Drew Brees threw for 296 yards and 3 touchdowns, Jonathan Vilma came up with two big defensive plays, and the Saints stayed unbeaten by pulling out another tight win, 26-23 over the Falcons in Atlanta.
A week ago, New Orleans (13-0) appeared on the brink of its first loss until Washington missed a chip-shot field-goal attempt. The Saints rallied for a 33-30 overtime win.
This time, they struggled to hold off Atlanta (6-7), which was missing the injured stars Matt Ryan and Michael Turner. The result was in doubt until Vilma, who had stopped an earlier drive with an interception, made a crushing fourth-down hit on Jason Snelling, stopping him a yard short of a first down with a little more than a minute remaining.
The Saints’ last two games have been their closest in a season dominated by double-digit wins. A cause for concern?
”Why would we be concerned?” Vilma said. ”We’re 13-0.”
While lacking in style points, New Orleans set a franchise record for wins in a season, clinched a first-round bye in the postseason and moved a step closer to home-field advantage throughout the National Football Conference playoffs.
Peyton Manning threw three early touchdown passes, then three inexplicable interceptions, but led the Colts on a late drive to beat the visiting Broncos, 28-16. The Colts broke records for most consecutive regular-season wins (22) and most wins in a decade (114), and also wrapped up home-field advantage throughout the American Football Conference playoffs. Denver (8-5) also had a record day, as receiver Brandon Marshall broke the league’s single-game record with 21 receptions. But Manning answered a fourth-quarter score by Marshall by hooking up with Dallas Clark on a 1-yard scoring pass to cap his up-and-down day. Manning led Indianapolis to touchdowns on three of its first four drives, then lost his touch. After completing 10 of 16 throws in the first quarter, Manning connected on only 6 of his next 22, at one point missing 9 of 10 passes while throwing all three interceptions.
Chargers Win in Dallas
Philip Rivers bailed out San Diego with several third-down throws and hit Antonio Gates for a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, lifting the visiting Chargers to a 20-17 victory over the Cowboys. San Diego (10-3) won its eighth in a row and its 16th straight in December — the last 11 under Norv Turner, whom the Cowboys decided not to hire the last time their head coaching job was open. Dallas hired Wade Phillips, who dropped to 3-8 in December with this loss, the second straight for the Cowboys (8-5).
Ryan Grant scored on a 62-yard run on Green Bay’s first play and added the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter after Nick Collins intercepted Jay Cutler, giving the visiting Packers a 21-14 win over the Bears. The Packers (9-4) have won five straight. The Bears (5-8) were eliminated from playoff contention.
The Vikings (11-2) beat the Bengals, 30-10, to clinch a playoff spot and put themselves a win — or a Green Bay loss — from a second straight N.F.C. North title. Cincinnati (9-4) committed 11 penalties for 85 yards and failed to clinch the A.F.C. North when Baltimore won.
Patriots End Skid
Wes Welker caught five passes on the drive that led to New England’s tie-breaking touchdown, and the Patriots ended their worst slide in seven seasons with a 20-10 win over the Panthers. Welker finished with 10 catches for 105 yards, his fifth 100-yard game this year. He leads the league with 105 receptions and joined Marvin Harrison, Jerry Rice and Herman Moore as the only receivers with at least three consecutive 100-catch seasons. The Patriots (8-5) had lost three of four.
Chad Henne completed a team-record 17 consecutive passes, Ricky Williams ran for 108 yards and a score and the Dolphins beat the Jaguars, 14-10, by turning in one of their best defensive efforts of the season. Visiting Miami (7-6) moved above .500 for the first time and maintained its position in the middle of the crowded A.F.C. playoff race. The Dolphins stopped David Garrard on fourth-and-3 with 1 minutes 20 seconds left, then sacked Garrard on the final play.