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AFC leaders show their hands

This high-stakes poker game was by invite only, and the minimum ante was your football soul. Eight AFC coaches had analyzed their hand, slapped on their best poker face, and waited for the cards to be turned over yesterday. And what mattered at the end was not chips or chicanery. It was wins, specifically one more than you started the day with.

Talk about flush with excitement. In one afternoon, an entire conference was boiled down to four games, each pivotal to the divisional races. The difference possibly meant the postseason or a postmortem. One bad decision and you can kiss those complimentary casino buffet passes goodbye.

When Bill Belichick pushed away from the table, he had an AFC East title in hand. His Patriots overcame the weather and the Dolphins in Foxborough, 12-0, by calling Miami's bluff of running Ricky Williams like a snow plow. Now New England is 11-2, and the 8-5 Dolphins are treading water.

In Denver, the Broncos blasted the Chiefs, 45-27. Don't cry for Dick Vermeil, though (that's a switch), because his Chiefs have already wrapped up a postseason berth at 11-2. But those Broncos sure are building the pot at 8-5 because Mike Shanahan has a budding ace in running back Clinton Portis, who steamrolled his way to 218 yards and a team-record five touchdowns.

"I kind of expect it, because every time he touches the ball he's got a chance to go the distance," said Shanahan after tying Miami for the final wild-card spot. "He has made so many big plays and it seems like he gets stronger as the game goes on."

He certainly did yesterday. Portis rambled for 188 yards after halftime and reached 160 for the third straight game. After two early scoring runs, he polished off Kansas City with TD bursts of 59, 28, and 53 yards, denying the Chiefs their first AFC West crown since 1997. Lamented Kansas City cornerback Eric Warfield, "It was his day. Not ours."

You had two of a kind in Nashville, where quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Steve McNair staged an MVP tug-of-war in separating the AFC South contenders. Advantage Manning (22 of 34, 228 yards), and further advantage to the 10-3 Colts, who pulled a game in front of Tennessee with a 29-27 decision that kept Indianapolis on track for its first division title since capturing the AFC East in 1999.

"We had to win this game to have control of the division," Colts coach Tony Dungy said. "Now we do. Now we don't have to rely on any help from anyone else. If we win our games, we'll be in good shape."

Especially with Edgerrin James back in shape after missing three midseason games with a sore lower back. The running back just missed his third 100-yard outing in four games, but provided two touchdown runs in the third quarter, propping up Indianapolis with a 29-13 cushion.

Not even a gimpy McNair (two TDs) could bail out the Titans, and now Jeff Fisher's team leads the wild-card dogfight at 9-4. "We control our own destiny as far as our playoff future, but the division title is out of our hands right now," Fisher said.

Not so for 8-5 Baltimore. The Ravens cleared their biggest remaining hurdle in the AFC North by squashing the Bengals at home, 31-13. Chalk this one up to a full house, because before nearly 70,000 at M&T Bank Stadium the Baltimore defense turned in a masterpiece by sacking Jon Kitna six times and forcing five turnovers.

"This is a statement game for us in our division," said linebacker Ray Lewis (interception, nine tackles). "We did what we need to do. We're hard to beat when Jamal's running the ball like that and our offense capitalizes on the turnovers we get."

That would be Jamal Lewis, who shook off a sprained left wrist for a career-best three touchdowns on 180 yards rushing -- 80 more than Cincinnati (7-6) amassed on the ground. Like his teammates, Kitna, the poster boy of career resurrection in 2003, reverted to old habits, throwing two costly interceptions and fumbling twice. It left Marvin Lewis a loser in his return to Baltimore, but kept the Bengals mentor optimistic that a wild card remains in the cards.

"We can't turn it over like we did today and expect to beat anybody," Marvin Lewis said. "We have a lot of football left; we'll prove what we're made of the next three weeks."

He's right. This is no time to fold. You don't make it this far without some sense of identity, and anyone who jumps into the Cincinnati quagmire feet first is a gambling man.

Losing proposition If you think it's competitive at the top, take a look down below. No fewer than eight teams have a chance to nail down the No. 1 pick next spring, and it's going to be a gory stretch run. Let's set the bar at the Cardinals (3-10), who have dropped five straight by a cumulative 180-65 count after yesterday's 50-14 debacle against the 49ers. It was 34-0 at halftime, but fortunately for Arizona fans, most of them forgot there was a game. The Cardinals have Carolina, Seattle, and Minnesota left on the schedule, so Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning better start working on his tan. San Diego notched win No. 3 with a 14-7 eyesore in Detroit, leveling the Chargers with AFC West bottom-feeder Oakland. However, someone's getting No. 4 -- the teams meet in Week 17. Perhaps the race for No. 1 will come down to a former No. 1, Michael Vick. The Falcons have their star back, and were playing out the string on a 2-10 season heading into last night's game against Carolina . . . Maybe now Bruce Smith can retire with peace of mind. The aging pass-rusher finally fulfilled his quest to become the all-time sacks leader in the Redskins' 20-7 win over the Giants, dropping Jesse Palmer for No. 199. This was no bogus Michael Strahan job, either, as Smith used an inside power move to discard tackle Ian Allen and pass Reggie White for the milestone. "When they print up the football cards, they won't say sacked second to such and such or so and so," said Smith. "It was a special day." Perhaps for Palmer, too. When you've thrown only 19 pass attempts over a three-year career, any contribution to history is welcome. "I heard everyone say `Bruuuucce!' " Palmer said. "I figured that was it, I was part of the record. I should have least gotten a `Thanks.' "

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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afc east standings
  W L T Pct. PF PA
Patriots 11 2 0 .846 20.7 16.1
Dolphins 8 5 0 .615 18.5 15.6
Bills 6 7 0 .462 16.5 15.4
Jets 5 8 0 .385 18.5 19.6
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