Jake Delhomme, a gosh-golly, gee-whiz Cajun who grew up two hours west of here, made his first NFL appearance a stunner today as he and the New Orleans Saints gave the Washington Redskins an early Christmas present by defeating the Dallas Cowboys, 31-24, at the Louisiana Superdome.

Delhomme completed 16 of 27 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another score, helping the Saints (3-12) end a five-game losing streak and position the Redskins (8-6) to clinch the NFC East Division title by defeating the 49ers on Sunday night in San Francisco.

The Cowboys (7-8) must beat the New York Giants in their regular season finale to avoid a second losing season in three years. They will need a combination of occurrences to make the playoffs.

"There may be some kind of miraculous way, but I don't think so," said Dallas Coach Chan Gailey, whose team lost for the third time in four games overall and has dropped seven straight road games since opening the season with a victory at Washington. "If they tell us on Tuesday or Wednesday we can [make the playoffs], that would be great, but I'm assuming there's not [a way]."

Team owner Jerry Jones was equally disappointed after seeing Saints cornerback Fred Weary return a fumble 58 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 9 minutes 59 seconds left in the game, and Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman get intercepted on a first down from the Saints 6-yard line with 1:41 remaining.

"Everyone knows what's at stake," Jones said quietly outside the Cowboys' locker room. "When you've worked as hard as our team has and then, for all practical purposes you're out of the playoffs, it's quite a letdown."

Especially because the Saints had lost 12 of their past 13 games and 22 of their past 27.

"Merry Christmas and thank you Lord for a win; I appreciate it," said New Orleans Coach Mike Ditka, whose job security has been in question for weeks.

The victory was equally sweet for Delhomme, a product of Lafayette, La., who played at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, was on the Saints' practice squad at times in 1997 and '98 but had played only for teams in NFL Europe the past two springs. He started at quarterback for Frankfurt in the 1999 World Bowl, but Ditka made him one of the last cuts of training camp this past summer. He was re-signed Nov. 23, after Billy Joe Tolliver got hurt.

He was named the starting quarterback this week following ineffective play by Billy Joe Hobert and Danny Wuerffel, and another injury to Tolliver.

"When you're scared as you can be, you just try to keep a straight face," Delhomme said.

Delhomme's first pass, on the game's fifth play, was tipped at the line of scrimmage and intercepted by Darren Woodson. But he had completions of 19 and 32 yards during an 11-play drive drive capped by a 32-yard field goal by Doug Brien that put New Orleans ahead 3-0 with 4:25 left in the first quarter.

The Saints got the ball right back when Weary intercepted Aikman to give New Orleans possession at the Cowboys 23. Moments later, on second and goal from the 8, Delhomme rolled right, waited, and found wide receiver Keith Poole, who beat Woodson in the back right corner of the end zone for a touchdown and a 10-0 lead with 1:38 left in the quarter.

Jason Tucker returned the ensuing kickoff 97 yards, but in a symbolic moment for Dallas, the apparent touchdown was nullified by holding. However, the Cowboys moved within 10-7 early in the second quarter, and that was the score at halftime.

But things got lively in the third quarter. Aikman opened the second half by directing an eight-play, 61-yard touchdown drive that put Dallas ahead 14-10. The Cowboys then turned to 43-year-old Eddie Murray, a product of Tulane who made a 33-yard field goal for a 17-10 lead with 5:56 left in the quarter.

But Delhomme struck again 46 seconds later, hitting running back Ricky Williams for a 14-yard gain and then wide receiver Eddie Kennison for a 51-yard touchdown.

Dallas regained the lead with a touchdown on its next possession, which began following a 50-yard kickoff return by Tucker, who also caught seven passes for 128 yards.

Delhomme responded again, though. He threw a 50-yard pass to Poole, then capped the drive by scoring on a quarterback draw on third and goal from the 4, tying the score at 24 with 11:16 left.

The Saints took the lead to stay four plays later. Aikman completed a pass over the middle to running back Emmitt Smith, who was blasted by defensive lineman Robert Newkirk, a former Dallas practice squad player. The ensuing fumble bounced perfectly for Weary, who raced to New Orleans's first defensive touchdown of the season.

Dallas had two more chances, its last ending with an Aikman-for-David LaFleur pass being deflected by linebacker Keith Mitchell and caught by linebacker Mark Fields.

"That's the way the season went," Aikman said. "We had a lot of chances by the nature of the way the NFC went this year. We had a great opportunity."

Box score on Page D10

CAPTION: Saints' defenders Willie Whitehead, left, and Wayne Martin put the squeeze on Troy Aikman and the Cowboys' playoff chances.

CAPTION: Louisiana native Jake Delhomme basks in aftermath of his first NFL appearance, a 278-yard, two-touchdown passing effort. He also scored.