The way it is in the NFL as Week 15 approaches:

· AFC EAST: The lone division in the NFL with a champion – the New England Patriots. The Pats (11-2) are tied with Kansas City for the NFL’s best record, and are the NFL’s hottest team with nine victories in a row. “It’s going to be interesting down the stretch,” says Patriots defensive tackle RICHARD SEYMOUR.

The Miami Dolphins (8-5) on Monday night (ABC, 9:00 PM ET) host the NFL’s second hottest team, the Philadelphia Eagles (10-3, eight consecutive wins). Miami closes with games against division rivals Buffalo and the New York Jets, who also remain in playoff contention.

· AFC NORTH: “By no stretch of the imagination is this thing over,” says head coach BRIAN BILLICK of the division-leading Baltimore Ravens (8-5).

One game behind the Ravens are the Cincinnati Bengals (7-6), losers to Baltimore last Sunday. The teams have split the season series, so their remaining division games are key. Baltimore plays Cleveland and Pittsburgh – still in the playoff race -- in the final two weeks, Cincinnati goes against Cleveland in Week 17.

In the realigned NFL, winning the division is more important than ever, because the two wild card teams open on the road. Prior to realignment in 2002, the highest-seeded wild card team hosted a first-round game. Not anymore.

· AFC SOUTH: The division title and a playoff spot can be decided this week. The Indianapolis Colts (10-3) can clinch the division or a playoff berth, and the second-place Tennessee Titans (9-4) can earn a playoff slot.

“If we win our games, we’ll be in good shape,” says Colts head coach TONY DUNGY. “We won’t have to rely on any help from anyone else.”

The Colts would take their first division title since 1999 with a win over Atlanta and a Tennessee loss. Indy earns a playoff spot with:

1. IND win, OR

2. MIA loss, OR

3. IND tie + MIA tie, OR

4. IND tie + DEN loss.


Tennessee can clinch a playoff berth with a win over Buffalo, plus a Miami loss and a Cincinnati loss or tie.

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NFL FACTOID

MOST 10-WIN TEAMS EVER?: There are 15 teams that can end the season with at least 10 wins apiece, which would be the most 10-win teams in a season since the 16-game schedule began in 1978.

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· AFC WEST: The Kansas City Chiefs have clinched a playoff berth, and can earn their first division title since 1997 with a win or tie against Detroit, or a Denver loss or tie.

The Broncos (8-5) – who control their own playoff destiny -- come off a 45-27 win over the Chiefs highlighted by a five-TD, 218-yard rushing performance by CLINTON PORTIS. That kind of production at this time of year is vital. “These last three weeks in the NFL are the most important,” says Denver defensive end TREVOR PRYCE. “And the most stressful.”

· NFC EAST: The Philadelphia Eagles (10-3), already in the playoffs, can strengthen their position Monday night when they visit the Dolphins.

The Eagles can clinch their third division title in a row with a Dallas loss, or with a win and a Dallas tie. ANDY REID is the first Eagles coach to win two consecutive division crowns, and he is the team’s first coach to win 10 or more games in four consecutive seasons.

Philly also can earn a first-round bye with:

1. PHI win + DAL loss or tie + MIN loss or tie + CAR loss or tie, OR

2. PHI win + DAL loss or tie + MIN loss or tie + SEA loss or tie.


The Cowboys (8-5), who play still-in-contention Washington this week, can earn their first playoff berth since 1999 with:

1. DAL win + MIN win + GB loss + SF loss or tie + NO loss or tie + TB loss or tie + SEA win or tie.


· NFC NORTH: One game separates the top two teams, but one can take the division this week if the other loses.

The Minnesota Vikings (8-5) – who won their first six, lost their next four, and now seem to be peaking with two victories in their last three games – can clinch the division title with a win over Chicago and a Green Bay loss.

The Packers (7-6), having finished their conference schedule (7-5), conclude against AFC clubs – at San Diego, at Oakland, and home against Denver.

· NFC SOUTH: The Carolina Panthers (8-5), two years after going 1-15, can capture the division crown in Arizona with:

1. CAR win, OR

2. NO loss + TB loss, OR

3. CAR tie + NO tie + TB tie.


New Orleans and Tampa Bay, both 6-7, are still in playoff contention.

· NFC WEST: The St. Louis Rams (10-3), who earned a playoff spot with their Monday night victory over Cleveland, can clinch their third division crown in the past five years with a win at home over division-rival Seattle. The Rams also can earn a first-round bye.

“We’ve kind of been under the radar most of the season, which is OK," says Rams cornerback AENEAS WILLIAMS, who had two interceptions in a 24-second span Monday night, the first of which he returned for a TD. “But the coaches have always talked about what is possible.”

What is possible is that, with a win, the Rams clinch the division, and can earn a first-round bye with:

1. STL win + CAR loss or tie + MIN loss or tie, OR

2. STL win + CAR loss or tie + DAL loss or tie + PHI loss.


Seattle (8-5) and the San Francisco 49ers (6-7) are still in playoff contention. At two games behind the Rams, the Seahawks know that Sunday is a pivotal game.

The question is, which Seahawks team will show up in St. Louis? Seattle is 7-0 this year at home, but 1-5 on the road, including a 34-7 loss at Minnesota last Sunday. Two of the Seahawks’ final three games are on the road.

The ‘Hawks – who came back from a 13-point deficit on September 21 to top St. Louis – have handed Rams starting quarterback MARC BULGER (16-3 record as a starter) two of his career losses. They face a Rams team that has won 12 in a row at home, and 28 of their past 36 against the NFC West.