The St. Louis Rams finally added a dash of suspense to what had been an overpowering, methodical march to their first NFC West championship since 1985.
After winning their first six division games by an average of 25 points, the Rams wrapped up the crown by weathering the Carolina Panthers' second-half rally for a 34-21 victory yesterday in Charlotte.
The Rams' defense had shut out their last three opponents in the second half, but Carolina (5-7) scored 14 points to make it close before Dre Bly's 56-yard interception return put St. Louis up by 10 with 9 minutes 48 seconds left.
St. Louis improved to 10-2 for the first time since 1978 and is headed to the playoffs for the first time since 1989.
"I came here thinking we could get it done," said Rams Coach Dick Vermeil, hired in 1997 after a 14-year coaching hiatus.
Rams quarterback Kurt Warner threw for 351 yards and three touchdowns, including a pair to Az-Zahir Hakim.
Warner has 32 scoring passes, one more than Jim Everett's club-record 31 in 1988.
GIANTS 41, JETS 28: In East Rutherford, N.J., Kerry Collins found Amani Toomer for three touchdowns and ran for another as the Giants routed their local rivals with their highest point total in four years.
The victory was costly, though, as the Giants lost cornerback Jason Sehorn (broken left leg), tight end Pete Mitchell (sprained right ankle) and center Brian Williams (left knee sprain).
The Giants (6-6) set a season high for yards (490) while going 13 for 19 on third downs in breaking a three-game slide and keeping their playoff hopes alive in the NFC. Giants Coach Jim Fassel let quarterbacks coach Sean Payton call the plays.
"We're from the same city and we share the same stadium, so this is one of those games you want to destroy your opponent," said Jets running back Curtis Martin, "and we got destroyed."
BENGALS 44, 49ERS 30: In Cincinnati, San Francisco hit another low point by getting trounced by the worst team of the decade as Jeff Blake tied his career high with four touchdown passes in the rain.
The Bengals (3-10) ended a streak of 11 straight home losses, earned back-to-back wins for the first time since 1997 and had some fun at the expense of the team that has tormented them more than any other. The Bengals had lost their last nine games to the 49ers, including a pair of Super Bowls.
The 49ers (3-8) lost their eighth in a row--their worst skid in 19 years--and clinched their first losing season since 1982.
FALCONS 35, SAINTS 12: Chris Chandler threw for two touchdowns and ran for another as host Atlanta snapped a three-game losing streak.
The Falcons (3-9), averaging just 14.1 points per game, posted their highest point total of the season and 10th straight victory over the Saints (2-10). New Orleans extended the NFL's longest active road losing streak to 12 games. The Saints lost quarterback Billy Joe Hobert with bruised ribs on their third possession.
PACKERS 35, BEARS 19: Rookie De'Mond Parker ran for two fourth-quarter touchdowns and defensive end Keith McKenzie returned a fumble on a botched punt 45 yards for another score as Green Bay (7-5) boosted its playoff hopes with its third straight victory, at cold, windy and rainy Soldier Field.
CHARGERS 23, BROWNS 10: Host San Diego got short scoring runs from Kenny Bynum and rookie Jermaine Fazande, and three field goals from John Carney to end a six-game losing streak. The Chargers (5-7) played without their two Pro Bowl defenders, linebacker Junior Seau--a late scratch because of a strained stomach muscle and a rib injury--and safety Rodney Harrison (shoulder).
CHIEFS 16, BRONCOS 10: Kansas City softened up host Denver with its running game, then broke the Broncos when Tamarick Vanover returned a punt 80 yards for a touchdown with 4:53 left. The Chiefs (7-5), who drew within one game of AFC West-leading Seattle (8-4), won a game of field position that featured punters Daniel Pope and Tom Rouen.