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NFL playoffs taking shape, and still a month to go

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NFL playoffs taking shape, and still a month to go

Start the playoffs now.

Well, just about.

More than a month from the end of the NFL season, and nearly every division race is decided. Atlanta and Denver have four-game leads and can earn titles with victories Sunday, although the Falcons also need Tampa Bay to lose - coincidentally, to the Broncos, who don't need any help if they win to walk off with the AFC West.

The Falcons (10-1) get an early start by hosting New Orleans on Thursday night. Considering the rivalry, and that Atlanta's only defeat this season has been to the Saints, taking the NFC South crown merely adds to the team's already soaring incentives.

``Ten and one is great, but I'll tell you what I've said since the beginning of the season: We're just jockeying for position,'' star tight end Tony Gonzalez said. ``We just want to put ourselves in the best position, playing the best football. Right around this time is when you want to start jelling as a team and take it on into the playoffs because that's the most important thing.''

Denver (8-3) already has swept San Diego, so one more victory puts Peyton Manning back in the playoffs with his new team. Oddly, Manning's Colts didn't always fare so well after early clinchings, but every coach, including his latest one, John Fox, will say that owning a postseason berth overrides any potential negatives.

``We can't influence what everyone else does over the last five games,'' Fox said. ``We know we have to take care of this week and that'll be our mindset.''

Manning's mindset is to keep the foot on the accelerator regardless of the standings.

``You certainly always want to get better late in the season,'' he said. ``You either get better, or you get worse and our goal is to get better every week.''

Baltimore (9-2) can grab the AFC North crown by beating visiting Pittsburgh and having Cincinnati lose at San Diego. A division race that most projected to go down to the wire barely will get into December if that happens.

The Ravens should be thankful if that occurs, because they are as banged-up as anybody and they wouldn't need to rush defensive leader Ray Lewis back onto the field.

Baltimore also would like nothing more than to spend the entire playoffs at home, where it is 5-0 - especially if it can avoid a trip to Houston, where the Texans routed the Ravens 43-13 last month.

Houston (10-1) is in the unusual position of owning the AFC's best record, yet not being in line for an immediate clinching. Even if the Texans win at Tennessee on Sunday and the AFC South runner-up, the Colts, fall at Detroit, the division remains unsolved because Indianapolis and Houston meet twice in the final three weeks.

A wild-card berth is within reach for the Texans, but that's hardly what they're aiming for.

No team wants to trek to Foxborough in the playoffs, even if the Patriots have been eliminated from the Super Bowl chase at home in two of the last three years. New England (8-3) can wrap up the AFC East by beating Miami on Sunday because the Patriots would own all the necessary tiebreakers in the division.

Bill Belichick is not likely to let up a bit even when that happens. Did anyone notice how long Tom Brady was on the field during the 49-19 romp over the Jets on Thanksgiving night, a game decided in the second period?

The only truly close division through 11 games is the NFC North, where Chicago (8-3) has a one-game edge on Green Bay, but has lost to the Packers. The Bears also lost a handful of starters to injuries Sunday, so holding off the Packers could be problematic. Of course, Green Bay also is plagued by injuries to stars such as Clay Matthews, Greg Jennings and Charles Woodson.

That one could go down to the season finales, when the Bears are at Detroit and the Packers visit the Vikings, who are in the wild-card derby. Green Bay is at Chicago on Dec. 16.

Both of last season's NFC championship game teams are in good shape in their divisions, but could be tested before clinching. The Super Bowl champion Giants are two games up on Washington and Dallas, and they are at the Redskins on Monday night. The Skins have a better record within the NFC East and might push New York to the limit if they can win in prime time.

The 49ers' rare tie has not hurt their standing in the standings. At 8-2-1, they lead Seattle by 2 1-2 games, and the Seahawks have dropped all three NFC West contests. The teams meet Dec. 23 at Seattle, but by then it could be too late to make any difference.

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Ravens lose in OT after offensive struggles haunt team once again

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Ravens lose in OT after offensive struggles haunt team once again

BALTIMORE -- When the Chicago Bears weigh the good and bad facets of their performance against the Baltimore Ravens, it's likely they will come up with this conclusion:

Who cares? We won.

After blowing a 14-point lead, allowing two long kick returns and committing two turnovers, the Bears used a 40-yard field goal by Connor Barth in overtime to secure a 27-24 victory Sunday.

"You got to be able to take whatever situation you get and make something out of it," defensive end Akiem Hicks said. "I wanted to get a good W, go home and relax. The coming down to the wire thing is not my favorite style, but . however you get it, you just got to appreciate it."

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Jordan Howard ran for 167 yards, including a 53-yarder that set up the game-winning score for the Bears (2-4), whose two wins this season have come in overtime.

Howard's long run in OT put Chicago at the Baltimore 40. After rookie Mitchell Trubisky completed an 18-yard pass to Kendall Wright, Barth delivered the decisive kick.

"It wasn't always perfect -- it seldom is -- but we're just happy to get out of here with a win," Bears coach John Fox said.

Making his first career start on the road, Trubisky directed a conservative game plan that leaned heavily on the run. The first-round draft pick completed 8 of 16 passes for 113 yards and a touchdown.

"We took what the defense gave us," the rookie said. "The run game was working, so let's keep pounding the rock."

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Howard had 36 carries and the Bears gained 231 yards on 54 attempts.

