Falcons receiver Julio Jones is shoved out of bounds before he can score… (Brian Blanco / Associated…)
On a Sunday when the sprinklers accidentally went off at Sun Life Stadium, dousing the Seattle Seahawks and Miami Dolphins, playoff-minded teams all over the NFL were treated to a cold, harsh splash of reality.
The New Orleans Saints, who had clawed their way back to .500 after digging an 0-4 hole, lost at home to San Francisco, 31-21, in a rematch of a divisional playoff thriller.
The similarly resurgent Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had won four in a row, put together a solid performance at home but still lost to Atlanta, 24-23. The Falcons took another big step toward the NFC South crown by improving to 10-1, tied with Houston for the league's best record.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were reminded that losing two quarterbacks generally dooms you, and committing eight turnovers — as they did in their 20-14 loss at Cleveland — absolutely dooms you.
"That was an ugly performance that's ours. We own it," said the Steelers' Mike Tomlin, coach of the first NFL team since 2001 to commit eight turnovers in a game.
"I'm surprised it was that close, given the turnover situation," he said.
The San Diego Chargers, famous for their skin-saving rallies in the second half of the season, continued their downward spiral with a 16-13 loss at home to Baltimore in overtime. The Chargers could have wrapped that up in regulation had they been able to stop the Ravens on fourth and 29. Instead, a dump-off pass to Ray Rice went for 30.
The Chargers are still in second place behind Denver in the AFC West at 4-7, but only because Oakland and Kansas City are so bad.
The Seahawks, dampened by those untimely sprinklers and 24-21 losers to the Dolphins, soaked in the knowledge they can't seem to win on the road. They're 5-0 in Seattle, 1-5 away from it.
As for those sprinklers, they were mistakenly set on their Saturday schedule. They came on late in the third quarter and sprayed startled players, coaches and assistants.
"I never saw that before, not even in high school," Miami's Davone Bess said. "It was pretty cool."
Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson said his teammates didn't mind: "I think they're used to the rain."
Rise of the zombies
It was a good day for some of the NFL's also-rans.
The 2-8 Browns beat Pittsburgh, and the 1-9 Jacksonville Jaguars defeated Tennessee, 24-19. The 1-9 Kansas City Chiefs kept things interesting against Denver before losing, 17-9.
The Chiefs' performance was the most surprising, considering how well the Peyton Manning-led Broncos have been playing.
The Steelers, meanwhile, have lost two in a row without Ben Roethlisberger and are down to third-string quarterback Charlie Batch. They lost five fumbles to go with the three Batch passes that were intercepted.
In Jacksonville, Chad Henne threw two touchdown passes for the Jaguars, further making the case that the starting job should be up for grabs this off-season after Blaine Gabbert recovers from his season-ending shoulder injury. The Jaguars had lost seven in a row.
The Titans, coming off a 37-3 victory over Miami, can consider themselves the NFL's premier slump-busters. They lost to a 1-9 team this year and 0-13 Indianapolis a year ago.
With their loss to the Broncos, the Chiefs became the first team to be officially eliminated from playoff contention.
Three days after Detroit handed Houston a touchdown on a replay technicality, Pittsburgh and Oakland were burned by plays that should have gone their way but didn't.
The Steelers couldn't challenge an apparent fumble by the Browns with slightly more than two minutes remaining because they were out of timeouts. Had the play happened one snap later, inside of two minutes, it would have been automatically reviewed.
The Raiders returned a fumble for a touchdown at Cincinnati, but the play was reversed because of an inadvertent whistle. Worse, the Bengals got the ball back.
It's hard to do anything about an inadvertent whistle — those blunders happen, frustrating as they are — but the Lions and Steelers have a legitimate beef. If replay is going to be used, the NFL needs to use it to correct wrong calls. The league needs to figure out rules that don't handcuff teams, regardless of how many timeouts they have left.
Colin Kaepernick made his second consecutive start at quarterback for the 49ers, even though Alex Smith was available to play.
Kaepernick played well, but it was San Francisco's defense that set the tone in New Orleans, with Ahmad Brooks and Donte Whitner returning interceptions for touchdowns, and the 49ers sacking Drew Brees five times.
Chicago got quarterback Jay Cutler back . . . and lost everyone else.
Or so it seemed.