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Cowboys ride Gramatica to control NFC East

Cowboys 23, Giants 20
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Bill Parcells has never been crazy about kickers.

Martin Gramatica may have changed the Dallas coach's opinion.

Gramatica, signed last Monday after Parcells cut the enigmatic Mike Vanderjagt, kicked a 46-yard field goal with a second left yesterday to give the Dallas Cowboys a 23-20 win over the New York Giants and a two-game lead in the NFC East.

"I've got to thank the Cowboys for giving me a second chance," said Gramatica, once a top kicker who had just one field goal in three games since 2004.

"It's been a rough couple of years for me, being out all last year and then not making any teams this year."

The winning score was set up by a 42-yard pass by Tony Romo to Jason Witten and came just a minute after the Giants, wearing their red jerseys for the first and only time this season, had tied the game at 20 on a 5-yard touchdown pass from Eli Manning to Plaxico Burress.

Gramatica, who also kicked field goals of 41 and 35 yards, was signed last week after the Cowboys cut Vanderjagt, who had received a three-year $5.3 million contract in the offseason.

But being the new guy didn't keep Gramatica from bursting into one of his over-the-top celebrations: The diminutive kicker leaped into the arms of his teammates, while Parcells broke into a wide smile on the sideline as the ball sailed through.

"Gramatica made me look good," Parcells said. "For a first game back in the league, you can't get more pressure than that for the division lead."

It didn't look so good for Parcells on Gramatica's first kick, a 44-yard attempt on the Cowboys' opening drive. But the last kick, which went right down the middle with yardage to spare, more than made up for it.

"For a guy who hadn't been kicking with regularity," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said, "it was a difficult thing to do."

It was the fourth straight loss for the Giants (6-6) and the fourth win in five games for Dallas (8-4) since Romo replaced Drew Bledsoe at quarterback at halftime of a 36-22 loss to New York Oct. 23. Romo finished 20 of 34 for 257 yards with two interceptions.

"Any time you come up to this place you know it's not going to go smoothly," Romo said. "We made mistakes today. I know I did. You just have to have a chance to do something at the end to win."

Both teams did -- there were three scores in the final 3:33 -- but the Cowboys had the last chance.

First, Marion Barber scored on a 7-yard run at the end of a 66-yard drive. Then Manning drove the Giants 63 yards for the tying score on the pass to Burress.

But Romo hit Witten on the first play after the kickoff with a strong throw to take the Cowboys to the Giants' 26.

The Giants took a 7-0 lead on their first possession, driving 66 yards on 10 plays with Manning hitting Jeremy Shockey on a 17-yard pass for the score. But they couldn't score a touchdown again until the fourth quarter, despite first downs at the Dallas 4-yard line twice in the second half -- in each case, New York had to settle for field goals.

Dallas tied it at 7 on Barber's first plunge, which was set up by a bizarre sequence: Matthias Kiwanuka picked off a Romo pass and returned it 12 yards before he was stripped of the ball and Sam Hurd recovered for the Cowboys.

The key sequence came just before the half. On fourth and short with 1:30 left, the Giants went for it, but Brandon Jacobs was stopped for a 3-yard loss. Romo then drove the Cowboys down the field for a 41-yard field goal by Gramatica.

In the second half, Gramatica and Jay Feely alternated field goals. Manning, who had been slumping lately, finished 24 of 36 for 270 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.

The loss leaves the Giants, who were 6-2 at one point, with little margin for error if they want to make the playoffs -- most likely as a wild-card entry.

"We have to approach it as if we have to win all four games," Manning said. "Maybe three of four will get us in, but we can't look at it that way. We have to approach it if we have to win them all."


Wind aids uplifting upset
NASHVILLE -- Magic is in the air around the Titans. Just ask Rob Bironas.

Bironas kicked a 60-yard field goal -- the franchise's longest ever -- with seven seconds left, and Tennessee upset Indianapolis, 20-17, yesterday for its first victory over the Colts since December 2002 and its second straight amazing comeback.

The team that tied for the NFL's second-biggest comeback in the final 10 minutes last week against the Giants struck again yesterday against the Colts (10-2), who had lost only four of their previous 36 games.

With the wind at his back, Bironas needed every gust to lift the longest field goal in his short career over the crossbar for his second consecutive winning kick -- he made a 49-yarder with six seconds left to beat the Giants. He became the sixth kicker in NFL history to connect from 60 yards or better.

"I needed that wind behind me today," Bironas said. "It was all at my back . . . I let the wind take it the rest of the way."

