SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

NFL powers, and underdogs, rain on playoff aspirants' parade

Replay robberies

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.

Defense wins

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.

Excruciating victory

Chicago got quarterback Jay Cutler back . . . and lost everyone else.

Or so it seemed.

Cutler, who sat out the last game recovering from a concussion, helped lead the Bears to a 28-10 victory over Minnesota. Along the way, Chicago lost to injuries running back Matt Forte (ankle), receiver/returner Devin Hester (concussion), cornerback Charles Tillman (ankle) and a pair of starting guards to knee sprains.

Caring and clipping

A few weeks ago, more than two dozen Colts players shaved their heads in honor of leukemia-stricken Coach Chuck Pagano.

Sunday, two Colts cheerleaders followed suit. Megan M. and Crystal B. agreed to have their heads shaved to benefit leukemia research.

Great Clips salons in the Indianapolis area are donating $10 to "Blue's ChuckStrong Challenge" for every person who agrees to having their head shaved. According to WISH-TV, 800 Colts fans have shaved their heads so far, and more than $250,000 has been raised for leukemia research by Colts representatives.

In the fourth quarter of Sunday's home victory over Buffalo, Pagano waved to the crowd from just outside the box of Colts owner Jim Irsay. The crowd gave the coach a standing ovation. It was the second consecutive home game Pagano has attended.

Truth hurts

Brandon Marshall had 12 catches for 92 yards against the Vikings, making him the first Bears receiver since Marty Booker in 2002 to gain more than 1,000 yards in a season.

"In the third quarter I leaned over to Jay and I said, 'That catch puts me at 1,000 yards for six seasons in a row,'" said Marshall, who came from Miami in a trade.

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