Teams that warm up in December usually find themselves in the NFL playoffs. And Pittsburgh, New England and the New York Giants are hot, hot hot.
The Steelers (11-3), with a 14-3 victory over Philadelphia on Sunday, moved closer to the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with their sixth straight win.The Patriots and Giants, meanwhile, boosted their playoff hopes with victories. Even Tampa Bay got in on the act, winning its third straight for the first time in 12 years but still getting knocked out of a postseason shot.
Andre Hastings and John L. Williams scored touchdowns 1:48 apart in the fourth quarter to lead the Steelers, who on Sunday play Cleveland (10-4) for the AFC Central title. The Browns, who beat Dallas on Saturday, clinched a playoff spot Sunday.
"This defense wants to go to the Super Bowl," defensive end Ray Seals said after the Steelers held the Eagles to 105 total yards.
At Foxboro, Mass., the playoff-starved Patriots (8-6) got two TD passes from Drew Bledsoe for a 28-13 victory over the Indianapolis Colts. The Pats can move into a first-place tie with Miami in the AFC East if the Dolphins lose to Kansas City on Monday night.
"It wasn't our best game of the year, but we're still breathing," Pats coach Bill Parcells said.
At East Rutherford, N.J., Rodney Hampton scored his second TD from 3 yards out with 40 seconds left to lift the Giants (7-7) to their fourth straight victory - 27-20 over Cincinnati. The Giants probably have to win their final two games - against Philadelphia and Dallas - to make the playoffs.
"I'd say our chances are still really slim but I'm not going to worry about it," Giants coach Dan Reeves said.
At Tampa, Craig Erickson threw TD passes of 71 and 44 yards to Charles Wilson as the Bucs (5-9) beat the Los Angeles Rams 24-14. The Bucs close their season against Washington and Green Bay.
In other games, it was San Francisco 38, San Diego 15; Minnesota beat Buffalo 21-17 and Green Bay defeated Chicago 40-3.
In later games it was Denver at the Los Angeles Raiders, Seattle at Houston and Washington at Arizona.
On Sunday night, New Orleans was at Atlanta.
On Saturday, Cleveland defeated Dallas 19-14 and Detroit beat the New York Jets 18-7.
Steelers 14, Eagles 3
Pittsburgh's defense held Randall Cunningham to a career-low 59 yards passing (9 of 27) at Three Rivers Stadium.
Hastings caught an 18-yard TD pass from Neil O'Donnell 4:56 into the fourth quarter before Williams, subbing for the injured duo of Barry Foster and Bam Morris, scored from 3 yards out. Morris injured his ankle in the third quarter, while Foster sat out with a back injury.
Pittsburgh's start is its best since the 1979 Steelers - the last of their four Super Bowl champions teams - had the same record.
Patriots 28, Colts 13
Despite four interceptions, Bledsoe completed 25 of 45 passes for 277 yards to push the Pats closer to their first playoff berth since 1986, also the last time they won ifive in a row.
Ray Buchanan had his third interception return for a TD in five games, going 90 yards to stake the Colts (6-8) to a 10-0 lead. But Bledsoe came back with TD passes of 9 yards to Leroy Thompson and 6 yards to Ben Coates and Marion Butts scored from a yard out for a 21-10 lead with 16 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Pats held Marshall Faulk, the AFC's No. 3 rusher, to 50 yards on 17 carries.
Giants 27, Bengals 20
The Giants snapped a four-game home losing streak, but only after blowing a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter.
The Bengals (2-12) tied the score at 20 with 1:47 left on Doug Pelfrey's 30-yard field goal after Adrian Hardy blocked Mike Horan's punt. Before that, the Bengals' Jeff Blake hit Carl Pickens with a 3-yard TD pass 5:37 into the fourth quarter to make it 20-17.
On the winning drive, Dave Brown completed three passes to the Bengals' 25 before Corey Sawyer was called for pass interference on Mike Sherrard at the 3. Hampton scored on the next play.
Buccaneers 24, Rams 14
At Tampa, Fla., Erickson threw for 231 yards, Wilson had 176 of those yards on just four catches and Errict Rhett ran for 119 yards and a TD. Wilson's 44-yard TD catch came after Charles McRae blocked what would have been a game-tying 48-yard field goal by Tony Zendejas with 1:51 to go.
Tampa Bay last won three in a row in the strike-shortened 1982 season when the Bucs had their last winning record and qualified for the playoffs. The Rams are 4-10.
Vikings 21, Bills 17
Warren Moon (21 of 34 for 261 yards) finally won in Buffalo after six tries in 10 years as Minnesota (9-5) moved into sole possession of first-place in the NFC Central.
Fuad Reveiz had five field goals - 30, 38, 30, 25 and 22 yards - and Cris Carter caught nine passes for 111 yards to move within a catch ot tying Sterling Sharpe's single-season NFL record of 112.
Jack Del Rio had an interception to kill one Buffalo drive and sacked Jim Kelly (sprained ligaments in his left knee) to stop another as the Bills fell to 7-7.
Packers 40, Bears 3
Chicago (8-6) never had a chance as Brett Favre threw three TDs - two to Sterling Sharpe - Chris Jacke added four field goals and the Packers (7-7) won their ninth straight game at Lambeau Field.
The Bears lost their 14th straight December road game, a streak that dates to Dec. 7, 1987.
Favre completed 19 of 31 passes for 250 yards and Edgar Bennett had 106 yards on 22 carries as the Packers snapped a three-game losing streak and kept their playoff hopes alive.
Steve Walsh, 7-2 as a starter, was 13 of 26 for 143 yards and an interception.
49ers 38, Chargers 15
The San Francisco 49ers aren't perfect. Still, their imperfection is the best the NFL has to offer.
At San Diego, the 49ers won their ninth straight Sunday, surviving a mid-game letdown to beat the San Diego Chargers 31-15 and put themselves a game from clinching everything they can own in the regular season.
Steve Young was 25-for-32 for 304 yards and threw for two touchdowns, equaling another of Joe Montana's marks in the team record book. He now has 31 TD passes this season, the same as Montana did in strike-torn 1987.
Jerry Rice, who has more records than most people can count, caught 12 passes for 144 yards.
And just for good measure, Deion Sanders threw in an 89-yard interception return with 32 seconds left, characteristically dancing into the end zone for the score.