The Titans (5-7) didn't trail by 21 this time, but they were down 14-0 in the first half before starting this comeback with 10 points just before halftime. They intercepted Peyton Manning twice, and Vince Young threw for two touchdowns and used his legs to help keep the ball away from the two-time MVP.

Indianapolis needed a victory to clinch the AFC North for a club-record fourth straight year and its seventh playoff berth in eight years. Seemingly easy enough for a franchise that had won 12 straight divisional games coming into Sunday.

Instead, the Colts blew a 14-point lead and lost to the Titans for the first time in eight games.

After Bironas's kick, Tennessee still had to kick the ball back to the Colts. But Manning never got his hands on it again. Bryan Fletcher caught the kickoff then lateraled to Marvin Harrison, who tossed to Kelvin Hayden, who was tackled as the clock ran out.

Manning finished 21 of 28 for 351 yards and a 68-yard touchdown pass to Harrison, who had seven receptions for 172 yards.


Miami loses its momentum
MIAMI -- Even when the Dolphins had David Garrard scrambling 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage, they failed to stop him.

Garrard did his best work on the run yesterday, throwing for 229 yards and two scores to help Jacksonville beat Miami, 24-10. The Jaguars (7-5) ended a four-game winning streak by the Dolphins (5-7), likely ensuring Miami will miss the playoffs for the fifth year in a row.

Garrard led Jacksonville on touchdown drives of 95 and 91 yards, while Miami's Joey Harrington threw two costly interceptions and was sacked four times.

Poor tackling also hurt the Dolphins. George Wrighster bounced off a defender on a 16-yard scoring reception, and Maurice Drew broke three tackles on a 32-yard touchdown run -- the rookie's ninth score this season.

Garrard also was sacked four times, but he completed 16 of 22 attempts and ran for three first downs. Matt Jones made six catches for 128 yards and a score.

The Jaguars built a 24-7 lead, enough to survive a late rally by the Dolphins. After Olindo Mare kicked a 42-yard field goal with 3:45 left, Miami's Chris Chambers recovered an onside kick. The Dolphins drove to the 5 before Harrington threw incomplete on fourth down with 1:41 to go.


Brown has winning touch
DENVER -- Josh Brown tied an NFL season record with his fourth winning field goal in the final minute, nailing a 50-yarder with four seconds left to give Seattle a 23-20 win over stumbling Denver last night.

Rookie defensive lineman Darryl Tapp returned Jay Cutler's first interception 25 yards for a touchdown and the Seahawks (8-4) took advantage of five turnovers to send the Broncos (7-5) to their third straight loss.

Seattle started its winning drive from its 14 with 2:31 left after the Broncos had tied it at 20 on Cutler's 71-yard touchdown toss to fellow rookie Brandon Marshall, who broke three tackles.

On third and 4 from his 20, Matt Hasselbeck found Nate Burleson for 16 yards. Brown, who missed from 40 and 53 yards in the first half but was good from 44 and 23 in the fourth quarter, soon won it from 50 yards.

Cutler, making his first start, looked like a raw rookie for most of the night, but did show flashes of brilliance, such as his touchdown pass to Marshall. He finished 10 of 21 for 143 yards and two touchdowns, but he also was picked off twice and lost a fumble.

Shaun Alexander ran for 90 yards and a score for Seattle.


Subtract division from list
CHICAGO -- Now that they've clinched their second straight division title, the Bears can focus on bigger goals: a No. 1 seed and the conference championship.

Devin Hester ran into the record book again, Ricky Manning Jr. returned an interception for a touchdown, and Chicago claimed its second consecutive NFC North title with a 23-13 victory over Minnesota yesterday in frigid conditions.

"The defense had to carry the offense today," Manning said. "That's the way it is going to be sometimes. We understand that, and we are up for that challenge if that has to be done."

Hester tied an NFL record with his fourth touchdown return, and Manning ran an interception back 54 yards for the Bears (10-2), who lead the NFC by two games.

Rex Grossman did little to stop the debate whether he should remain Chicago's starter. With some fans calling for backup Brian Griese, Grossman was 6 of 19 for 34 yards and threw three interceptions for the second straight week. But he stayed in the game and finished with a rating of 1.3.

Minnesota quarterback Brad Johnson was replaced, by Brooks Bollinger in the third quarter, after going 11 of 26 for 73 yards and four interceptions. Chester Taylor ran for 99 yards for the Vikings (5-7), but bruised his ribs in the third quarter and didn't carry the ball again.

