By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) – A wintry wonderland of games featured in National Football League action on Sunday with snow impacting several contests, while the Denver Broncos reached the playoffs and the Indianapolis Colts claimed the AFC South title.
Snow buried yard-markings, cut visibility and inspired the building of snowmen on the sidelines in four contests played in conditions that set up a slew of sensational scoring plays and a series of breath-taking comebacks.
In more conventional settings, the Broncos (11-2) charged past the Tennessee Titans (5-8) 51-28 to clinch a playoff berth and hand the Colts the AFC South division title.
Indianapolis (8-5) claimed their crown despite losing 42-28 to the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals (9-4).
The San Francisco 49ers denied their NFC West rivals the Seattle Seahawks a division-clinching victory by beating the visitors 19-17.
Frank Gore burst through Seattle’s line for a 51-yard run to set up a game-winning, 22-yard field goal by Phil Dawson with 26 seconds left.
It was Dawson’s fourth field goal of the game and improved the 49ers to 9-4 while dropping the Seahawks to 11-2.
The teams’ two young quarterbacks dueled to a standoff.
San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick completed 15 of 29 passes for 175 yards with one touchdown with one interception. Seattle signal caller Russell Wilson hit on 15 of 25 passes for 199 yards, one TD with one interception.
Early games in the East were hit by snow storms that caused slipping, sliding and an avalanche of big plays as offensive players in the open field cut past stumbling defenders.
The most frantic finish came in a 29-26 victory for the reigning Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens (7-6) over the visiting Minnesota Vikings (3-9-1) that allowed the winners to maintain a fragile hold on an AFC wild card berth.
Five touchdowns were scored over the last 125 seconds of the game in ping-pong fashion.
“Oh my gosh. I don’t know if there has ever been a crazier (finish) ever,” Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco told reporters.
Flacco had the last laugh, throwing a nine-yard touchdown strike to Marlon Brown with four seconds left to cap a five-play, 80-yard drive that took just 41 seconds.
The last-gasp drive came after Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel threw a short pass to receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who raced 79 yards for a go-ahead touchdown with 45 seconds left in the game.
That had followed a 77-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones, which came on the heels of a 41-yard touchdown burst up the middle by running back Toby Gerhart, after league rushing leader Adrian Peterson left the game with an apparent ankle injury.
“Will we ever see another game like that again?” said relieved Baltimore coach John Harbaugh.
Keeping pace in the AFC with the Ravens were the Miami Dolphins (7-6), who maintained their sunny disposition by holding on for a 34-28 win over the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill tossed three touchdown passes in the snow.
The Steelers (5-8) gave the Dolphins a final scare with a desperation effort on the last play of the game.
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who passed for 349 yards and three scores, connected on a short pass and after a series of laterals, fleet-footed Antonio Brown sped up the sideline and into the end zone before officials ruled he had put a toe on the sidelines 13 yards short of paydirt.
The heaviest snow fell in Philadelphia where the white stuff piled up above the players’ ankles in the Eagles’ 34-20 victory over the Detroit Lions in a match-up of division leaders.
At one point, the referee announced, “Please clear the goal line. We can’t see the goal line.”
Sloppy conditions seemed to suit Philadelphia running back LeSean McCoy, who darted through the Lions for a franchise-best 217 yards, including touchdown runs of 57 and 40 yards.
Philadelphia (8-5) took a half-game lead over Dallas in the NFC East, while the Lions dropped to 7-6 atop the tight NFC North.
In the other snowy game, the visiting Kansas City Chiefs routed the Washington Redskins 45-10 to snap a three-game losing streak and improve to 10-3.
In another fantastic finish, the New England Patriots overcame the visiting Cleveland Browns 27-26 with two late scores after losing tight end Rob Gronkowski to an apparent knee injury.
Quarterback Tom Brady threw two touchdown passes in 30 seconds, including the winner with 31 seconds left after New England (10-3) recovered an onside kick.
In Denver, Broncos kicker Matt Prater set an NFL record with a 64-yard field goal and quarterback Peyton Manning led them on a second-half charge to rally past the Titans.
The victory on a frigid day in the Mile High City came in coach John Fox’s return to the sideline for a double celebration for the playoff-bound Broncos (11-2). Fox had missed the past month after undergoing heart surgery.
In Cincinnati, the AFC North-leading Bengals beat the Colts 42-28 as quarterback Andy Dalton led the way with three TD passes and also ran in for another. The Bengals took their record to 9-4, while the Colts slipped to 8-5 though they later clinched the AFC South crown with Denver’s win over Tennessee.