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Stunned Broncos back out of playoffs

49ers 26, Broncos 23
DENVER -- Now Mike Shanahan wishes he hadn't gotten his wish.

Denver's coach wanted Kansas City to win yesterday so that the Broncos wouldn't back into the playoffs but be motivated to play their best football.

Instead, the Broncos tumbled into the offseason when Joe Nedney's 36-yard field goal with 1:56 left in overtime sent the San Francisco 49ers past the stunned Broncos, 26-23.

"Well, you want to play your best football this time of year," Shanahan said. "If we played like we did today, we wouldn't go very far in the playoffs. If we played like we did the last couple of weeks, we had a chance to do something special."

Now, their AFC rivals in Kansas City will have that opportunity. Denver's fifth loss in seven games made the Chiefs (9-7) the final wild-card team.

Had the Chiefs not beaten Jacksonville, the Broncos would be heading to the postseason, even with their loss.

All the Broncos (9-7) needed was a win over the double-digit underdog Niners (7-9) or even a tie to earn a spot in the playoffs but they couldn't score on three trips inside the Niners 5 and blew an early 13-0 lead.

"Whenever you get on the 1-yard twice and in the red zone three times and you don't score no touchdowns that's pathetic," Broncos rookie receiver Brandon Marshall said. "We have a lot of work to do.

"San Francisco?" Marshall added. "Come on, San Francisco? It was a perfect setup for us."

And an absolute letdown.

"We had some opportunities early to put the game away," Shanahan said. "Obviously, San Francisco did a fine job keeping us out."

Of the end zone and the playoffs.

"You better believe it felt good taking them out," Niners quarterback Alex Smith said. "If we were going to be home for the playoffs we wanted them to be right with us."

With a sputtering ground game, the Broncos were unable to run out the clock in overtime.

"We weren't thinking about a tie," Cutler said. "That was the last thing on our minds. You play another 15 minutes, somebody's going to score most of the time."

San Francisco got the ball back with 4:38 left in overtime and drove 42 yards to the Denver 18, where Nedney kicked his fourth field goal. As it sailed through the uprights, Denver safety John Lynch smashed his helmet on the grass, a crushing end to Denver's dreams of a franchise-record fourth straight trip to the playoffs.

Niners coach Mike Nolan said that if Chiefs coach Herm Edwards gets a bonus for reaching the playoffs, "I want half of it."

The Broncos sent the game into overtime when rookie Jay Cutler, knocked woozy and sidelined by a hard hit in the first half, drove his team 80 yards in 10 plays and threw a fastball to fellow rookie Tony Scheffler for a 9-yard TD with 90 seconds left in regulation.

"I was a little dinged up. My head was swimming a little bit," Cutler said. "But I was fine in the second half."

After Champ Bailey returned his league-leading 10th interception 70 yards for a touchdown and a 13-0 lead, the Niners responded with 17 straight points, capped by Walt Harris's 28-yard interception return for a touchdown.

Harris, who had three takeaways, also picked off Jake Plummer, who came in after Anthony Adams's hard hit sent Cutler to the sideline in the second quarter. Plummer also committed a false start.

Capitalizing on linebacker Al Wilson's absence with a sore lower back, Frank Gore, the NFC's starting Pro Bowl running back, gained 153 yards on 31 carries and caught two more passes for 32 yards for San Francisco.

"Not to be able to help this team in the end is very tough," said Wilson, the Broncos' best tackler.

Cutler looked woozy upon his return after halftime and made several bad decisions and poor throws and even burned all of Denver's three timeouts on one third-quarter drive.

"I don't blame it on the quarterback. I blame it on me," Shanahan said. "I have to get it in there a little quicker."

"You could see it in his eyes he wasn't all there," Scheffler said of Cutler. "He obviously came in and toughed it out and played a pretty good game overall, with exception of one interception."

Bailey led the league with 10 interceptions and 11 takeaways -- but that would be of little consolation.

"It's terrible, it really is," said Broncos receiver Rod Smith, one of a handful of holdovers from the Broncos' championship teams of the late 1990s. "We're better than that football team, by far. We didn't play like it today. It ended our season."


Blowout prompts a party
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Leon Washington and the rest of the Jets were banned from talking about the playoffs all season.

Minutes after they clinched an improbable postseason berth with a 23-3 victory over Oakland yesterday, the rookie running back could hardly contain himself.

"Playoffs, playoffs, playoffs -- three times for ya," Washington said with a big grin. "It feels good to say it."

Chad Pennington threw a touchdown pass to Chris Baker, Washington ran for a score, and Mike Nugent kicked three field goals, assuring the Jets they would play at least one more game.

