Capitals

Broncos, Patriots and Falcons win divisions

201212021350498062330-p2.jpeg

Broncos, Patriots and Falcons win divisions

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.

``We don't worry about it,'' quarterback Matt Ryan said. ``We try not to think that far ahead. One of the things I've learned in my five years is that if you're worrying about what you're going to do in January in September, October, November and December, you're wasting your time.''

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.''

Also Sunday, it was Seattle 23, Chicago 17 in overtime; St. Louis 16, San Francisco 23 in OT; Pittsburgh 23, Baltimore 20; Green Bay 23, Minnesota 14; Cincinnati 20, San Diego 13; Dallas 38, Philadelphia 33; Buffalo 34, Jacksonville 18; the New York Jets 7, Arizona 6; and Cleveland 20, Oakland 17.

The New York Giants (7-4) are at Washington (5-6) in a key NFC East game Monday night.

---

BRONCOS 31, BUCCANEERS 23

At Denver, Peyton Manning threw three touchdowns, including one to defensive tackle Mitch Unrein.

Manning threw for 242 yards. 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.

Manning threw two of the scores to Demaryius Thomas, who finished with eight catches for 99 yards, and Broncos linebacker Von Miller returned an interception for his first NFL score.

Rookie running back Doug Martin managed only 56 yards on 18 carries for Tampa Bay (6-6).

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.

The Patriots (9-3) are assured of their 12th consecutive winning season. Miami (5-7) lost to New England for the fifth straight time.

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 for a, well, merciless defense. After needing overtime in their past two wins, the Texans forced six turnovers and had six sacks of Jake Locker.

Matt Schaub threw for 207 yards and two touchdowns, and Arian Foster ran for a TD.

The Texans swept Tennessee (4-8), the team they replaced in Houston, for only the second time.

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.

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.

Belcher shot his girlfriend multiple times at a residence near Arrowhead Stadium, then drove to the team's practice facility and turned the gun on himself as general manager Scott Pioli and coach Romeo Crennel looked on.

On Sunday, 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.

``I'm just trying to get through the rest of today,'' said Quinn, who threw his first two touchdown passes in three years. ``The emotions of what has taken place will probably hit home for a few guys the next few days, when they realize what's taken place.''

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. That finished off a 12-play, 80-yard march with the OT kickoff.

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.

The Bears (8-4) fell into a tie atop the NFC North with Green Bay.

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.

The Rams scored twice in the final 3:04 of regulation, getting their lone touchdown when rookie Janoris Jenkins rolled 2 yards into the end zone with an errant pitchout by Colin Kaepernick.

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.

The Ravens (9-3) could have clinched a playoff berth with a victory. Instead, Baltimore had its 15-game home winning streak snapped and also lost for the first time in 13 games against division opponents.

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.

Adrian Peterson had an 82-yard TD run and finished with 210 yards for Minnesota (6-6), the most he's had since suffering major knee injuries last December.

Ponder's picks were thrown in the end zone and around the Green Bay 10.

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.

Jermaine Gresham caught a 19-yard TD pass from Dalton and BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for 118 yards on 25 carries.

The Chargers (4-8) lost their fourth straight game and for the seventh time in eight games.

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.

The Cowboys (6-6) trailed 27-24 when Romo led an 86-yard drive sparked by a 35-yard pass to Dez Bryant on third down. Bryant gave Dallas the lead when took a screen pass from the 6 and got inside the pylon with 5:40 remaining.

The Eagles (3-9) lost their eighth straight game despite 169 yards rushing and two touchdowns from rookie Bryce Brown a week after he set an Eagles rookie record with 178 yards.

But Brown also has fumble issues and Dallas went ahead by 11 when Morris Claiborne returned Brown's fumble 50 yards for a touchdown.

Damaris Johnson returned a punt 98 yards for Philly with 31 seconds left.

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.

Fred Jackson had 101 yards rushing and C.J. Spiller scored on a 44-yard run that put Buffalo (5-7) up 34-10 early in the fourth quarter.

The Jaguars fell to 2-10.

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.

The sagging Cardinals (4-8) have their own troubles at quarterback. Ryan Lindley was ineffective in his second NFL start as Arizona lost its eighth straight game after a 4-0 start.

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.

Weeden hit fellow rookie Josh Gordon on a 44-yard score in the second quarter and Trent Richardson scored on a 3-yard run after Sheldon Brown made an interception deep in Cleveland territory when the Raiders (3-9) were driving.

The Browns (4-8) got their first road win since beating Indianapolis 27-19 on Sept. 18, 2011.

