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Suspended bosses get to watch Brees

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Suspended bosses get to watch Brees

Somewhere in a private box at the Louisiana Superdome, Sean Payton, Mickey Loomis and Joe Vitt will sit and watch Drew Brees try to set an NFL record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass.

Not to mention get the Saints out of their worst slide in years.

That suspended trio - coach Payton is sidelined for the season, general manager Loomis for eight games, interim coach Vitt for six for their roles in the bounties scandal - was given permission by the NFL to attend Sunday night's game against San Diego, but can't interact with Brees or the other players.

Brees tied Hall of Famer John Unitas' mark of 47 straight, set from 1956-60 by throwing for three scores in a loss at Green Bay last weekend. Then he asked Commissioner Roger Goodell about allowing the coaches and GM to attend on Sunday.

``It would mean a lot, and that's why I asked,'' Brees said. ``Of course they know how this team feels about all those people and what a big part they are in our journey despite the circumstances. And the fact that we have the opportunity to break the Johnny Unitas record, and I say `we' because it is a team deal, and Joe Vitt is a part of that, Sean Payton is a part of that and Mickey Loomis is a part of that. They are all a part of that, and I felt like they certainly deserved the opportunity to be there in attendance and share that moment with us.''

While the Saints are one of two 0-4 teams, along with Cleveland, the Chargers (3-1) are on top of the AFC West. Their three wins are over Oakland, Kansas City and Tennessee, all 1-3. When they played a contender - at home - the Chargers were routed by Atlanta.

So this could be something of a proving ground for San Diego, because beating even a winless Saints squad in New Orleans never is a Big Easy. And with emotions running wild over Brees' pursuit of Unitas' record - and with Payton, Loomis and Vitt on hand - the Chargers' challenge is amplified.

``It's the same team that's made deep playoff runs and it's the same team that's won Super Bowls,'' said Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who replaced Brees as the starter in 2006, when Brees headed to New Orleans as a free agent. ``We know what we're in for Sunday night. I know just from the few guys that were on this team a few years ago and are now there, it's a tough and resilient group. We're going to have to play at our best if we expect to win on Sunday.''

Also Sunday, it's Atlanta at Washington, Denver at New England, Philadelphia at Pittsburgh, Green Bay at Indianapolis, Baltimore at Kansas City, Cleveland at the New York Giants, Buffalo at San Francisco, Miami at Cincinnati, Seattle at Carolina, Chicago at Jacksonville, and Tennessee at Minnesota.

Houston is at the New York Jets on Monday night.

The week's action began Thursday night with St. Louis hosting Arizona.

Off this week are Dallas (2-2), Detroit (1-3), Oakland (1-3), and Tampa Bay (1-3).

Atlanta (4-0) at Washington (2-2)

It is a measure of how far the Falcons have come this year that they can move from their 1-yard-line in the final moments to field goal position and beat the Panthers. It's also a measure to see them with a league-best plus-10 turnover margin - the Falcons have only two giveaways and no fumbles lost - and a stingy pass defense. Atlanta has cured some major issues of the recent past.

``We've made a bunch of mistakes, but we've battled and we've been tough and we've fought through some of those things,'' said Matt Ryan, among the league's top quarterbacks through four games. ``That's what you have to do in this league. It's never going to be perfect. That's just the nature of the NFL.''

The Falcons got some helpful preparation for facing sensational rookie QB Robert Griffin III when they played 2011's top offensive rookie, Cam Newton, last Sunday. But Griffin is part of a much better running game than the Panthers presented. That will test Atlanta's ground defense, which ranks 29th.

Houston (4-0) at New York Jets (2-2), Monday night

Just what the reeling Jets need on the heels of their worst performance of the Rex Ryan era: a visit from the top-ranked team in the AP Pro32.

The Texans have had only one close game so far, have yielded the fewest points in the league (56), have scored the second most (126), have the top-rated defense in yards allowed and ... shall we continue?

``I think we have to get better,'' Ryan said. ``We can't worry about who we play. The fact that we're playing the team that is regarded as the best team in the National Football League, we have to improve ourselves. We have to go back and look at our football team first.''

Might be more enjoyable to look at what the Texans are doing, Rex.

Denver (2-2) at New England (2-2)

Few quarterback duels get the blood flowing like Peyton Manning against Tom Brady. They had a decade's worth of memorable matchups when it was Colts versus Patriots. Now, Manning is in Denver, but that doesn't change the vibes much.

He's simply glad to be back on the field, regardless of who he is facing.

``I certainly didn't need a year off to re-emphasize how much I enjoy playing; I've never taken football for granted, so I didn't need a year off to remind me of that,'' Manning said. ``But it certainly does reinforce that we are fortunate to be playing this game.''

Both come off huge games against bad defenses, and the Patriots have improved their defense enough that it leads the AFC with 11 takeaways. Early in his career, Manning struggled against Bill Belichick designs, but not so much anymore.

Philadelphia (3-1) at Pittsburgh (1-2)

The Steelers have struggled, but with safety Troy Polamalu, LB James Harrison and RB Rashard Mendenhall expected back from injuries, they become a more formidable opponent. Pittsburgh has protected the ball well, but also has forced only three turnovers - hardly Steel Curtain football.