New York came in knowing a win would clinch a postseason berth. Cheered by a sea of towel-waving fans throughout, New York (10-6) never trailed and took control in the second half. By the time Nugent kicked his third field goal with just under 12 minutes left, the crowd at Giants Stadium spent most of the fourth quarter partying in the stands -- dancing, cheering, and waving their white Jets towels.

The Jets will open the playoffs Sunday afternoon at New England, where they won, 17-14, Nov. 12. The Patriots beat the Jets at the Meadowlands, 24-17, Sept. 17.

The Raiders (2-14) got one consolation: When Detroit beat Dallas, it left Oakland with the first overall pick in next April's draft.

Pennington, who finished 22 of 30 for 157 yards, hit Baker with a 1-yard pass to put New York up, 7-0, in the opening quarter. It came after the Jets took advantage of a mistake by Oakland, which came in leading the NFL in turnovers.

With Oakland facing third and 4, Aaron Brooks completed a 7-yard pass to Johnny Morant, but David Barrett knocked the ball loose and Hank Poteat recovered.

New York used trickery on the ensuing drive, with Pennington faking a handoff to Washington and giving the ball to receiver Brad Smith, who gained 20 yards. Three plays later, Smith went in motion before stopping behind center Nick Mangold, taking the snap, and pushing ahead for 3 yards and a first down. Three plays later, Pennington used play-action to hit Baker in stride for a TD.


After win, berth delayed
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Chiefs went around all week grumbling at themselves for failing to make the playoffs for the eighth time in nine seasons.

Now they're rubbing their eyes and getting ready to go to Indianapolis Saturday, thanks to a 35-30 victory over Jacksonville yesterday and losses by Tennessee, Cincinnati, and, most improbably, Denver. That handed Kansas City (9-7) the sixth seed in the AFC playoffs.

Larry Johnson's three touchdowns and record-breaking rushing day helped the Chiefs hold up their end of the equation. By the end of the day, after San Francisco's upset win in Denver, Kansas City had more to celebrate than just New Year's Eve.

Johnson rushed for 138 yards and set an NFL record for carries in a season with 416, erasing the mark of 410 set by Atlanta's Jamal Anderson in 1998. Johnson's 1,789 yards rushing broke the team record of 1,750 yards the durable 230-pounder set last year in only nine starts.

"It just means that I know I can carry the ball through an entire season and you have something to gauge me by," he said. "Now you know you don't have to worry about tiring me out because you know how far I can go."

The Chiefs' fourth touchdown came after Ty Law intercepted David Garrard's pass, and sent the turnover-prone quarterback to the Jacksonville bench for the rest of the game. Law picked off Garrard on the 18 and returned it to the 2, and Johnson scored to put Kansas City ahead, 28-10, with 12:08 to play.

Jacksonville (8-8) finished the season with three straight losses.


Tuneup is just horseplay
INDIANAPOLIS -- Peyton Manning and the Colts played with the aggressiveness and passion they need to win in the playoffs. Now they must figure out a way to duplicate that effort in January.

With Manning running through defenders, shredding a depleted Miami secondary, and watching his maligned defense force Miami to kick five field goals, the Colts hung on to the AFC's No. 3 seed yesterday with a 27-22 victory.

Manning threw two touchdown passes and bulled into the end zone on an 11-yard touchdown run, leaving coach Tony Dungy more relieved than overjoyed.

"You could see how much this game meant to us," Dungy said.

It was a stark contrast from the failures of the previous six weeks when the Colts (12-4) lost four times and blew their chance to earn a first-round bye. Now Indy must protect its home turf against Kansas City Saturday.

Manning was his usual efficient self, completing 22 of 37 passes for 282 yards. His supporting cast, however, had a different look. Defensive tackle Dan Klecko lined up at fullback and caught his first career TD pass. Aaron Moorehead set up Manning's TD run with a nifty 36-yard reception late in the first half, and Cato June's interception on the Dolphins' final play of the half led to Adam Vinatieri's field goal that made it 17-6.

Cleo Lemon threw for 210 yards in his first NFL start for Miami (6-10), including a 6-yard TD pass to Randy McMichael with 3:11 to play. Ronnie Brown rushed 21 times for 115 yards and went over the 1,000-yard mark late in the third quarter.


'Low point' no springboard
IRVING, Texas -- Done in by repeated mistakes from Tony Romo and a few more by Terence Newman, Dallas blew its chance to stay alive in the NFC East race and build some much-needed momentum for the playoffs with a 39-31 loss to lowly Detroit yesterday.

"I can't tell you how disappointed I am. I really can't," said Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, his tone more deflated than irate. "This is the low point for me in a long time."

Detroit would've been better off losing this game and locking up the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. But even the Lions (3-13) couldn't refuse all the gifts the Cowboys gave them, from a penalty on Newman wiping out an interception return for a touchdown on the game's first snap to Romo failing to scramble into the end zone from the 6-yard line on the final play that mattered.