Hester gave the Bears a 7-0 lead in the second quarter. The rookie caught a punt at the 45, reversed field to the left side, and ran all the way to the end zone, breaking four tackles on the way. It was his team-record third punt return for a touchdown to go along with his 108-yard runback of a missed field goal last month against the Giants.

SAINTS 34, 49ERS 10

Bush blossoms with 4 TDs
NEW ORLEANS -- Reggie Bush had the breakout game New Orleans was waiting for, and the Saints maintained their hold on first place in the NFC South.

Bush tied Joe Horn's franchise record by scoring all four of his team's touchdowns and gained 168 total yards yesterday as New Orleans routed San Francisco, 34-10.

Most of Bush's gains were modest, but his stunning acceleration, fancy footwork, and leaping ability were evident in all of his touchdowns and numerous drive-sustaining plays. He finished with 131 yards on nine receptions and 37 yards on 10 rushes.

San Francisco (5-7) was as close as 14-10 early in the third quarter after Alex Smith connected with Antonio Bryant for a 48-yard score. But Smith was done in on two subsequent passes intended for Bryant, both of which were intercepted by Mike McKenzie and led to 10 points for New Orleans (8-4).

Bush's first touchdown was a 1-yard dive, although the gain that set that up was even more impressive, a short pass out of the backfield that he turned into a 14-yard gain. Bush's second score came when he bounced outside and used his speed to gain the corner, stepping inside the pylon for an 8-yard touchdown run.

His slippery moves also helped him snake through traffic for his third touchdown on Drew Brees's shovel pass on third and goal from the 5, then Bush hurt the Niners by turning a short pass into a 74-yard gain to set up his fourth TD, a slicing 10-yard run for a 31-10 lead.

Deuce McAllister added 136 yards on 26 carries and the Saints rushed for 190 yards as a team. Brees failed to reach 300 yards passing for the first time in six games, finishing 17 of 28 for 186 yards.


Reserve had plenty in store
CLEVELAND -- Backup quarterback Derek Anderson threw two scoring passes in the last nine minutes of regulation and ran 33 yards in overtime to set up Phil Dawson's 33-yard field goal, giving Cleveland a stunning 31-28 win over Kansas City yesterday.

Anderson had never thrown an NFL pass and had taken only one snap before yesterday. However, he replaced injured starter Charlie Frye and rallied the Browns (4-8) to only their second December win at home since 1999.

Trent Green threw four TD passes -- two to Tony Gonzalez -- for the Chiefs (7-5), who had their AFC playoff hopes damaged. Kansas City led, 28-14, with 8:55 to play in regulation after Green hooked up with Gonzalez on a 23-yard strike.

But Anderson, who started the second half because Frye hurt his right wrist, brought the Browns back, hitting tight end Steve Heiden for two short TD passes. He finished 11 of 21 for 171 yards.

"I knew he could play like that," Browns running back Jason Wright said. "I believe in him. I wasn't surprised, but I'm sure a lot of people are."

Green, making his third start after missing eight games with a concussion, was 24 of 32 for 297 yards.


S.D. ties for lead in AFC
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- LaDainian Tomlinson had 178 yards rushing and scored two touchdowns as San Diego held off Buffalo, 24-21, yesterday to extend its winning streak to six games.

With a 51-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, Tomlinson joined Eric Dickerson as the second NFL player to reach 1,200 yards rushing in each of his first six NFL seasons. The two scores gave Tomlinson 26 for the year, pulling him within two of matching the season record set by Seattle's Shaun Alexander last year.

The Chargers' defense then did the rest in linebacker Shawne Merriman's first game back from a four-game steroid suspension. In a game San Diego (10-2) never trailed, Merriman finished with six tackles, two sacks, and two forced fumbles while the defense forced three turnovers in the first half and four overall. San Diego is tied with Indianapolis for first place in the AFC.

The Bills (5-7) were limited to 230 yards of offense, 62 on their final drive. Buffalo's final score came on Peerless Price's 6-yard catch with 30 seconds left. The Bills' bid to produce a third straight last-minute comeback ended when Buffalo failed to recover the onside kick.


Pennington a driving force
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Chad Pennington put together three touchdown drives of 70 yards or longer in the second quarter and New York left Green Bay's defense thoroughly confused in a 38-10 romp yesterday.