---

Online:http://pro32.ap.org/poll andhttp://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Quick Links

3 reasons why the Caps lost to the Lightning

usatsi_10635520.jpg
USA TODAY Sports

3 reasons why the Caps lost to the Lightning

After a rough start, the Caps battled back to make a game of it against Tampa Bay, but ultimately fell 4-2 to the Lightning. Here's why.

The first period

To put it simply, this game was lost in the opening period. Washington was the better team for the second and third but they could not overcome the 3-0 lead they spotted the Lightning in the first. Beyond the goals, the Caps just did not play well. Even the simplest of plays looked difficult as Washington struggled to get the puck out of their own zone, gave up numerous turnovers and scoring chances and just looked overmatched. Braden Holtby also looked shaky allowing three goals on just eight shots. Usually he is able to cover up some of the mistakes the defense makes it front of him, but he was not there to bail the team out on Tuesday in what was a really rocky start.

RELATED: CHECK OUT THE 3 STARS FROM CAPS-LIGHTNING

Taking a penalty 34 seconds into the game

Entering Tuesday’s game, Tampa Bay boasted the second best power play unit in the league. Playing a disciplined game is part of every game plan, but that is especially true against such a dominant unit. Giving up a penalty just 34 seconds into the game was not an ideal start. The call itself was debatable. Brett Connolly was called for interference when he knocked over Dan Girardi in the offensive zone. The puck was just behind Girardi as he had lost control of it in his skates. The sticking point here is that Girardi no longer had possession and Connolly could have played the puck instead of the player. Most referees would probably let that go with the puck so close, but Connolly was not so lucky. Whether it was a good call or not, the Caps found themselves down a man and down a goal soon after as Brayden Point scored the power play tally.

A missed opportunity from Kuznetsov on one end, a goal for Nikita Kucherov on the other

Even after spotting the Lightning a 3-0 lead, the Caps made a game of it. Lars Eller struck on the power play in the second period and Alex Ovechkin pulled Washington to within one with about nine minutes left to play. Just over a minute later, Evgeny Kuznetsov stole the puck away from Nikita Kucherov, the frontrunner for league MVP this season, at the Tampa blue line giving the Caps a short 2-on-1. Defenseman Andrej Sustr was textbook on the play forcing Kuznetsov as far wide as he could go while still covering the passing lane and Kuznetsov elected to shoot from the faceoff dot rather than attempt the pass to T.J. Oshie.Andrei Vasilevskiy made a routine blocker save to deny what looked like a great opportunity to tie the game. As always happens in hockey, a failed opportunity on one end led to an opportunity in the other direction. Less than a minute later, Kucherov made up for his mistake by scoring a breakaway goal to put the game out of reach at 4-2.

MORE CAPITALS: KEMPNY EXCITED TO MOVE FROM LAST PLACE CHICAGO TO FIRST PLACE WASHINGTON

Quick Links

3 stars of the game: Lightning strike 3 times in the first to burn Caps

usatsi_10635144.jpg
USA TODAY Sports

3 stars of the game: Lightning strike 3 times in the first to burn Caps

The first 20 minutes of Tuesday's game did not go well for Washington. The Tampa Bay Lightning scored three times in the opening frame and rode that lead all the way to the 4-2 win.

With the game heading towards a repeat of their blowout loss to Chicago, the Capitals rebounded in the second period to make a game of it as Lars Eller scored on a power play. Alex Ovechkin pulled Washington within one in the third period, but Nikita Kucherov slammed the door shut with a breakaway goal to extend the lead back to 2.

Here are the three stars of the game:

1. Brayden Point: Tampa Bay won this game in the first period when they took a 3-0 lead. Point scored two of those three goals. His first came at the 2:30 mark of the game. He retreated to the blue line on the power play believing Jay Beagle would clear the puck. When Beagle turned the puck over, he recognized it and immediately crashed the net, taking a Ryan Callahan pass in the slot and shooting it through the five-hole of Braden Holtby. On his second goal, Anton Stralman saw an opportunity on the Caps’ line change and passed the puck up to Point at the blue line. Point turned on the jets to get behind the defense and went five-hole again on Holtby to make the score 3-0.

2. Alex Ovechkin: After the first period, Washington slowly took this game over for much of the remaining 40 minutes. Ovechkin was a big part of that as he totaled an incredible 19 shot attempts for the game. Nine of those shots were on goal and he found the back of the net in the third period for career goal No. 594.

3. Tom Wilson: Through the first period, the Caps looked well on their way to a repeat of the 7-1 debacle they suffered Saturday in Chicago. They had nothing going in this game until Wilson drew a trip from Vladislav Namestnikov in the second period. Eller would score on the resulting power play giving Washington some much-needed life. The Namestnikov penalty was the 29th drawn penalty of the season for Wilson, which moves him into a tie with Matthew Tkachuk for the most drawn penalties in the NHL.