Saints on Path to the Playoffs

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.”

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