This year the NFL standings have a movie theme: "The Runaways." Four first-place teams have a chance to wrap up division titles this week.
The Ravens (9-2) could capture the AFC North with a win over the Steelers (6-5) and a loss by the Bengals (6-5). The Falcons (10-1) were in position to clinch the NFC South with a win Thursday night over the Saints and a loss Sunday by the second-place Buccaneers (6-5). The Patriots (8-3) can capture the AFC East as early as this week if they beat the second-place Dolphins (5-6) because they own all of the tiebreakers. Ditto in the AFC West, where the Broncos (8-3) will clinch with a win over the Bucs or a Chargers (4-7) loss to the Bengals on Sunday.
Two other races are virtually over. In the NFC West, the 49ers (8-2-1) are likely to clinch before they even face second-place Seattle (6-5) in Week 16. In the AFC South, the Texans (10-1) could wrap things up before they play the second-place Colts (7-4) in Weeks 15 and 17.
Even in the NFC East, the Giants (7-4) can take a huge step toward capturing the division with a win Monday night over the Redskins (5-6).
What does this all mean?
In a league that trumpets its parity, there are suddenly a select group of very good teams. As long as some of the runaway division winners avoid upsets in the opening round, the elite eight weekend could be one of the best in recent history.
- Kevin Dunleavy