"Whatever it takes to win," Fox stressed. "This week, we had to run the ball -- and we did."

Baltimore (3-3) trailed 17-3 in the third quarter and 24-16 late in regulation before capitalizing on special teams play to get back in the game.

Bobby Rainey took a kickoff 96 yards for a score to begin the comeback and Michael Campanaro brought back a punt 77 yards for a touchdown with 1:37 remaining. The 2-point conversion was successful , setting up overtime.

"Those two special teams touchdowns were huge," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.

The Ravens weren't the only ones to capitalize on big plays. Chicago used a halfback pass from Tarik Cohen to Zach Miller for a first-half score, and Adrian Amos returned an interception 90 yards for a touchdown for a 24-13 lead with 5:08 left.

Baltimore was in position for the go-ahead score when Amos got his first career interception on a pass that bounced off the chest of receiver Chris Moore, who was covered tightly by Kyle Fuller.

Chicago forced three turnovers and frustrated quarterback Joe Flacco throughout the afternoon. Operating without injured receivers Jeremy Maclin (inactive) and Breshad Perriman (second-quarter concussion), Flacco went 24 for 41 for 180 yards with two interceptions.

Trubisky put Chicago ahead 17-3 in the third quarter with an on-the-run, 27-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dion Sims, who outfought Tony Jefferson for the ball in the end zone.

That put the Ravens in a precarious position, especially with a struggling offense.

Rainey alleviated the pressure by taking the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown. After being tripped by a teammate, Rainey popped to his feet, broke right and went the distance.

Campanaro did his part later, but it wasn't enough.

"Sometimes your special teams kick in and score two touchdowns, which is great," tight end Benjamin Watson said. "But Chicago did a better job of closing than we did."

The Ravens were coming off a 30-17 win in Oakland in which they did not commit a turnover, didn't allow a sack and were penalized only once.

In this one, Baltimore gave the ball away twice, permitted two sacks and was flagged five times -- in the first half.

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Ravens vs. Bears: Date, time, TV channel, how to watch, online stream

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USA TODAY Sports

Ravens vs. Bears: Date, time, TV channel, how to watch, online stream

The Ravens got a crucial 30-17 road win on Sunday against the Raiders and are looking to keep that momentum going.

Right off the bat, Joe Flacco threw a 52-yard pass to Mike Wallace that ultimately lead the Ravens to taking a 7-0 lead within minutes. That was pretty much the tone for the rest of the game. Flacco threw for 222 yards and completed 19 of 26 passes.

One major blow was star running back Terrance West being carted to the locker room during the first drive with a calf injury. He did not return to the game.

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Overall, the Ravens' offense connected on all fronts. Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman and Jeremy Maclin all made crucial catches after the Ravens couldn't get anything going in their last two games against the Jaguars and Steelers.

They are facing a struggling Bears team who has turned to rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky after starting quarterback Mike Glennon has had more fumbles and interceptions than he has touchdowns. Trubisky is set to make his first start Monday night against the Minnesota Vikings.

Their only win has been in Week 3 against the Steelers. They currently rank 26th in the league in passing yards but 11th in rushing yards, something the Ravens defense should have no issue stopping.

Ahead of the Ravens' game against the Bears, here's everything you need to know to watch.

Week 5 Ravens vs. Bears game info:

Who: Baltimore Ravens vs. Chicago Bears

What: Week 6 NFL regular season 

When: 1:00 p.m.. ET, Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017

Where: M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore, Maryland

TV Channel: FOX

Live Stream: NFL Game Pass, FOX Sports Go

Radio: WBAL New Radio 1090 

Point Spread: Baltimore, -6.5

Over/Under: 39.5

Weather: 84 degrees, partly cloudy

BALTIMORE RAVENS 2017 REGULAR SEASON SCHEDULE:

Week 1 (Sun, Sept. 10): 20-0  at Cincinnati Bengals (W)

Week 2 (Sun, Sept. 17): 24-10 vs. Cleveland Browns (W)

Week 3 (Sun, Sept. 24): 44-7 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (in London) (L)

Week 4 (Sun, Oct. 1): vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, 1:00 p.m. (L)

Week 5 (Sun, Oct. 8): at Oakland Raiders, 4:05 p.m. (W)

Week 6 (Sun, Oct. 15): vs Chicago Bears, 1:00 p.m.

Week 7 (Sun, Oct. 22): at Minnesota Vikings, 1:00 p.m.

Week 8 (Thur, Oct. 26): vs. Miami Dolphins, 8:25 p.m.

Week 9 (Sun, Nov. 5): at Tennessee Titans, 1:00 p.m.

Week 10 (Sun, Nov. 12): BYE week

Week 11 (Sun, Nov. 19): at Green Bay Packers, 1:00 p.m.

Week 12 (Mon, Nov. 27): vs. Houston Texans, 8:30 p.m.

Week 13 (Sun, Dec. 3): vs. Detroit Lions, 1:00 p.m.

Week 14 (Sun, Dec. 10): at Pittsburgh Steelers, 8:30 p.m.

Week 15  (Sun, Dec. 17): at Cleveland Browns, 1:00 p.m.

Week 16 (Sat, Dec. 23): vs Indianapolis Colts, 4:30 p.m.

Week 17 (Sun, Dec. 31): vs. Cincinnati Bengals, 1:00 p.m