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QB Peyton Manning has hit his stride in Denver

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QB Peyton Manning has hit his stride in Denver

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) Turns out reports of Peyton Manning's demise were ridiculously premature.

Denver's quarterback has been outstanding by every measure since throwing three interceptions in the first quarter at Atlanta a month ago. His trio of wobblers that night left critics questioning his stability, strength and stamina after spending all of last season on the sideline.

His latest Monday night performance went much better as he engineered the biggest comeback of his career in the Broncos' 35-24 win at San Diego and tied Dan Marino for first place with his 47th game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime.

``These comeback victories are great,'' Manning said, ``but all it means is that you screwed up in the first half.''

For once, they were able to overcome their first-half foibles as Manning vaulted the Broncos (3-3) into a first-place tie with the Chargers atop the AFC West after a treacherous early-season schedule that lightens up considerably after their bye this week.

Even with four neck operations to match his four MVP trophies, the quarterback is on pace at age 36 to throw for more yards than he ever did in Indianapolis. If he keeps this up, he'll also post the second-best marks of his career in attempts, completions, completion percentage, touchdowns and QB rating along with his second-fewest interceptions in a season.

At this rate, he would also set franchise records for yards passing, completions, completion percentage and TD passes.

He's also the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 300 yards and three TDs while completing at least 70 percent of his passes in three straight games.

Any more questions about his health or his hardiness?

``Everyone talked about him a couple weeks ago, but he's been the least of my worries,'' coach John Fox said. ``I think he's just going to get better and better.''

Consider this: Since matching the worst quarter, interception-wise, of his career against the Falcons in Week 2, Manning has thrown for 1,519 yards with 11 touchdowns and just one interception in 195 passes - and that pickoff wasn't even his fault. Matthew Willis didn't recognize the overload on his side and failed to adjust his route accordingly Monday night, allowing Quentin Jammer to step up for an easy pick-six.

So, how much better can Manning possibly get?

``I think maybe the word is not so much `better,' but `more comfortable,''' Fox said Tuesday. ``Everybody's adjusting, and they're doing a good job, and they're working hard to get there in a hurry. ... There's always something you can improve on. You never think you've arrived, so we still have a lot of work to do.''

Like figuring out how to quit digging themselves into such big holes.

The Broncos have found themselves trailing by 20 points to the Falcons and Texans, and by 24 to the Patriots and Chargers.

``Well, if it was just one habit, it would be easy to break,'' Fox said. ``But we've kind of spread those habits around. And I'm not being flippant about it, we've got to get that cleaned up.''

On Monday night, ``we found a new way to self-destruct,'' Fox said, pointing to two special teams fumbles.

They also found new ways to come back, with three TD tosses from Manning and two defensive touchdowns as they erased the Chargers' 24-0 halftime lead. That tied their biggest comeback in franchise history and left the AFC with just two winning teams - Baltimore and Houston - and both of them have their share of issues and injuries.

The Broncos' losses have come to teams with a combined 14-4 record, but the remainder of their schedule has a composite 18-32 record and features just one winning team - the Ravens, who lost anchor Ray Lewis to a torn triceps Sunday.

For all their slow starts, the Broncos have outscored their opponents 79-6 in the fourth quarter, an indication they believe they're never out of it with Manning on their side. For once, though, they have an actual comeback to celebrate and not just a moral victory to ponder.

They're hoping it can catapult them to better days in the weeks and months ahead.

``It's hard to have a lot of confidence and belief when nothing good happens,'' Fox said. ``It takes something like last night, something good happening, to kind of build on.''

The Broncos became the first team in nearly a quarter-century to win after falling behind 24-0. Denver's defense forced Philip Rivers into a career-high six turnovers, including ones that Tony Carter and Chris Harris returned for touchdowns.

It was a 180-degree difference from the first half when the Broncos gave up 17 points off turnovers.

``Once again we had those self-inflicted wounds that put us in a hole,'' Manning said. ``But we have shown the ability to come back, and offense and defense really did it together there in the second half.''

Manning made adjustments after his three-interception first quarter at Atlanta on Sept. 17.

His teammates were slower to come around, collecting more fumbles, stumbles and tumbles - like Eric Decker tripping over his own feet on his way to what would have been an 85-yard TD Monday night just before Jammer's 80-yard interception return for a touchdown.

Those are the things the Broncos know they'll have to clean up to make a playoff run.

Manning, for one, would love to spend the fourth quarter watching Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller tee off on the other quarterback.

