Terance Mathis had no idea how deep into no-man's land he had ventured. When he found out, he had a bright idea how to fix it.

Which is just what the rookie did, catching Mike Saxon's punt on the 2, bursting up the middle, cutting right and speeding to the end zone. His NFL record-tying 98-yard punt return sparked New York to a 24-9 victory in East Rutherford, N.J., yesterday over Dallas, the first time the Jets have beaten the Cowboys in five tries.

"I went back to catch the ball over my shoulder, looked down and saw the end zone," said Mathis, returning punts because JoJo Townsell is injured. "I said, 'Whoa, I've got to do something with this.'

"He outkicked his coverage and there was a big old hole. No one touched me."

New York was outgained 321 yards to 187, but didn't allow a touchdown for the second straight week.

"We have to cut down on mistakes when we're inside the 20," Cowboys rookie running back Emmitt Smith said. ". . . There is no excuse to be down that close so many times and keep coming away with three points."

All Dallas (3-6) managed was field goals of 37, 35 and 32 yards.

"They were the quickest defense we faced all year, with the possible exception of the Redskins and Giants," Smith said. "They came at us really quickly today."

Vikings 27, Broncos 22: Anthony Carter jumped over Alton Montgomery to catch Rich Gannon's 56-yard touchdown pass on a flea-flicker with 14:04 left as the host Vikings halted a five-game losing streak.

Denver (3-5), the AFC's Super Bowl representative last season, lost for the fourth time in five games and is off to its worst start in a nonstrike season since 1975. Quarterback John Elway hurt his toe after leading the Broncos to a 16-0 first-half lead. Backup Gary Kubiak was intercepted thrice, including once for a touchdown by Joey Browner.

Carter was one of many big-name players criticized as Minnesota (2-6), the defending NFC Central champion, got off to its worst start since 1961. His dropped pass led directly to a loss to Tampa Bay, and he also dropped two passes last week.

But yesterday, his five-reception, 146-yard effort was highlighted by the Vikings' biggest play in a season almost devoid of big plays.

Gannon handed the ball to Herschel Walker, who took a step toward the line and pitched back to Gannon, who threw high and deep. Carter leaped to take the ball away from Montgomery at the 10, avoided Dennis Smith to stay in bounds and trotted in for the score.

Chargers 31, Seahawks 14: Nate Lewis ran back a punt 63 yards for a touchdown and Les Miller fell on Dave Krieg's fumble in the end zone as San Diego broke open a close game with a 17-point third quarter in Seattle.

It was the Chargers' first victory in the Kingdome in a decade. San Diego lost eight straight in Seattle after winning there, 34-13, on Sept. 7, 1980. The Seahawks had won 10 of 11 against the Chargers.

Billy Joe Tolliver threw two touchdown passes in the first half to give the Chargers a 14-7 halftime lead. Tolliver completed 11 of 24 passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.

The Chargers (4-5) have won three of their last four. The Seahawks (3-5) dropped into last place in the AFC West.

San Diego led, 17-7, then Lewis returned Rick Donnelly's punt 63 yards for a touchdown with 43 seconds left in the third quarter.

Rams 17, Oilers 13: Jim Everett threw for one touchdown, Cleveland Gary ran for another and Los Angeles' much-maligned defense came up with a late goal-line stand in Anaheim, Calif.

The game was decided when cornerback Bobby Humphery batted away Warren Moon's fourth-down pass from the 5-yard line with 40 seconds left after the Oilers had a first-and-goal from the Rams 7.

On the fourth-down play, Allen Pinkett was wide open in the left corner of the end zone as Moon scrambled right. By the time Moon spotted Pinkett and released the ball, Humphery had sprinted across from the center of the field to knock the ball away.