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Nowadays, it's rare for me to be awake and riveted to the TV screen after midnight. But Sunday was a glorious exception. I hung in right to the end of Pats-Broncos, one of those infrequent NFL night games that lives up to all the pregame hype.

Actually, it wasn't the most artistic football game. New England fumbled the ball away three possessions in a row in the first half. Peyton Manning played his worst game of the season, and still Denver held a commanding, 24-0 lead at halftime.

If Tom Brady hadn't been on the other sideline, that might have been enough to call it a night. But with Brady, the greatest quarterback ever to play, you can never be sure. Even in the midst of a bad statistical season, you never count the guy out.

Sure enough, Brady led the Pats on five straight scoring drives to start the second half. For alert Bills fans, I imagine it stirred bad memories of last year's game in Orchard Park, when the Pats scored on seven straight second-half possessions.

Manning, who is now 4-10 against Brady in his career, threw a late TD pass to force overtime. But the Pats won in OT on a Stephen Gostkowski field goal, 34-31, after recovering a punt that bounced off a Bronco deep in Denver territory.

It was a sensational game, a reminder that despite its many issues, the NFL is still capable of delivering some matchless sporting drama. Brady versus Manning was the best game of the season. And there's a good chance we'll see the next installment very soon, in the AFC championship game.

At this point, it's hard to see the Broncos and Pats getting a serious challenge in a thoroughly mediocre AFC. Denver is still tied with Kansas City for the AFC West lead. But the Chiefs have been exposed lately and have the look of a wild card.

The Bengals and Colts have been inconsistent and uninspiring of late. But who hasn't in the AFC? Only one of the 16 AFC teams has won its last two games! The Steelers, who seemed on the verge of collapse when they took on the Bills a few weeks back, have won three straight to jump back into the playoff hunt.

At the time, fans and media in Pittsburgh were calling it the worst Steelers team in a decade. Now the Steelers are 5-6 and wedged in a six-team logjam for the final AFC playoff spot with the Titans, Ravens, Chargers, Dolphins and Jets.

The Bills are only a game behind at 4-7, along with the Raiders and Browns. Let's face it, if you're not in the AFC playoff hunt at this point, you might as well turn in your hunting license.

Sometimes, as the Bills discovered over the weekend, the best thing you can do is nothing. Stand still and other mediocrities are sure to fall back to you. While the Bills were idle, the Jets and Dolphins both lost, dropping the cut-off line to six losses.

After the Bills got embarrassed in Pittsburgh, who would have thought they'd be one game out of the playoffs two weeks later? That's how it goes in the AFC. In a roomful of impostors, one convincing win can change your entire outlook on life.

This is a conference in which a winning fourth-quarter drive by Ryan Fitzpatrick can be a seismic event. After Fitz's heroics against Oakland on Sunday, Tennessee has the edge among the 5-6 teams, because the Titans are 4-0 against the other six-loss teams.

Fitz and the Titans in the playoffs? Why not? I could see an 8-8 team getting in. Only one AFC team has won a wild card with an 8-8 record since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978. But this could be the year it happens again. It wouldn't surprise me if none of the 5-6 teams went 4-1 the rest of the way.

The Bills could hang around the playoff race, the way they did in 2004. Win your games and teams come back to you.

The Ravens host the Steelers on Thanksgiving night, so one of those teams gets a seventh loss. The Jets and Dolphins play next Sunday. Ditto.

So if the Bills beat the Falcons, who will come to Toronto on a five-game losing streak, they'll definitely pull even with two teams. And they could gain on two others if the Titans lose in Indianapolis and the Chargers fall at home to the Bengals.

The Bills' schedule is fairly soft the rest of the way, although the two-game Florida swing doesn't seem quite so easy anymore. A month ago, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay were both winless. They're a combined 5-1 in the last three weeks. The Bucs have won three in a row.

That's the modern NFL in an age of increasing parity. No team is as bad or as good as it seems. Those perceptions can change from week to week. There are no great teams, only the dubious charm of sub-.500 teams carrying genuine playoff hopes into December.

The thing is, you don't see as much sustained excellence anymore. That's why a Brady-Manning matchup has so much appeal to NFL fans. You're watching history and you know there are only a few chapters left to unfold. So you treasure it while you can.

Parity is great, but give me those two again in January. I'll be wide awake for it.



email: jsullivan@buffnews.com