The Jets (7-5) built a 31-0 halftime lead as snow flurries floated to the ground and boos showered down from the stands. New York used frequent wide receiver motion and an occasional no-huddle offense to fluster a Green Bay defense that has been prone to miscommunication and susceptible to big plays all season.

Pennington, who was 25 of 35 for 263 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, connected with eight receivers. Cedric Houston carried 22 times for a career-high 105 yards and two touchdowns.

The Packers (4-8) barely managed to avoid being shut out at home for the third time this season. Brett Favre's season-long accuracy struggles continued as the three-time MVP was 24 of 47 for 214 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.


Rally revives playoff hopes
LANDOVER, Md. -- Trailing by 14 in the first quarter and heading toward its fifth straight loss, Atlanta revived its playoff hopes with a 24-point rally, with Chauncey Davis's 41-yard interception return and Jerious Norwood's 69-yard touchdown run sparking a 24-14 comeback victory over Washington yesterday.

The NFL's top rushing team ran for 256 yards, led by Norwood (107), Warrick Dunn (87), and Michael Vick (59). Vick, fined after making an obscene gesture to fans following last week's loss to New Orleans, also threw two touchdown passes and went 8 of 16 for 122 yards as the Falcons improved to 6-6.

The Redskins (4-8) have lost three of four. Jason Campbell, making his third NFL start, completed 18 of 38 passes for 218 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Ladell Betts ran for a career-high 155 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries.

Vick's 16-yard touchdown pass to Alge Crumpler pulled Atlanta within 14-10 at halftime, then on the Redskins' opening drive of the third quarter, Davis picked off Campbell. Two plays later, Vick found Michael Jenkins for a 22-yard TD pass and 17-14 lead. Norwood sealed the win with his long scamper.


This effort is Shipp-shape
ST. LOUIS -- Marcel Shipp scored three touchdowns for Arizona, Edgerrin James had 115 yards rushing, and Matt Leinart won for the second time in seven pro starts, capitalizing on St. Louis's season-high 126 penalty yards in a 34-20 victory yesterday.

Marc Bulger threw for 314 yards and two touchdowns, but also had three interceptions to add to woes that contributed to a sixth loss in seven games for the Rams (5-7).

Two of the 10 penalties against the Rams led to scores by Arizona (3-9) on the next play. Larry Fitzgerald caught an 11-yard touchdown pass one play after a 34-yard pass interference on Fakhir Brown in the second quarter, and Shipp scored on a 6-yard run one play after Corey Chavous's interference penalty provided a 27-yard gain for the Cardinals.

A third crucial penalty, a defensive holding call on Leonard Little, wiped out Ron Bartell's interception in the end zone early in the fourth quarter and helped the Cardinals put the game away. Shipp, a former UMass standout who entered the day with only 6 yards on three carries, scored his third touchdown on a 9-yard run four plays later for a 31-13 lead. The touchdowns were Shipp's first since 2002.


Takeaways make difference
PITTSBURGH -- In a matchup of two of the league's most disappointing teams, Ben Roethlisberger bounced back from one of the worst games of his career to throw two touchdown passes, both following Tampa Bay turnovers in Pittsburgh's 20-3 victory yesterday.

The Steelers (5-7) began the game with a league-high 30 turnovers, but this time limited themselves to one turnover while Tampa Bay (3-9) gave away the ball four times in losing for the sixth time in seven games.

A week after he was sacked nine times by Baltimore, Roethlisberger was sacked only once. He finished 12 of 25 for 198 yards, and threw touchdown passes of 16 yards to Heath Miller and 2 yards to Jerame Tuman.

The Bucs avoided their second shutout of the season when Matt Bryant kicked a 27-yard field goal on the final play of the game.


Negative results in positive
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Houston didn't complete a pass in the second half, finished the game with negative yards passing, and somehow found a way to beat Oakland, 23-14, yesterday.

Demarcus Faggins scored on a 58-yard fumble return and the Texans (4-8) used two long returns and a pair of fumbles by Raiders tight end Randal Williams to set up 16 more points in the second half. Oakland (2-10) turned the ball over five times, missed three field goals, allowed five sacks, and had only one offensive score.

Houston's David Carr finished 7 of 14 for 32 yards, failing to complete a pass in the final 32 minutes. He was sacked five times for 37 yards, leaving Houston with negative-5 yards passing -- their fewest ever and the fewest allowed by the Raiders.

About the only thing working for the Texans on offense was handing the ball to Ron Dayne, who had 83 of his 95 yards rushing in the second half. Wali Lundy had a 3-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.

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