``We feel fortunate to be tied in our division with 3-3,'' Manning said. ``It's going to be a competitive division later on down the stretch. There are some things we need to get better at. We need to use this week to improve and still find a way to play a 60-minute game.''

Notes: Dumervil was the first Bronco to have two sacks and two forced fumbles in a game since John Lynch in `06. ... LB D.J. Williams returned to Dove Valley on Tuesday after serving his six-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance enhancing substances. He still has to sit out three more games for his second alcohol-related driving conviction but is allowed to be at team headquarters in the meantime. He's eligible to return to practice on Nov. 12.

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Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter:http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

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NFL Playoff Picture: Who's currently in and currently out in the AFC heading into Week 15

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NFL Playoff Picture: Who's currently in and currently out in the AFC heading into Week 15

It was a wild Week 14 for the AFC to say the least.

There was the Miami Miracle and the Indianapolis Colts bringing the Houston Texans' nine-game winning streak to a halt.

January football is so close we can almost taste it. Here's where things stand in the AFC as we head into Week 15.

AFC Playoff Standings:

1. Kansas City Chiefs (11-2, 4-0)

The Baltimore Ravens weren't going to make this easy for the Chiefs, but Patrick Mahomes' ridiculous playmaking couldn't be stopped.

The Chiefs clinched a playoff berth in the 27-24 overtime win and can clinch the AFC West with a win over the Los Angeles Chargers Thursday night. 

Remaining Games: Chargers (10-3), @Seahawks (8-5), Raiders (3-10).

2. New England Patriots (9-4, 3-1)

A crazy 69 yard walk off touchdown from Dolphins' Kenyan Drake put the Patriots two games back of the Chiefs for the one seed and without home field advantage if they face them in the postseason.

Now as they head to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers, a bye week in January could be on the line.

Remaining Games: @Steelers (7-5-1), Buffalo (4-9), Jets (4-9)

3. Houston Texans (9-4, 3-2)

The Texans' nine-game win streak came to an end Sunday when Andrew Luck and the Colts earned a 24-21 win in Houston. 

Still two full games up of the Colts and Tennessee Titans in the AFC South, a bye week seems far-fetched as the Patriots hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over them. 

Remaining Games: @Jets (4-9), @Eagles (6-7), Jacksonville (4-9)

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5-1, 3-1-1)

Sunday was a debacle for the Steelers. Big Ben suffered a rib injury but came back in the fourth to lead his team down the field before kicker Chris Boswell's foot slipped out from underneath of him in what would have been the game-winning field goal. 

The 24-21 loss leaves the Steelers just half a game up of the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North as they host the Patriots Sunday and still have to visit the Saints. The division, and the playoffs, aren't a lock for the Steelers.

Remaining Games: Patriots (9-4), @Saints (11-2), Bengals (5-8)

5. Los Angeles Chargers (10-3, 2-2)

After narrowly beating the Cincinnati Bengals 26-21 Sunday, the Chargers have a short week as they head to Kansas City to face their division rivals on Thursday night.

A win over the Chiefs keeps the AFC West title up for grabs.

Remaining Games: @Chiefs (11-2), Ravens (7-6), @Denver (6-7)

6. Baltimore Ravens (7-6, 2-3)

Ravens-Chiefs was one of the most entertaining games of the 2018 season and proved that Lamar Jackson and the No. 1 overall defense can hang with the best. 

The good news is that they're still half a game back of the Steelers in the AFC North. The bad news is that they're in a four-way race with the Colts, Titans and Dolphins for the final playoff spot.

Three wins to close out the season is crucial. 

Remaining Games: Buccaneers (5-8), @Chargers (10-3), Browns (5-7-1)

In The Hunt:

7. Indianapolis Colts (7-6, 3-2)

Ending the Texans' nine-game win streak on the road is certainly impressive as it kept the Colts' playoff hopes alive.

Their remaining games won't make the road to the playoffs easy, but they do hold the tiebreaker over the Dolphins.

Remaining Games: Cowboys (8-5), Giants (5-8), @Tennessee (7-6)

8. Miami Dolphins (7-6, 4-1)

The Dolphins just continue to surprise us. Their 34-33 win over the Patriots was the highlight of everyone except Patriots fans' Sunday. 

The final playoff spot will be hard to reach as they sit behind the Colts but ahead of the Titans in head-to-head record.

Remaining Games: @Vikings (6-6-1), Jacksonville (4-9), @Bills (4-9)

9. Tennessee Titans (7-6, 3-2)

The Titans earned an AFC win over the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday, but their playoff hopes aren't within close reach.

