N.F.L. ROUNDUP; Pushing Their Luck, Saints and Colts Stay Unbeaten

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.

Colts’ Manning Casts Long Shadow Over Jaguars and Texans

The Jaguars’ owner, Wayne Weaver, chose to retain Coach Jack Del Rio, although Del Rio will have to relinquish his defensive play-calling responsibilities. For the fourth time in five seasons, Del Rio failed to lead Jacksonville to a winning record.

The are also sticking with their coach, Gary Kubiak, even though Houston hasn’t had a winning record in four of the last five years.

Since the A.F.L- merger in 1970, only four coaches have a.) finished with a .500 or worse record in four out of five seasons with the same team, b.) finished with a .500 or worse record in the fifth season, and c.) been retained to coach for a sixth season: Marvin Lewis of the , of the Atlanta Falcons, Bart Starr of the and John McKay of the expansion .

John Fox just finished his fourth nonwinning season in five years in Carolina and was let go. But Kubiak and Del Rio will be back, despite not having the cachet of Starr, or the pedigrees of McKay and Reeves, and despite the fact that they didn’t inherit the hopeless situations that Lewis and McKay did. What they have, instead, may be the most hopeless situation of all: competing against Peyton Manning.

Manning and the Colts have won the A.F.C. South in seven of the last eight seasons. In Houston and Jacksonville, merely competing with Indianapolis is a sign of progress. The Texans were 1-15 against the Colts entering this season but split the 2010 series. Jacksonville entered the final week of the season with a chance to dethrone the Colts.

Kubiak and Del Rio seem to be uninspiring choices to lead teams in 2011. They will become only the fifth and sixth coaches in the last 40 years to be given such a long leash. But Kubiak and Del Rio have been building teams that are at least capable of challenging the Colts.

As long as Manning is an elite quarterback, however, it’s hard for fans to envision either team passing the Colts. It might be just as hard for the teams’ owners to envision such a future.

Regression Ahead

The , the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the made improvements of at least six wins from 2009 to 2010. The Bucs led the way with a seven-win improvement, while the Missouri teams improved by six wins each.

If history is an indicator, these teams may have more work to do. Between 2002 and 2009, 30 teams experienced increases of at least five wins from one season to the next. But 24 teams won fewer games in the season after their improvement — with 13 of them experiencing a drop-off of at least four victories.

Only two of those teams — the 2003 and the 2006 — managed to improve their win total in the year after the improvement (and reached the ). Four teams — the 2004 Bengals, the 2004 , the 2009 and the 2008 Buccaneers — were able to maintain their win total in the year following the improvement. LUIS DELOUREIRO

Will Let Young Go

Bud Adams, the Tennessee Titans’ owner, said that quarterback Vince Young would not be on the roster next season but that he was still evaluating the coaching staff of Jeff Fisher. The Titans were 6-10, and Young sustained a season-ending injury to his right thumb Nov. 21. General Manager Mike Reinfeldt told Young’s agent, Tom Condon, that Young was not in the team’s plans. League rules keep Young from being released until Feb. 7, and he cannot be traded until the first day of the league year, which has not been set. (AP)

Elway Takes Over

The summoned the Hall of Fame quarterback for one more comeback, as chief football executive. Elway, who led the Broncos to back-to-back championships before retiring in 1999, will begin by interviewing candidates for the vacant coaching job: Mike Mularkey, the Falcons’ offensive coordinator; Perry Fewell, the Giants’ defensive coordinator; and Eric Studesville, who was 1-3 as Denver’s interim coach to cap a 4-12 season, the worst in its 51-year history. (AP)

Around the League

Wade Phillips, who was fired in midseason as coach of the , was hired as Houston’s defensive coordinator, assigned to revamp a unit that dropped to the bottom of the league this season. … Todd Bowles, the ’ assistant head coach, interviewed for the Cowboys’ head coaching position. Jason Garrett, the Cowboys’ interim head coach, and receivers coach Ray Sherman are also candidates. … running back Pierre Thomas will miss the playoffs because of an injured left ankle. … defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh will have shoulder surgery and miss the Pro Bowl. (AP)