A dismal December has the Denver Broncos on the brink of a colossal collapse. Since division play began in 1967, no team has held a three-game lead with three weeks to go and not made the playoffs.

The Broncos (8-7) have led the woeful AFC West by themselves for four months, but they would miss the postseason party with a loss Sunday night at San Diego, which began the month 4-8.

Now it's the Broncos who are reeling and the Chargers rolling - and they remain a tad ticked off by referee Ed Hochuli's blown call that negated a fumble and cost them a win in Denver in Week 2.

A win Sunday - Hochuli won't be there - and the Broncos would become just the fifth team in NFL history to have sole possession of first place in their division after every game in a season.

The Tennessee Titans also accomplished the feat when clinching the AFC South three weeks ago.

However, the Broncos are nothing like the Titans.

A better bet is Denver will miss the playoffs for a third consecutive year for the first time since 1982.

Meanwhile, reinforcements have arrived in the Broncos' battered backfield: Cory Boyd and Alex Haynes, both of whom had been cut recently by the team.

Ellis fined.

New York Jets defensive end Shaun Ellis was fined $10,000 by the NFL for throwing snow at fans after the team's loss in Seattle on Sunday.

Several fans threw snowballs at New York players and staff as they walked off the field after the Seahawks' 13-3 victory. As he approached the walkway leading to the locker room, Ellis reached into a pile of snow, picked up a large chunk, and tossed it into the stands at Qwest Field, appearing to hit at least a few fans. No one was believed to have been injured.

Ellis said yesterday that he wasn't angry at the time, and there was no malicious intent on his part.

"It was all in fun," he said.

According to an NFL spokesman, players are notified before each season that any contact with fans that potentially presents crowd-control issues and risk of injury is prohibited. Players also are informed that they must not confront fans during games and must leave any issues to security personnel.

Santa not welcome.

Santa Claus' visit to Mike Tomlin's weekly news conference yesterday didn't elicit a "ho, ho, ho" from the less-than-amused Steelers coach.

Bill DiFabio, a sports announcer from Washington, Pa., traditionally dresses up as Santa for the pre-Christmas media gathering and often pokes fun at the Steelers coach for a few moments. Former coach Bill Cowher often went along with the gag.

Tomlin played along initially, asking, "What have you got for me, Santa?" and inviting DiFabio to join him at his desk in front of the room.

But when DiFabio commandeered the news conference for more than five minutes, passing out gifts and cracking jokes about fellow sportscasters, the Browns and Cowboys, nose tackle Casey Hampton's weight, and the woebegone Pirates, Tomlin became impatient.

To end the unrehearsed skit, Tomlin grudgingly agreed to toss a football to the fake Santa.

"If that will get you out of here," Tomlin said.

Looming milestone.

The New York Giants, heading into Sunday's regular-season finale against the Minnesota Vikings, could become the fourth team in NFL history with two running backs rushing for 1,000 yards in the same season.

The Giants are Brandon Jacobs, who already has 1,089 yards, and Derrick Ward (52 yards short) - two players who will be free agents after the season.

The other duos were Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris, who did it for the undefeated Miami Dolphins in 1972; Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier each hit the mark for the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers in 1976; and Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack each ran for 1,000 yards for Cleveland in 1985.


James "Shack" Harris resigned as the team's personnel chief, taking the fall for the Jacksonville franchise that flopped this season.


NFC Wild-Card Picture

*Falcons 10-5

**Cowboys 9-6

Buccaneers 9-6

Bears 9-6

EAGLES 8-6-1

*Clinched a playoff spot. Still could win the NFC South with a win plus a Carolina loss, which would give Carolina the first wild-card berth.

**Hold the tiebreaker advantage over Tampa Bay and Chicago.

For the Eagles to get in ...

The Eagles must beat Dallas.

Tampa Bay must lose at home to

Oakland (4-11) on Sunday.

Chicago must lose at Houston (7-8)


Minnesota must lose at home to the Giants (12-3) on Sunday.

Week 17 games affecting NFC playoff scenarios

Dallas at Eagles, 4:15 p.m.

Oakland at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.

St. Louis at Atlanta, 1 p.m.

Giants at Minnesota, 1 p.m.

Chicago at Houston, 1 p.m.

Carolina at New Orleans, 1 p.m.