Carlos Rogers of the San Francisco 49ers intercepts a pass to New York Giant's… (Thearon W. Henderson / Getty…)
Justin's time came just in time.
With the New York Giants 10 yards away from scoring the tying touchdown, and 35 seconds remaining, San Francisco's Justin Smith made a game-saving play. On fourth and two, he batted down Eli Manning's pass at the line of scrimmage to preserve a 27-20 victory at home and keep alive the remarkable resurgence of the 49ers.
"I guess you've got to get lucky sometimes," Smith told reporters.
Luck, skill, fate, whatever, this much is clear: San Francisco is 8-1 and in prime position for its first trip to the playoffs since 2002. Not bad for a team that finished 6-10 last season.
Meanwhile, a franchise far more familiar with the postseason in recent years took another big step too. In a pivotal AFC North showdown, Pittsburgh won at Cincinnati, 24-17, ending the Bengals' winning streak at five games.
The Steelers picked off two passes by rookie Andy Dalton, doubling their interception total for the season and answering those who think their storied defense is on the decline.
More good news for the Steelers came Sunday afternoon when Baltimore, a six-point favorite, lost at Seattle. Despite sweeping Pittsburgh, the Ravens are tied with Cincinnati at 6-3, half a game behind the Steelers in the division.
"If you're going to win the division, you've got to win some division games," said Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin, whose team had been 0-2 in that department.
Another battle for division supremacy Sunday was even closer. New Orleans won in overtime at Atlanta, 26-23, with the outcome hinging on a failed gamble by the home team in the extra period.
The Falcons went for it on fourth and inches from their 29, and Michael Turner was stonewalled. The Saints took over, and John Kasay kicked a 26-yard field goal for the victory.
"They were thinking they were tougher than us," Saints defensive end Will Smith said. "We were thinking, 'No, you're not.' "
The decisive play was reminiscent of New England's game at Indianapolis in 2009, when Coach Bill Belichick made the controversial decision to go for it on fourth down late in the game when the Patriots, leading by six, were deep in their territory. The Colts stopped them, took over on downs, and wound up winning.
Falcons Coach Mike Smith took responsibility for Sunday's failed call.
"It was my decision solely," he said. "First we were going to punt the football, then had a change of heart.
"I know it will be scrutinized all week long."
Only a week? If that turned the tide in the division for good, the "what ifs" will last longer than that.
Times have changed
Remember the renaissance of the NFL's Rust Belt teams? That was so two months ago.
The Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions were blown out Sunday by a combined 81-20.
How about Cam Newton turning around Carolina?
Not so fast. The Panthers were crushed at home by Tennessee, 30-3.
And wasn't Philadelphia's all-star roster starting to play to its potential?
Dream on. The Eagles lost at home to two-win Arizona, 21-17, with a backup quarterback starting for the Cardinals.
"Lord willing, maybe we can wind up 10-6," said quarterback Michael Vick, fantasizing that his 3-6 team will somehow spring to life and run the table on a remaining schedule that includes the Giants, Patriots, Jets and Cowboys.
Denver won at Kansas City with a balanced offensive attack — meaning the Broncos ran to both the right and left sides. They almost never threw the ball.
In fact, Tim Tebow had zero completions in the first half, a drought that actually stretched all the way back to the third quarter of the previous game, a victory over Oakland. No matter, the Broncos still moved the ball effectively in both games, running their version of a college-style, read-option offense.
"It's just a mind-set," Denver Coach John Fox said. "It's a low-risk offense. It's not an indictment on Tim Tebow or whoever our quarterback is. It's just whatever is working for us. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. We tried to possess the ball and keep our defense fresh."
Tebow completed two of eight passes for 69 yards, and the second of those was a beauty: a 56-yard touchdown pass that dropped right into the hands of Eric Decker, making the difference in the 17-10 victory.
Denver was the first team to lead at halftime without a completion in the first two quarters since Green Bay in 1994, according to STATS LLC.
The Broncos are 3-1 this season with Tebow starting.
The strangest moment of the Bills-Cowboys game was when Buffalo receiver David Nelson, having just scored on a three-yard catch, sprinted over and presented the ball to his girlfriend.
A Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.
"It was a special moment to share with her," he explained. "I didn't want it to be awkward. She knew it was coming; I don't think she knew what was coming."
Nelson, from Wichita Falls, Texas, is dating Kelsi Reich, who is in her fourth year with the squad.
The moment might have been a bit more uncomfortable had the game been close. The Cowboys won, 44-7.