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Column: Steelers, Packers, Titans heat up NFL division races as temperatures plunge

Green Bay Packers v Chicago Bears
Fans brave the cold weather during the game between the Bears and the Packers at Soldier Field in Chicago on Dec. 18.
(Joe Robbins / Getty Images)

It was the coldest, hottest Sunday of the NFL season.

Temperatures plunged, heart rates surged, and playoff hopefuls scrapped in the bitter cold for their survival, with Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Tennessee all pulling off narrow victories on the road.

In the aftermath, shock and thaw.

Jacksonville fired coach Gus Bradley after the Jaguars blew a chance for an upset at Houston, where the Texans had benched big-money quarterback Brock Osweiler. Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Arizona were eliminated from playoff contention. And Minnesota, which stunned everyone by getting off to a 5-0 start, lost for the seventh time in nine weeks, a 34-6 blowout by Indianapolis.

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While almost everyone else in the NFL was frozen, Oakland ended a cold snap that lasted more than a decade. With a 19-16 victory at San Diego — essentially a home game for the Silver & Black — the 11-3 Raiders clinched their first playoff berth since 2002, ending the second-longest postseason drought in NFL history. Buffalo has the longest such streak, at 16 years.

New England posted a 16-3 victory at Denver, securing a first-round bye and its NFL-record eighth consecutive division title. That breaks a tie with the 1973-79 Los Angeles Rams, who won seven in a row. The Patriots are the only team in league history to win 13 division championships in a 14-year span.

The stunner of the day came at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium, where the temperature at kickoff was 1 degree with a wind chill of minus-19. It was the coldest Chiefs home game in the 22 years the club has been keeping those records.

That ball must have felt like a brick to Tennessee’s Ryan Succop, who came up short on his first attempt at the 53-yard game-winner. The play was ruled dead, however, because Chiefs Coach Andy Reid had called a  timeout to ice him.

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“The first ball I thought I hit well,” said Succop, who began his career in Kansas City. “In those conditions, the ball doesn’t travel well. You get no compression. When that kick came up just short, there was a moment when I wasn’t sure I could even reach it from there.”

His mulligan barely cleared the crossbar for a 19-17 Tennessee victory, and the Titans — a week removed from beating Denver — stayed tied with Houston atop the AFC South at 8-6.

The Packers, too, won on a last-second field goal in frigid weather. Mason Crosby hit a 32-yarder for a 30-27 victory at Chicago, a kick set up by a 60-yard completion from Aaron Rodgers to Jordy Nelson on the play before. The temperature was 11 degrees with a wind chill of minus-4.

It was Green Bay’s fourth consecutive victory and gave the Packers sole possession of second place in the NFC North, a game behind Detroit.

“I think we have a lot of grit as a team,” said Rodgers, whose team gave up two touchdowns and a field goal in the fourth quarter as former USC quarterback Matt Barkley directed a comeback by the Bears.

“We stick together in adverse situations,” Rodgers continued. “There wasn’t any finger pointing after 27-10 turned into 27-27 for either side. We just knew we had to go out and make something happen. It’s fun to be standing here at 8-6. We all know what 4-6 felt like.”

Pittsburgh maintained its one-game lead in the AFC North with a 24-20 win at Cincinnati, getting six field goals from Chris Boswell. Ben Roethlisberger put the Steelers ahead for good with a 24-yard touchdown pass to Eli Rogers. Pittsburgh scored the game’s final 18 points.

Baltimore plays at Pittsburgh on Christmas night with the AFC North crown up for grabs.

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Brock’s benching

Houston picked up its 10th consecutive AFC South win, a 21-20 come-from-behind victory over Jacksonville. But the Texans also benched the struggling Osweiler after his back-to-back interceptions in the second quarter. Tom Savage replaced him and finished with 260 yards passing.

The Texans lured Osweiler away from Denver during the off-season with a contract that pays him $18 million per year. The Broncos were not willing to spend that much to keep him. Texans Coach Bill O’Brien did not disclose which quarterback will start Saturday’s game at Cincinnati.

“We don’t make decisions on how much a guy gets paid,” O’Brien said. “We make decisions on what’s the best way to win a game. That was the decision we made today and I thought today, it worked out OK.”

Although Houston and Tennessee are tied at 8-6, the Texans have the edge by virtue of their 5-0 division record.

Sun sets on Arizona

With their 48-41 loss at home to New Orleans, the 5-8-1 Cardinals were guaranteed their first losing season under two-time NFL coach of the year Bruce Arians.

The Saints improved to 4-0 against the NFC West  . . . but are 2-8 against the rest of the league.

Drew Brees, coming off consecutive games in which he had three interceptions and no touchdowns, got back on track Sunday with four touchdowns and no picks.

Oh my, Odell

New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. had six catches for 64 yards and a touchdown, an impressive one-handed grab, in his team’s 17-6 win over Detroit. Beckham joined John Jefferson and Randy Moss as the only players with at least 1,000 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns in each of their first three seasons.

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Stumbling toward history

The Cleveland Browns are inching ever closer to joining the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only teams to finish 0-16.

The Browns lost at Buffalo, 33-13, and finish with a home game against San Diego on Saturday and a finale at Pittsburgh.

“This is my career, this is my reputation, and I’m not going to back down from any challenge,” first-year Browns Coach Hue Jackson said. “This wasn’t my dream by any stretch of the imagination. But I’m not running from this.”


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