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As playoffs near, the picture changes from moment to moment

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LM Otero / Associated Press
Le'Ron McClain's 82-yard run against Dallas on Saturday night symbolized a crazy and unexpected weekend.


Troy Aikman summed it up best during his broadcast of Sunday's Eagles-Redskins game when he said there has never been a season like this one as far as crazy playoff scenarios, surprise teams and emerging players. Just when you think you have it figured out, things change.

That was the case right off the bat in Week 16, as the red-hot Colts looked as if they were going to lose Thursday night in Jacksonville. But then three Peyton Manning touchdown passes and a David Garrard interception returned for a score helped turn around things for Indianapolis. Still, the Jaguars were seven yards away from a game-tying touchdown with 12 seconds to play when Dwight Freeney sacked Garrard to ice the game.

Two nights later, in the last game played at fabled Texas Stadium, Dallas nearly saw its playoff hopes extinguished when the Ravens got touchdown runs of 77 and 82 yards in the games waning minutes. The 82-yard run by Le'Ron McClain went down as the longest by a Cowboys opponent in the history of Texas Stadium. Amazingly, that is the same Le'Ron McClain who played all 16 games in 2007 and had carried the ball just eight times for 18 yards, with a long run of four yards!

The Cowboys seemed to take a page from the New York Mets, who were eliminated from playoff contention earlier this year in the final game played at Shea Stadium. Unlike the Mets, however, Dallas was not officially eliminated -- and as a perfect example of this topsy-turvy season, losses on Sunday by Philadelphia and Tampa Bay have given the Cowboys a simple formula: Beat the Eagles this week and make the playoffs.

Weather was a big factor in several games Sunday. Miami went to Kansas City, where the wind chill was minus-20 -- the coldest game in Dolphins history -- and came away with a 38-31 victory. There was snow in Seattle for Mike Holmgren's last home game, and the Seahawks may have ended the Jets' playoff hopes. The elements were tough in New England for what may have been the Patriots' final home game of the season, even though they still have a chance to win 11 games and win the AFC East. The Cardinals couldn't do anything in the snow, but it's hard to imagine the weather was a key factor considering how well New England played. Meanwhile, the weather in Tampa Bay was a perfect 72 degrees -- but that didn't help the host Buccaneers, who lost a must-win game to the Chargers.

Here's a look at some other key games:

N.Y. Giants 34, Carolina 28 (OT)

This winner-take-all game took an extra 4:51 after regulation to decide who would be the top seed in the NFC. The Giants did what needs to be done in cold and windy conditions -- run the ball. They rushed for 301 yards and held a 13-minute advantage in time of possession. The play that cost Carolina the game came with 1:23 left in regulation. Carolina had a first down at the Giants' 37-yard line when DeAngelo Williams gained nine yards on what looked to be a busted play -- but Carolina receiver Steve Smith was called for holding while trying to block down field. Instead of second-and-1 at the Giants' 28, the ball was spotted back at the 40. Carolina gained eight yards in the next three plays, and then John Kasay missed a 50-yard field goal attempt with four seconds left in regulation.

The Giants won the toss in overtime and went three-and-out. The Panthers also went three-and-out, and the Giants took over on their own 13. On first down, Derrick Ward ran 51 yards to put the Giants in business. Two plays later, Ward ran for 14 yards, and then he added another 17 yards on his next carry. On the following play, Brandon Jacobs scored on a 2-yard run to win the game. With the victory, the road to Super Bowl XLIII now goes through the Meadowlands in the NFC. Carolina still has a chance with a win Sunday at New Orleans to earn a first-week bye. With a loss, however, they could end up being a wild card -- a Panthers loss and an Atlanta victory would give the Falcons the NFC South title.

The Giants have done an outstanding job of building their team. Ward originally was drafted by the Jets after a college career that ended at tiny Ottawa University in Kansas. In 2003, his one year at Ottawa, Ward ran for a single-season NAIA record 2,061 yards. On Oct, 13, 2004, the Giants signed Ward off the Jets' practice squad.

Tennessee 31, Pittsburgh 14

With the win over Pittsburgh, Tennessee clinched home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. This game may actually have been won last April at the draft table. Back then, most Titans fans were hoping the team would address the wide receiver position. Instead, they used their first-round draft pick on running back Chris Johnson, who is having a terrific rookie season and scored a touchdown in the win over Pittsburgh. More importantly, the Titans used the 54th overall pick to select defensive lineman Jason Jones. Then in the fourth round, Tennessee drafted William Hayes, a defensive end from Winston-Salem State.

