The New Orleans Saints are about as close as they can get to their fifth postseason berth in 34 years.
Playing inside the Superdome, the Saints moved to the brink of clinching their first playoff spot since 1992 with a 23-7 victory Sunday over the Atlanta Falcons.
Only a tie in tonight’s game between St. Louis and Tampa Bay — there has not been a tie in the NFL since 1997 — can prevent the Saints from reaching postseason play.
“I don’t know of too many teams that go 3-13, then have won 10 games to this point this season,” Saints coach Jim Haslett said. “The way these guys have stuck together and really become a family, the way they feed off one another, that’s the biggest thing I’m proud of.”
The Falcons (3-12), had not lost to the Saints in the Superdome in five years, and had lost by 10 or more points there only four other times since the Dome was built 25 years ago.
Aaron Brooks, alternately looking like a green rookie and a seasoned pro, completed 24 of 34 passes for 285 yards.
Owens Shines on Rice’s Day
Terrell Owens had plenty to be proud of, too. While the San Francisco 49ers and their fans were honoring Jerry Rice on possibly his final home game, Owens caught an NFL-record 20 passes for 283 yards in a 17-0 win over Chicago.
Owens broke Tom Fears’ mark of 18 catches set with the Los Angeles Rams on Dec. 3, 1950, against Green Bay. Owens also topped Rice’s franchise record of 16 receptions against the Los Angeles Rams in 1994.
“What I did by no means overshadows No. 80,” Owens said about Rice, his mentor. “He’s been a big part of my success.”
With tears in his eyes after the game, Rice praised Owens.
“Records are meant to be broken,” Rice said. “I feel T.O. is going to carry on the tradition.”
After Rice’s daughter sang the national anthem, the NFL’s most prolific pass catcher made a 25-yard reception on San Francisco’s first play.
With video tributes on the scoreboard all day, Rice finished with seven catches for 74 yards. The crowd saluted him throughout the game with chants of “Jerry! Jerry!” and he took a victory lap after it was over.
Rice, 38, has said he is not ready for retirement, but the 49ers (6-9) probably cannot afford his salary.
Chicago fell to 4-11.
Giants Play Big Against Dallas
The New York Giants clinched the NFC East, beating winning 17-13 at Dallas.
Kerry Collins threw a 33-yard touchdown pass to Amani Toomer, and an interception by Emmanuel McDaniel set up an 8-yard TD run by Tiki Barber as New York won its first division since 1997.
The Giants (11-4) won for the fourth straight time since coach Jim Fassel guaranteed they were going to the playoffs. New York can clinch the NFC’s top seed with a victory Saturday at home against Jacksonville.
The Cowboys fell to 5-10.
Detroit, Indy Score Road Wins
The New York Jets and Miami Dolphins, meanwhile, missed a chance to clinch a playoff berth for the second straight week.
Detroit guard Jeff Hartings recovered James Stewart’s fumble in the end zone with 5:43 left, lifting the Lions over the Jets 10-7.
Hartings tried to celebrate the first TD of his five-year career, but got bogged down in the muck and mire at the Meadowlands.
“Offensive linemen don’t get touchdowns, don’t think about touchdowns,” he said. “We just think about getting touchdowns for the other guys and letting them dance.”
In Miami, NFL rushing leader Edgerrin James ran for 112 yards and Peyton Manning threw for 206 yards as Indianapolis beat the Dolphins in a matchup of playoff contenders.
The Colts (9-6) will make the postseason if they beat Minnesota and the Jets lose at Baltimore in the season finale.
For the second week in a row, the Dolphins (10-5) missed a chance to clinch a playoff spot. Miami can still make it if they win Sunday at New England.
Denver’s Winning Streak Snapped
Tony Richardson ran for 156 yards, the most by a Kansas City back in a decade, and the Chiefs stopped Denver’s six-game winning streak.
The loss at chilly Arrowhead Stadium cost the Broncos (10-5) a chance to tie Oakland for the AFC West lead. Kansas City (7-8) swept the season series for the second straight year.
Richardson, playing on his 29th birthday, posted the biggest rushing day for the Chiefs since Barry Word ran for 200 yards in 1990.
Packers Stun Vikings
Brett Favre threw three touchdown passes and Ahman Green ran for a career-high 161 yards as Green Bay stopped Minnesota’s 13-game home winning streak.
The Vikings (11-4) could have clinched home-field advantage with a victory.
Ryan Longwell kicked four field goals for the Packers (8-7), who must beat Tampa Bay next Sunday at Lambeau Field to have a chance at reaching the playoffs.
Titans, Ravens Win
Tennessee moved closer to clinching home-field advantage throughout the playoffs as Eddie George ran for 176 yards and three touchdowns at Cleveland.
The defending AFC champion Titans (12-3) posted their first shutout in seven seasons, when the team was located in Houston. Jeff Fisher’s 60th victory made him the winningest coach in franchise history, passing Bum Phillips’ 59 with the Oilers.
The Browns (3-13) lost their fifth in a row to finish off their second season back in the NFL.
Jamie Sharper’s interception set up Baltimore’s only touchdown as the playoff-bound Ravens once again relied on defense to win.
The Ravens (11-4) were outgained 309-214 at Arizona, yet still won their sixth in a row.
The Cardinals (3-12) got inside Baltimore’s 30 five times without scoring. The Ravens, trying to tie the NFL record of five shutouts in a season, gave up Jake Plummer’s 26-yard TD pass to Frank Sanders in the middle of the third quarter.
Patriots Prevail in OT
Adam Vinatieri redeemed himself by making a 24-yard field goal with 19 seconds left in overtime for New England.
Vinatieri had missed seven of his 11 previous field-goal tries at Buffalo, including a 27-yarder at the end of regulation.
The Bills had a chance to win with six minutes left in overtime, but Steve Christie’s 30-yard field goal attempt was blocked.
Buffalo (7-8) has lost four in a row for the first time since dropping six straight in 1985. The Bills won in overtime at New England (5-10) last month.
Bengals, Panthers Win
Rookie Neil Rackers kicked a 27-yard field goal as time expired, lifting Cincinnati over visiting Jacksonville.
Danny Farmer, a Los Angeles native playing for the first time in the snow, caught passes of 38, 22 and 19 yards as the Bengals (4-11) drove toward a tying touchdown with 3:22 left.
Fred Taylor ran for 110 yards, his ninth straight 100-yard game for the Jaguars (7-8).
Iheanyi Uwaezuoke scored on a 64-yard punt return and Doug Evans returned a blocked field goal 54 yards for another touchdown as Carolina beat San Diego.
The visiting Chargers (1-14) clinched the worst record in the league and top pick in the draft. The Panthers (7-8) overcame a 22-14 deficit late in the third quarter.