Broncos’ beat-down of Brady led to some changes by Patriots

As usual, the New England Patriots are pushing for the AFC’s best record. With a win in Denver on Sunday they would become the first team in NFL history with eight consecutive division titles.

While they can’t clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs this weekend, they could grab the East simply by Miami not beating the New York Jets. A first-round bye comes with a Patriots win, too.

Denver has not been one of Tom Brady’s favorite places. The Broncos are the only team Brady has a losing record against: 6-9, 2-7 in Denver, including two losses last season, the second for the AFC Championship. And the Broncos still have that strong defense.

Brady has been sacked only 12 times in nine games this season, which suggests his protection has improved.

”But he plays great all the time whether there’s protection or not,” Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. ”We hit him a lot of times last year, but if you remember in the two games, he still came back at the end of both games. He’s a phenomenal quarterback. There’s nobody playing like him.”

Denver’s offense has sputtered badly and can’t afford a shootout with New England. Defeat would deal a severe blow to Denver’s designs on defending its Super Bowl title.

Clinging to the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC, the Broncos will have to get through New England, Kansas City, and Oakland, who are a combined 31-8, for that chance.

The Tennessee Titans are making believers out of a lot of NFL fans. The idea that they could win the AFC South is very much alive after their victory over the Denver.

Should the Titans come out of Kansas City with another win on Sunday, the question might become, are they good enough to not only make the playoffs, but do damage there?

With Marcus Mariota showing franchise-quarterback temperament and skills, DeMarco Murray leading a powerful running game behind an improving line, and a stingy run defense, Tennessee seems to be arriving a year early as a contender.

”There’s always areas to improve,” Mariota says, ”but it’s fun to be around a group that’s growing and learning at the same time. You can see the confidence throughout the locker room.”

That confidence has led to a 7-6 record – Tennessee has won three of its last four – and a meaningful final month of the year.

The Chiefs, tied atop the AFC West after last week’s win over the Oakland Raiders, are among three teams that can clinch a playoff spot this week. Beating the Titans is the easiest way, but they could back into a playoff spot if things break their way in games involving Denver, Pittsburgh and Miami.

Coach Andy Reid’s eyes are focused only on the Titans.

”They’re hotter than a firecracker right now,” he says. ”They play hard. Their defense, Dick LeBeau is a Hall of Famer as a coach and a player. The guys look like they believe in what they’re doing.”

Reid can tie Bill Parcells (183) for 10th on the NFL wins list.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ visit to the Dallas Cowboys was moved to U.S. TV primetime on Sunday with good reason. Yes, the Cowboys had their 11-game win streak snapped by the New York Giants, the only team to beat them this season, but they still have the NFC East and the overall top seed in the conference in sight.

The division belongs to Dallas if it wins and the Giants don’t, or it ties and the Giants lose.

Tampa has won five straight games; the previous time that happened, the Buccaneers won the NFL title in 2002. They have an NFL-high 10 interceptions in those five games. On offense, Jameis Winston to Mike Evans has been a top combination, and Doug Martin is averaging 102 yards from scrimmage in his past 13 road games.

The Bucs might have the players to match up with Dallas’ star rookies, running back Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL’s leading rusher, and quarterback Zak Prescott.

The Week 15 action began on Thursday with Seattle beating Los Angeles 24-3 to win the NFC West title and clinch at least one home game in the playoffs. A few days after the Rams fired coach Jeff Fisher, they lost their fifth straight game.

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