With injuries sidelining Pro Bowl defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch -- Jones and Hayes stepped in and made major contributions. Jones replaced Haynesworth in the starting lineup and had 3.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. Hayes had a sack and a fumble recovery. After the game, Jones was quoted as saying, "I can't really tell you what happened. I was amazed myself."

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The game was actually much closer than the final score indicates. It was 17-14 at the end of three quarters, and the Titans scored twice in the fourth. Safety Michael Griffin had two interceptions and retuned one 83 yards for a touchdown. (You can bet Tennessee defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will look at the tapes Monday and ask Griffin why he didn't take a knee instead of risking a fumble on that return.)

The Titans sacked Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger five times, picked him off twice and forced him to fumble twice. Very seldom do you have a team with the best record in the conference playing at home and being an underdog, as the Titans were Sunday. One of our matchups to watch for this game was Tennessee's offensive tackles, Michael Roos and David Stewart, versus Pittsburgh's outside linebackers. Roos and Stewart held James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley to five tackles and one sack.

Washington 10, Philadelphia 3

Down by seven with no timeouts and 12 seconds to play, the Eagles had a second-and-10 from Washington's 18-yard line. Donovan McNabb completed a 17-yard pass to Reggie Brown. Fred Smoot and Laron Landry managed to keep Brown from scoring and tying the game. The spot of the ball was reviewed and upheld, and now the Eagles have an uphill climb to make the playoffs. The amazing thing about Philadelphia's last drive, which started on its own 9-yard line with 3:48 to play: After the two-minute warning, the Eagles managed to run 12 plays. Still, they ended less than a yard short.

With a win, the Eagles would have controlled their own destiny to make payoffs. Now, they need to beat Dallas, hope Tampa Bay falls at home to Oakland and Chicago loses one of its last two games.

Neither the Eagles nor the Redskins had 300 yards of total offense, and Philly had less than 100 yards at halftime. The only touchdown of the game came after Redskins DE Jason Taylor forced a turnover by McNabb early in the second half. Five plays later, Clinton Portis scored from one yard out. Both of these teams will have a lot of sore bodies after this bruising game.

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Buffalo 30, Denver 23

Denver needed a win to clinch the AFC West, and it looked good early as the Broncos jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. Denver seemed to be in complete control of the game, but Buffalo's Marshawn Lynch capped a 56-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown run with 15 seconds left in the first half, closing the gap to 13-10. We've said this many times: A score at the end of the first half often leads to greater success in the second half. Not only was it a big score for the Bills in this game, but late first-half scores provided big momentum boosts this weekend for the Ravens, Seahawks and Giants.

With three games to play, Denver held a three-game lead over San Diego. Now the division comes down to a winner-take-all game Sunday night in San Diego. The winner gets the AFC West title and a home game in the first round of the playoffs. Denver had 532 yards of total offense and controlled the ball for 33:11, but could not pull off the win. A Jay Cutler interception with six minutes to play was very costly. With 1:16 left, the Broncos had the ball at Buffalo's 20-yard line, but the game ended with an incomplete pass on fourth down.

Extra points

Tennessee became the first team to have more than 300 yards of total offense against Pittsburgh (323). … San Diego has won 13 straight games in December. … Two teams with winning records, Arizona and Denver, have allowed more points than they've scored. … Isaac Bruce became the fifth player in NFL history to catch 1,000 passes -- and he reached the milestone against St. Louis, the team that drafted him and for whom he played 14 seasons. ... Andre Johnson, the NFL's leading receiver, was held to two catches for 19 yards against Oakland (a tribute to Raiders CB Nnamdi Asomugha). … Jamal Lewis became the fifth active player to reach 10,000 yards rushing (joining Edgerrin James, LaDainian Tomlinson, Fred Taylor, and Warrick Dunn). … Brett Favre was sacked four times and threw two interceptions in the Jets' loss at Seattle. … Cedric Benson ran for 171 yards for the Bengals on Sunday, a career high. Benson was cut by the Bears in the offseason and was on the street for most of the season. … Minnesota outgained Atlanta by 128 yards and had a 5:55 advantage in time of possession, but lost four of its seven fumbles. … New England has scored 96 points in its last two games, and leads the AFC in scoring with 397 points. The success of Matt Cassel and the Patriots is really one of the biggest stories of the year.

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