In between, Romo threw an interception and lost two fumbles, Newman muffed a punt, and there were plenty more mental errors by their teammates.

Dallas (9-7) goes into Saturday night's first-round game at Seattle on its first two-game losing streak of the season and having dropped three of four.

Detroit's Jon Kitna was 28 of 42 for 306 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. Roy Williams caught the first two TDs, one that withstood replay and the other with two seconds left in the first half. Mike Williams caught a 21-yarder that put Detroit ahead for good and Mike Furrey had the other TD catch.


Title clinch comes early
PHILADELPHIA -- Thanks to Detroit's win earlier yesterday, Jeff Garcia and the rest of Philadelphia's starters rested up for the playoffs while the backups finished off a remarkable late-season run with a 24-17 victory over Atlanta.

The Eagles (10-6) clinched the NFC East title less than five minutes into the game when Dallas lost, 39-31, to the Lions. Coach Andy Reid pulled his starters to keep them healthy for Sunday's first-round matchup against the Giants.

A.J. Feeley threw for a career-best 321 yards and three touchdown passes in relief of Garcia to help the Eagles win their fifth straight game without Donovan McNabb. The Falcons (7-9) played almost the entire second half without Michael Vick, who sprained his right ankle on the first play of the third quarter.

One play after Matt Schaub's 9-yard TD pass to Alge Crumpler tied it at 17 for Atlanta, Feeley connected with rookie Hank Baskett on an 89-yard pass that gave the Eagles a 24-17 lead early in the fourth quarter. Baskett had seven catches for 177 yards.


Favre shows he's got fire
CHICAGO -- While Brett Favre had his way in what could be his last game, Rex Grossman looked lost and the Bears bore little resemblance to a No. 1 playoff seed.

Favre showed he still has some ammo left in that gunslinging right arm, passing for 285 yards to lead Green Bay to a 26-7 victory over Chicago last night.

"If this is my last game, I want to remember it," a tearful Favre said after completing 21 of 42 passes with a touchdown and interception. "It's tough. I love these guys. I love this game. What a great way to go out against a great football team. I couldn't ask for a better way to get out."

Grossman, meanwhile, was awful as the Bears (13-3) fell into a 23-0 hole by halftime. He was 2 of 12 with three interceptions -- two of which were returned for touchdowns -- and a zero passer rating in the first half.

Brian Griese started the third quarter and was 5 of 15 for 124 yards with two interceptions.

Favre, by contrast, led the Packers (8-8) on a 75-yard touchdown drive to start the game, and Nick Collins returned an interception 55 yards late in the first quarter for a 13-0 lead. Patrick Dendy returned another Grossman pick 30 yards for a score before the half.


Seattle is silently poised
TAMPA -- Shaun Alexander relishes the underdog role and hopes Seattle has lulled the rest of the NFC into thinking the Seahawks aren't capable of making a strong playoff run.

"I would much rather be that guy than the one that everybody is looking at," the 2006 NFL MVP said after the defending conference champions stopped a three-game losing streak yesterday with a 23-7 victory over Tampa Bay. "We know what happens when people take us lightly."

The Seahawks (9-7) had little to play for after clinching the NFC West title and assuring themselves of starting the playoffs with a home game. Still, they wanted to ease some of the sting from the team's puzzling performance the past month heading into Saturday night's matchup with Dallas.

Alexander rushed for 92 yards on 28 carries and scored on a 1-yard run in the first quarter. Matt Hasselbeck completed 17 of 29 passes for 216 yards, including a 5-yard scoring throw to D.J. Hackett. Josh Brown added three field goals.

Former Seattle receiver Joey Galloway was one of the few bright spots for the Bucs (4-12), finishing with eight receptions for 118 yards and scoring Tampa Bay's only touchdown on a 4-yard catch.


AFC's top seed can rest easy
SAN DIEGO -- Philip Rivers threw two touchdown passes after spraining his right foot, and LaDainian Tomlinson also limped off after wrapping up his first NFL rushing title, but neither injury seemed serious after San Diego clinched the top seed in the AFC with a 27-20 win over Arizona yesterday.

The exact injuries weren't disclosed, but both of the Chargers' offensive stars will have two weeks to heal before San Diego (14-2) takes its 10-game winning streak into the playoffs. The Chargers' 14 wins and eight home victories are club records.

Tomlinson ran for 66 yards, giving him 1,815 for the season. He didn't score, but still finished with NFL records of 31 touchdowns and 186 points.

Rivers apparently was hurt when he was sacked by Chike Okeafor late in the first quarter. He missed the first play of the next drive while being treated on the sideline, then returned and went 5 of 6 for 82 yards, including a 33-yard touchdown pass to tight end Antonio Gates that gave the Chargers a 10-7 lead. Rivers finished 19 of 24 for 231 yards.

