Andrew Luck throws the game-winning touchdown to Donnie Avery as time expires. (Julian H. Gonzalez / MCT )
How to sum up the NFL Sunday of three rookie underdogs?
A feat, a feat, and a foot.
Feat: On the final play in Detroit, Indianapolis rookie Andrew Luck tossed a short pass to Donnie Avery, who raced untouched to the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown that capped a 35-33 victory by the Colts. It was Luck's fourth touchdown pass of the game and second in the final 2 minutes 47 seconds.
Feat: Never mind that Seattle was 1-5 on the road. The Seahawks pulled off a dramatic upset in Chicago when rookie Russell Wilson directed a touchdown drive on the opening possession of overtime. He secured a 23-17 win with a 13-yard scoring pass to Sidney Rice.
Foot: With St. Louis and San Francisco apparently headed for their second head-to-head tie of the season, a first in the Super Bowl era, Rams rookie Greg Zuerlein came through huge. With 26 seconds left in overtime, he split the uprights from 54 yards for a 16-13 victory. This after making a 53-yarder to force the extra period.
With the season rounding the clubhouse turn and heading into the stretch, a handful of first-year stars are making the difference for teams.
But there's room for journeymen to make a splash too. Charlie Batch, Pittsburgh's 37-year-old third-string quarterback, led the Steelers to a 23-20 upset at Baltimore, keeping his team alive in the AFC North race.
That ended a 15-game home winning streak by the Ravens, who still have a two-game division lead over Pittsburgh and Cincinnati with four games remaining.
Ben Roethlisberger, recovering from a shoulder injury, is expected to return next week. After Sunday's win, an emotional Batch hugged Roethlisberger and buried his face in his shoulder.
"Big necessary win for us tonight in a hostile environment," Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin said. "We don't take that lightly."
Meanwhile, Seattle is making a run at San Francisco in the NFC West, with Wilson turning in a masterful performance against the Bears and building a strong case that he's not a quarterback who can win only at home.
"Just exquisite poise," Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll said of Wilson, who has nine touchdowns and zero interceptions in his last four games. "It's just extraordinary. There were so many plays in there where he had to do something special on the play, to move, to find a guy, to locate a receiver, and to use the right throw and the right decision in order to take off and run. He's just so beautifully poised and so confident."
The same can be said of Luck, who picked up his eighth victory of the season, the most by a rookie quarterback picked No. 1 overall. The Colts won only three times during Peyton Manning's rookie season.
"We've got a bunch of guys in the locker room that, maybe we don't know any better, we just keep playing," said Luck, whose team is 7-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less.
The young Colts might be learning as they go, but you're never too old or too experienced to learn. Consider the Rams' Jeff Fisher, as seasoned as any coach in the league.
Just three weeks ago, remember, the Rams and 49ers finished deadlocked, 24-24, after five quarters in San Francisco.
Sunday's game in St. Louis nearly ended at 13-13.
"Earlier in the week I was asked about what it's like to play a team within proximity of just recently playing them again in three or four weeks," Fisher said. "I think I said the games are completely different, so I apologize for being absolutely wrong. Wow."
Coming into focus
There's still a quarter of the season left, but the playoff picture is beginning to take shape.
Denver clinched the AFC West with its 31-23 victory over Tampa Bay, and Atlanta locked up the NFC South by virtue of the Buccaneers' losing.
New England, which posted a 23-16 victory at Miami, won the AFC East for the 10th time in 12 seasons. Tom Brady became the first starting quarterback in league history to win 10 division titles.
Houston, with its 24-10 win at Tennessee, secured at least a spot in the playoffs and picked up its franchise-record 11th win.
"It's good to know we're in," Texans quarterback Matt Schaub said. "It's a great feeling to know that we've reached that goal, but we've got a lot more to accomplish."
A shaky performance
Last season, 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh famously rankled the Lions' Jim Schwartz by giving him a dismissive handshake and aggressive slap on the back after San Francisco won in Detroit.
Sunday, another Harbaugh had a similar exchange, only he was the gracious one.
Baltimore's John Harbaugh, Jim's older brother, greeted Tomlin at midfield and offered his congratulations. The Steelers coach gave him the brush-off with a quick thanks, even after Harbaugh tried to hang on to the handshake, pulling him back with an irked, "Hey, hey, I said congratulations."
"Thank you. Good job," Tomlin said quickly, pulling away for good.
Definitely no love lost there.
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