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.
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.”
Broncos 31, Buccanners 23: At Denver, Peyton Manning threw three touchdowns, including one to defensive tackle Mitch Unrein. 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.
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.
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 and the Texans forced six turnovers and had six sacks of Jake Locker.
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 as 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.