Trailing, 27-17, the Cardinals (5-11) got to the Chargers' 2 with 3:26 left before Shawne Merriman batted down Kurt Warner's third-down pass, forcing Arizona to settle for Neil Rackers's 20-yard field goal.


Baltimore builds up steam
BALTIMORE -- Using a stellar performance from the defense and an efficient effort from the offense, Baltimore beat Buffalo, 19-7, yesterday to earn the No. 2 seed in the AFC and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Chris McAlister returned an interception 31 yards for a touchdown and the Ravens yielded only 39 yards rushing to put a pretty bow on the finest regular season in franchise history. Baltimore (13-3) will enter the playoffs with a four-game winning streak and nine wins in its last 10 games.

Matt Stover kicked four field goals for Baltimore, which didn't score a touchdown on offense -- and didn't need one. McAlister's touchdown provided the Ravens with a 16-7 lead with 3:46 left in the third quarter. The Pro Bowl cornerback stepped in front of Peerless Price, reached high to grab the pass from J.P. Losman, and scurried down the left sideline.

Losman went 20 of 35 for 237 yards as Buffalo (7-9) fell short in its bid to finish .500.


Cincy's collapse complete
CINCINNATI -- Santonio Holmes caught a 67-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger on the third play in overtime, giving Pittsburgh a 23-17 victory over Cincinnati, as well as a satisfying end to an otherwise disappointing season for the defending Super Bowl champions.

The Steelers (8-8) were already eliminated from playoff contention, but wanted to take the Bengals down with them. With three games left in the season, Cincinnati (8-8) was in position to clinch an AFC wild-card berth with one more victory. Instead, the Bengals imploded while losing their last three games.

Carson Palmer threw touchdown passes of 66 yards to Chris Henry and 5 yards to Tony Stewart in the fourth quarter, then hooked up with Henry on a 47-yard completion that put the Bengals in range for the win. But Shayne Graham, one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history, was just wide on a 39-yard field goal attempt with eight seconds left in regulation.

The dramatic victory ended a trying year for the Steelers, who now must wait to see whether coach Bill Cowher will return for a 16th season. He plans to reach a decision soon.


Jackson finishes with bang
MINNEAPOLIS -- Steven Jackson had a career-high four touchdowns and 166 yards from scrimmage, helping St. Louis finish the year with a 41-21 win over woeful Minnesota yesterday.

With the Rams (8-8) leading, 34-7, early in the fourth quarter, Jackson raced up the left sideline for a 59-yard score. That prevented Minnesota (6-10) from establishing a post-merger (since 1970) NFL record for fewest yards rushing allowed in a season, missing by 15 the mark of 970 yards set by the Ravens in 2000.

Jackson rushed 25 times for 142 yards -- giving him 1,528 this season -- and three touchdowns, and also caught two passes for 24 yards and a score.

Vikings rookie quarterback Tarvaris Jackson produced mixed results. He was intercepted on his second pass by Ron Bartell, who returned it 38 yards for a touchdown to open the romp. But the Alabama State product put on a decent performance with 213 yards and one touchdown passing and another rushing score. He completed 20 of his 34 throws, and was intercepted twice.


Sitting is preferred stance
NEW ORLEANS -- The Saints chose to play for a healthy playoff roster rather than one more inconsequential victory. The result was a 31-21 triumph by Carolina over mostly New Orleans's reserves.

Drew Brees played only one full series and was 4 of 5 for 46 yards for the Saints (10-6). He led a scoring drive that ended with Reggie Bush's short touchdown run that put New Orleans up, 7-0. Brees finished the regular season with a career-best 4,418 yards passing and 26 touchdowns.

Carolina (8-8) played most of its starters late into the fourth quarter. Returning from a thumb injury that had kept him out for three games, Jake Delhomme was 23 of 27 for 207 yards and a pair of touchdowns to Steve Smith, who had 85 yards receiving.


A rare string of success
HOUSTON -- Undrafted rookie Chris Taylor ran for 99 yards and a touchdown as Houston, despite being grossly outgained, earned back-to-back wins for the first time since 2004 by defeating Cleveland, 14-6.

Taylor's 5-yard run in the third quarter gave the Texans a 7-3 lead, and was enough for Houston (6-10) to triple its win total from last season. David Carr did nothing to enhance his job security for next season, finishing 9 of 15 for 86 yards and throwing an interception near the end zone in the first half.

Another forgettable season by the Browns (4-12) ended with their fourth straight loss. Cleveland won the yardage battle, 306-177, but not much else. Charlie Frye returned after missing the last three games with a wrist injury, but had a fumble returned for a touchdown by Anthony Maddox and also threw an interception. Frye was 25 of 34 for 187 yards.

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