Everyone has profited in the turnover department against the Eagles, whose 12 giveaways are the most in the NFC. Philly has won its games by a total of four points.

Among the spiciest matchups will be the Eagles' speed with running back LeSean McCoy and receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin - not to mention quarterback Michael Vick - against a defense that has looked slow thus far.

Green Bay (2-2) at Indianapolis (1-2)

Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians steps in as interim coach for Indy while Chuck Pagano battles leukemia. That adds to the challenges the Colts are facing as they come off a bye week.

``Obviously, we know what's going on and there's no doubt everyone still has that in the back of our heads,'' defensive end Cory Redding said. ``But this team has to move on. We have to go out there and do our job.''

Doing it against the revitalized Packers' offense will be extra difficult. Most of the matchups favor Green Bay, with the most intriguing perhaps being Packers center Jeff Saturday against the Colts' interior defensive line. Saturday left Indy as a free agent this year after 13 seasons.

Baltimore (3-1) at Kansas City (1-3)

Kansas City has allowed 136 points overall and 77 in two home losses, hardly the right approach against a Baltimore team that has become dangerous offensively. Even worse, the Chiefs have the NFL's most giveaways, 15, a bad sign against the Ravens' ball-hawkers.

``You look across that defensive board and they've got a lot of great veteran leadership with Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata and then also obviously Ray Lewis,'' Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel said. ``But those guys have been playing together for a long time and they're a very instinctive, very experienced group.''

After a busy opening four weeks, the Ravens finally are rested, having last played on Sept. 27.

Cleveland (0-4) at New York Giants (2-2)

The Giants recognize that they messed up late at Philly last Sunday night, costing them sole possession of the NFC East lead. With a brutal upcoming schedule, a victory against the winless Browns, ranked last in the AP Pro32, is a must.

Yet, the Giants have struggled in recent years against mediocre (or worse) opponents.

``I don't know if it's our preparation, I don't know if it's the mindset that we go in there with,'' receiver Victor Cruz said. ``Hopefully, we'll gear up this week and be prepared for this team, no matter what their record is. They're still a good football team, and we have to prepare ourselves to win a football game.''

Cleveland has lost 10 straight dating back to last season. It has shown sparks on offense with rookie RB Trent Richardson and QB Brandon Weeden, and has some playmakers on defense, particularly linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. Top cornerback Joe Haden has one more week on his suspension.

Buffalo (2-2) at San Francisco (3-1)

Early in the third quarter last week, the Bills led New England 21-7 and were envisioning a solo spot atop the AFC East. Then the Patriots stopped fooling around and soon were headed to a 52-28 romp.

The Niners aren't likely to score that many points, but their fierce, opportunistic defense almost certainly won't yield anything close to four touchdowns.

This could be an entertaining matchup on the ground with Buffalo's Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller trying to outdo San Francisco's Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. It also could turn into a mismatch if Patrick Willis, Justin Smith and the rest of the 49ers' defense shuts down the Bills' running attack and forces Ryan Fitzpatrick to throw under duress. Fitzpatrick's 12 TD passes top the league, but he's also thrown seven interceptions.

Miami (1-3) at Cincinnati (3-1)

With two division matches after this, Cincinnati needs to pay attention against a Dolphins squad that lost its last two games in overtime, blowing leads in both. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has been sensational late in games and has the best fourth-quarter passing rating in the NFL, 151.7.

The Dolphins have won six of their last seven visits to Cincinnati and have the NFL's leading receiver in yards in Brian Hartline. But getting time to find him will be problematic for rookie QB Ryan Tannehill: The Bengals lead the NFL with 17 sacks.

``Our defensive linemen are very tall guys,'' safety Chris Crocker said. ``Just them getting their arms up, getting around him - it's uncomfortable. As long as they continue to get the pressure like they're getting, then we'll make a lot of plays.''

Seattle (2-2) at Carolina (1-3)

Reverse the site of this game and the Seahawks are a strong favorite. Instead, they make one of the longest road trips possible in the NFL, 2,800 miles, to face an angry group of Panthers.

Carolina had Atlanta pinned at its 1-yard line in the final moments last Sunday and still managed to blow the game. For developing teams, such defeats can be devastating.

``We are a young football team, but at some point you've got to get past that, because at some point you run out of time,'' coach Ron Rivera said. ``We don't want to run out of time.''

Chicago (3-1) at Jacksonville (1-3)

The addition of WR Brandon Marshall has energized Chicago's offense and even made Jay Cutler less sullen. But it's the defense that is making the Bears formidable with a league-high 14 takeaways, including 11 interceptions. They've run back three picks for touchdowns.

That paints a distressing picture for the Jaguars, whose 62 points are the fewest of any team to have played four games.

Tennessee (1-3) at Minnesota (3-1)

One of the league's biggest flops through a quarter of the schedule visits one of the most pleasant surprises.

Tennessee is without starting QB Jake Locker (shoulder), so Matt Hasselbeck gets the call. He'll need Chris Johnson to resemble the running back he was last week with 141 yards, not the impostor of the previous three games.

Minnesota has been getting strong contributions from its veteran leaders, particularly Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin on offense, Chad Greenway and Antoine Winfield on defense, and Harvin on special teams. The kick returners have been superb.

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

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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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