NEW ORLEANS, DEC. 31 -- A bizarre, frantic, pulsating game on New Year's Eve in the nation's party capital ended tonight when Morten Andersen kicked a 24-yard field goal with two seconds left to beat the Los Angeles Rams. It sent nearly 70,000 joyous fans into a wild New Year's celebration and the Saints to a 20-17 victory and the final wild-card playoff berth in the NFC.

Andersen's first attempt at a game-winning field goal from 29 yards was blocked by nose tackle Alvin Wright, but he had jumped offside. Given a second chance, five yards closer, Andersen drilled the game-winner with two seconds left, ending a suspenseful if not particularly well-played season finale.

"I heard that second sound {of the kick being block} after I kicked it," Andersen said. "It's not a sound a kicker likes to hear. I immediately thought to myself that one of the Rams made a great, great play -- because my kicks are almost never low -- or he's offside."

Before Andersen could look up to see the yellow flag, the deafening crowd noise told him he would have another chance. As a result, New Orleans finished with an 8-8 record and qualified for a trip to Chicago's Soldier Field on Sunday afternoon to meet the Bears in a first-round playoff game.

The field goal was set up by quarterback Steve Walsh's 34-yard completion to wide receiver Eric Martin. After Walsh fell to the ground on the next play, the Saints ran the clock to 0:08 before setting up for the second-down kick.

The blocked field goal would have continued a dazzling comeback by the Rams, who scrambled back from a 14-3 deficit by scoring twice in the fourth quarter. Their first touchdown of the night came on a 47-yard pass from Jim Everett to Willie "Flipper" Anderson less than two minutes into the final period and cut the New Orleans lead to 14-10.

After the Saints increased their lead to 17-10 with six minutes to play on Andersen's 41-yard field goal -- he missed two long attempts earlier -- the Rams put together an 81-yard drive to tie.

The drive had some weird moments. On consecutive plays, replay officials reviewed the forward progress of a Rams receiver, reversing a first-down spot of the ball the first time. After the re-spot, the Rams went for it on fourth and one, and made it by a hair (after the second review confirmed the spot was accurate). Everett's 42-yard completion to Aaron Cox, Cleveland Gary's 26-yard run on a draw play, and Everett's two-yard bullet pass to Robert Delpino with 1:19 left made it 17-17, threatening to delay the postgame partying.

Instead, the Saints got the game-winner from Andersen and the second playoff berth in club history.

"We had to give the fans their money's worth," Saints tight end John Tice said.

One of the happiest Saints had to be Walsh, whose passing gave his former teammates, the 7-9 Dallas Cowboys, an early offseason.

Walsh completed only 11 of 26 passes for 174 yards, and was booed loudly during one stretch of incompletions. Strangely enough, Martin's 34-yard reception came on a crossing pattern from the Cowboys playbook.

"We put it in here only two weeks ago," Walsh said. "Actually, it was a play I ran in high school and college, and it was because of me that it was in the Cowboys playbook."

Walsh threw the pass beautifully earlier in the evening, and thought it might cross up the Rams again. "They were in man-to-man coverage," he said, "and it's not easy to keep up with your man with four or five guys criss-crossing in the middle of the field. I just looked the safety off, and Eric was wide open."

Once during the game Walsh looked up at the giant Superdome replay board and saw the ABC-TV telecast cut away to Dallas, where the Cowboys were hoping for a Rams victory that would give them the playoff spot.

For the Rams, it was another bitter pill to swallow in one long headache of a season. Henry Ellard fumbled once inside the 5 at the end of a long reception, ruining what would have been a Rams touchdown or field goal. Everett (22 of 36 for 290 yards and two touchdowns) underthrew him another time, turning a sure touchdown into a 43-yard gain that only set up a field goal.

When the Rams did reach the end zone it seemed too easy. Andersen's misses from 51 and 48 yards and defensive lapses let the Rams stay close until Everett could get untracked.

"We just gave them a couple of touchdowns," Saints linebacker Rickey Jackson said. "It never should have been that close."

Vince Buck set up the Saints first score, when he returned a punt 26 yards, setting up Walsh's 26-yard touchdown pass to Floyd Turner.

After Mike Lansford cut the Saints' lead to 7-3 with a 36-yard field goal early in the second quarter, the Rams' shoddy special teams play continued, as Gene Atkins returned the kickoff 50 yards. This set up a punishing drive that resulted in another Saints touchdown.

New Orleans ran the ball 10 consecutive times, eating up 6:48. The elusive Gill Fenherty carried twice for 15 yards and Rueben Mayes ran once for five. But the star of the drive was 5-foot-11, 265-pound running back Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, who seems to be getting bigger, if that's possible, and more difficult to bring down.

On one nine-yard run, he ran over two Rams -- including safety Vince Newman, who bounced into the air as if hit by a small car. Heyward carried seven times, including the final yard for the touchdown that increased the lead to 14-3.