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SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

Chargers are among several to weather tough challenges

They clinch AFC West title in a close game against Cincinnati and with help from Oakland.

December 21, 2009|Sam Farmer

On a weekend when snowbound travelers on the East Coast were prevented from getting to their destinations, the San Diego Chargers used a very reliable way to get from Point A to Point B:

The foot of Nate Kaeding.

He kicked a 52-yard field goal with three seconds to play Sunday, lifting the Chargers to a 27-24 victory over Cincinnati at Qualcomm Stadium.

"There was a lot of adrenaline in that kind of situation, coming down to the wire and going for the win," said Kaeding, whose team has won nine games in a row. "Once it came off my foot, I knew it was good, and mayhem ensued from there."

Philip Rivers directed the winning drive, moving the Chargers 46 yards into field-goal position in 51 seconds with no timeouts. San Diego is 17-0 in December with Rivers as its starting quarterback.

Minutes after their victory, the Chargers got another boost from the unlikeliest of allies. The Oakland Raiders -- with beleaguered quarterback JaMarcus Russell coming off the bench -- stunned the Broncos at Denver, 20-19, a shocker that clinched the AFC West for San Diego.

It was just another wild series of events on a day that -- despite frigid temperatures for much of the country -- was as hotly contested as any this season. All but four games were decided by seven points or fewer.

The craziest ending came in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers ended their losing streak with a 37-36 victory over Green Bay, a game decided on the final play.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger squeezed in a 19-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace with 0:00 on the clock. The rookie receiver got his toes just inbounds -- think Santonio Holmes in the Super Bowl -- as he made the winning grab.

Roethlisberger threw for 503 yards against Green Bay's third-ranked defense, and the Steelers avoided becoming the first defending Super Bowl champions to lose six games in a row. Their losing streak ended at five games, as did the Packers' winning streak.

"This team never quits, never backs down, and fights to the end," Roethlisberger said.

(In a peculiar twist, it was the first 37-36 finish in league history, and came a season after the Steelers became the first team to win a game 11-10. It was just that kind of day.)

Playoffs-wise, Week 15 featured far more parity than clarity. In the AFC, undefeated Indianapolis has clinched home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs; the Chargers have locked up their division; and New England and Cincinnati have the inside track in the East and North. Baltimore and Denver are each 8-6, and six teams still have varying degrees of hope at 7-7 -- Jacksonville, Miami, the New York Jets, Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Houston.

That means only Oakland, Kansas City, Cleveland and Buffalo are out of the picture.

Things are a bit more clear in the NFC, where New Orleans, Minnesota and Arizona have won their divisions, and Philadelphia has at least secured a playoff spot. Green Bay and Dallas are in the lead for wild-card berths, and the New York Giants -- who play at Washington tonight -- have faintly flickering hopes.

Honoring Henry

Two high-profile receivers paid somber homage to Cincinnati's Chris Henry, who died last week after suffering injuries in a fall from a pickup truck.

Denver's Brandon Marshall wore a "Henry" nameplate on his jersey during warmups before switching back to "Marshall" for the game. It's likely he will be fined by the league for doing so.

Chad Ochocinco, a fellow Bengals receiver and close friend of Henry's, pointed to the sky more than once after making big plays against the Chargers.

"It was a little empty feeling," Ochocinco said. "It was bigger than football without him. Today I played with an extra set of hands, an extra set of legs and an extra heart."

Brown-out

Jerome Harrison, a little-known Cleveland running back from Pasadena City College and Washington State, had a spectacular day in the Browns' 41-34 victory at Kansas City.

He rushed for 286 yards and three touchdowns, shattering Jim Brown's single-game club record of 237 yards. Harrison had only 301 yards this season and had never run for more than 121 yards in a game.

Brown, among the greatest NFL players, congratulated Harrison after the game and told the Associated Press: "I was seeing a phenom -- unbelievable."

Amazingly, Harrison was able to steal the spotlight from teammate Joshua Cribbs, who returned two kickoffs for touchdowns (100 and 103 yards) to bring his career total to eight, an NFL record.

Studying the problem

The NFL is partnering with researchers at Boston University who are studying the lingering effects of brain injuries on players, the AP reported.

Robert Cantu, co-director of the school's research program, called the development "huge" and said it "allows players to realize the NFL is concerned about the possibility that they could have this problem and . . . is doing everything it can to find out about the risks and the preventive strategies that can be implemented."

sam.farmer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesfarmer

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