They are no longer in the sixth playoff spot tiebreaker as they are behind both the Colts and the Dolphins. 

Remaining Games: @Giants (5-8), Redskins (6-7), Colts (7-6)

10. Denver Broncos (6-7, 2-2)

The Broncos lost to the San Francisco 49ers 20-14 Sunday, which some would say is not great for a team trying to wiggle their way into the playoffs.

Remaining Games: Browns (5-7-1), @Raiders (3-10), Chargers (10-3)

11. Cleveland Browns (5-7-1, 2-1-1)

Browns fans have a lot to be excited about as Baker Mayfield is a force and they earned another home win on Sunday against the spiraling Carolina Panthers.

With two division games still to be played, the Browns have a slight chance at the playoffs. Nonetheless, the 2018 season is hopefully the start of a new era for this organization.

Remaining Games: @Broncos (6-7), Bengals (5-8), @Ravens (7-6)

12. Cincinnati Bengals (5-7, 1-3)

Hue Jackson's bad luck continues with the Bengals as the playoffs are nowhere in sight.

Remaining Games: Raiders (3-10), @Browns (5-7-1), @Steelers (7-5-1)

Eliminated: Oakland Raiders (3-10), New York Jets (3-10), Jacksonville Jaguars (4-9) and the Buffalo Bills (4-9)

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Ravens have formula for both playoff and quarterback success down final stretch

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Ravens have formula for both playoff and quarterback success down final stretch

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- After experiencing misery in each of the past two Decembers, the Baltimore Ravens are looking to rewrite the script in their quest to end a three-year playoff drought.

In 2016, a loss to Pittsburgh on Christmas night ended Baltimore's bid to reach the postseason. Last year, a defeat at home against Cincinnati on New Year's Eve sent the Ravens home.

Now, with three games left, the Ravens find themselves in a familiar position. Baltimore (7-6) has a shot to reach the playoffs as either AFC North champions or as a wild-card team, and there's really only one can't-miss way to make it happen.

"The way we look at it, we need to win three games in a row," coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "We've been here before. Let's do it. But all we need to think about right now is Tampa Bay, our upcoming opponent."

There's a good chance the Ravens will have quarterback Joe Flacco available for the first time since Nov. 4 when they face the fading Buccaneers (5-8) at home on Sunday. Flacco, a former Super Bowl MVP and veteran of 15 playoff games, appears ready to return from a right hip injury that sidelined him for four straight games.

Fortunately for the Ravens, rookie Lamar Jackson has done a credible job in his first stint as a starter. Subbing for the injured Flacco, the former Louisville star and first-round draft pick guided Baltimore through three straight wins before Sunday's 27-24 loss in Kansas City on Sunday.

Jackson hurt his ankle in overtime against the Chiefs, but the injury evidently was not serious.

"Should be fine. Looks like it's OK," Harbaugh said.

If both quarterbacks are ready to go, Harbaugh must decide who to start and how to play them. Perhaps he already has.

"I'll just have to let you know -- if we want. It could entail anything right now," the coach said. "I know what we want to do. I have a plan. We have a plan. We talked about it. We have to talk to the guys about it, and whether we share that publicly, we'll decide as the week goes on."

The plan likely involves using both quarterbacks, just as the Ravens did before Flacco's injury. The difference now is that Jackson has more experience, and the Ravens have played exceptionally well with him at the helm.

"I haven't had a chance to sit down and talk with all the parties involved, but I think it stands to reason that if Joe's ready to go, he'll be part of the game plan," Harbaugh said. "He's too good a player not to be. We'll just figure that out as we go this week, to what degree and how it works. Everybody will know going in, except perhaps everybody outside."

Baltimore currently sits a half-game behind Pittsburgh within the division, thanks to the Steelers' surprising loss in Oakland on Sunday. Harbaugh learned of the defeat shortly before the team charter touched down on its trip from Kansas City.

"I was happy. Very happy," he said.

The Ravens have Tampa Bay, the Los Angeles Chargers (10-3) and Cleveland (5-7-1) left on the schedule. Pittsburgh (7-5-1) has New England (9-4), New Orleans (11-2) and Cincinnati (5-8).

Baltimore is also the sixth and final wild-card team in the AFC, so if the Steelers don't falter, the Ravens can still reach the postseason for the first time since 2014.

"It helps, sure," Harbaugh said of having multiple routes to the playoffs. "We just need to win games and let all that take care of itself."

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