Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) reacts in the first half of an NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints in New Orleans, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)
Jonathan Bachman
December 07, 2015

And down the stretch they come. Some teams surging, some stumbling, some showing their resourcefulness, and some looking to just get the 2015 season over.

The NFL regular-season schedule has reached the quarter pole after staging one of the wildest weeks in memory. Coming out of it, we have:

-an undefeated team that looks ready to turn 12-0 into 16-0;

-two division races where the winner might not reach .500;

-Super Bowl champion coaches getting brain lock;

-a bunch of missed extra points, including one returned by Saints rookie Stephone Anthony for the first defensive 2-pointer in NFL history;

-more suspect officiating.

Nothing from Week 13 - not even Green Bay's desperation pass in ''extra time'' to win at Detroit - was more shocking than a morose Bill Belichick needing to explain how his Patriots blew a 14-point lead at home to struggling Philadelphia. Or why they tried a weird drop kick on an onside kick.

''Well, I mean there wasn't a tremendous downside to the play,'' he said, even though there turned out to be a tremendous downside to it. Such as jumpstarting the Eagles to 35 straight points.

The Patriots head into the stretch run having dropped two straight games in which they blew 14-point margins. They are one of the stumblers, ravaged by key injuries. But they are also one of the more resourceful squads.

''You'd love to have everybody healthy,'' Tom Brady said. ''I think every team would love that at this point, but it's just not the reality, so it's tough. You've got to find ways to adjust, and we do plenty of good things.''

Time to start doing them again, Tom.

So what's ahead over the final four weeks of season? Possibly the following.

AFC

Despite their recent struggles in which they haven't played a truly strong all-around game in a month, and their growing injury list, the Patriots are a virtual lock in the East. Their main challenge is trying to secure home-field advantage for the playoffs; Denver and Cincinnati also are 10-2 and the Broncos have beaten the Patriots.

Both of those division leaders figure to clinch their sectors early. The Broncos' defense is so formidable that Brock Osweiler doesn't have to be another Peyton Manning or anything close for them to keep winning. The Bengals can grab the North with a home win against Pittsburgh on Sunday, and they are the most-balanced contender in the conference.

The South is a two-team, uh, race, with both Indianapolis and Houston at 6-6, coming off weak performances to interrupt recent winning ways. Even though the Colts are missing Andrew Luck - Matt Hasselbeck lost Sunday for the first time in five starts as his sub - their offense seems in better shape than Houston's.

The Texans have the superior defense, but also the harder schedule. Both face Jacksonville and Tennessee, but the Colts get Houston at home, and the Texans take on New England this week; the Colts' other contest is against Miami.

''Every game is important for us right now, so as bad as this hurts,'' Texans DT Vince Wilfork said after losing at Buffalo, ''we have to be able to turn the page quickly because of just how the season is turning out for us.''

The wild-card chase has three 7-5 front-runners right now, with Kansas City's defense and Pittsburgh's offense giving them the edge on the Jets.

NFC

Let's get the unsightly East out of the way.

Every team in this division has been at least two games below the break-even mark this season. It's possible the winner out of this group will be 7-9, and the only thing that might save the East champion from being 6-10 would be the remaining intradivision games that, barring ties, someone must win.

The fact that whoever survives will host a playoff game, possibly against fast-closing Seattle, seems downright unfair.

Expecting the Seahawks (7-5) to catch Arizona (10-2) in the West probably is too much. The Cardinals, with strong MVP contender Carson Palmer and a solid defense, have the makings of a Super Bowl winner. But if the Seahawks' recent performances are a fair indication, they still have those attributes, too.

Either Green Bay or Minnesota, both 8-4, will take the North. Each needs to prove its credentials to be considered championship caliber, though, particularly with both being vulnerable at home.

That brings us to the South champion Panthers, who had every chance to lose their spotless record in New Orleans, yet rallied, then rallied again.

With resilience like that, a defense as good as any, and a playmaking quarterback with skill, moxie and creativity galore in Cam Newton, it's time to consider Carolina the measuring stick.

''That is one of the things that we get out of this that we will certainly build on, that (Newton) was able to win a shootout and take a drive in the fourth quarter to give us a chance,'' Carolina coach Ron Rivera said after capturing his third successive division title.

''It goes back to his whole development as a quarterback in this league. I am really proud of what he did and the confidence with which he played.''

What a great way to enter the stretch run.

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AP Sports Writer Brett Martel contributed to this story.

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Online:

AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org and AP NFL Twitter feed: http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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