 24-19 win over Tennessee. It was Henne’s first win as a starter since December 2010, and completed 17 of 26 passes for 261 yards and two touchdowns.

SPRINKLED IN

A computer glitch caused stadium lawn sprinklers to douse the Seahawks and Dolphins during the third quarter of Miami’s 24-21 win Sunday. The computer was erroneously working on its Saturday schedule, a Dolphins spokesman said. The sprinklers came on between plays and covered most of the field, drawing a cheer from an amused crowd and prompting a brief delay. The sprinklers were quickly turned off, and players toweled off before the action resumed.

BRAWL

Cincinnati left tackle Andrew Whitworth saw his quarterback get tackled after the whistle and went after the guy who brought him down, touching off a scrum that ended with three ejections in the Bengals’ 34-10 win over Oakland on Sunday. Whitworth and Oakland linemen Lamarr Houston and Tommy Kelly face significant fines for their ejection during the fourth quarter.

SIDELINED

Chicago lost Devin Hester, a receiver and record-setting return specialist, to a concussion, and running back Matt Forte and cornerback Charles Tillman to ankle injuries in the Bears’ 28-10 win over Minnesota on Sunday. The Bears also lost both guards in the third quarter to knee sprains, with Lance Louis and Chris Spencer going down. … Cleveland quarterback Brandon Weeden sustained a concussion in the closing minutes of Sunday’s 20-14 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittsburgh lost linebacker LaMarr Woodley in the first half with a left ankle injury.