Saints, Rams, Chiefs, Panthers seal playoff spots
Drew Brees reached a National Football League milestone and threw a touchdown after a rear-aided interception to power the New Orleans Saints into the playoffs on Sunday by beating Atlanta 23-13.
The Los Angeles Rams, Kansas City Chiefs and Carolina Panthers also won to clinch postseason berths on the penultimate weekend of the 2017 NFL campaign.
New England, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Minnesota and Jacksonville had already secured playoff berths, which leaves three wildcard spots up for grabs next Sunday before the playoffs begin in January.
Brees, who turns 39 next month, completed 21-of-28 passes for 239 yards to spark the Saints, becoming the fastest quarterback in NFL history to surpass 70,000 career passing yards in the process.
Brees joined retired stars Peyton Manning and Brett Favre in reaching the milestone with a 12-yard screen pass to Mark Ingram during the first quarter, reaching the mark in 248 games to 258 for Manning and 293 for Favre.
With 70,200 career passing yards, Brees could crack Manning's all-time passing yardage mark of 71,940 next season.
But the play of the game belonged to Saints rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who found a unique way to pickoff an interception while face down on the field, what was dubbed the "butt pick".
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan's throw popped into the air before falling onto the rear of prone Lattimore. After the ball landed on his backside, Lattimore reached back with his hands, brought his legs up to his rear to keep the ball from falling onto the field and rolled over to complete his fifth interception of the season, with some help from teammate Marcus Williams.
Brees threw a 54-yard TD pass to Ted Ginn Jr three plays later.
"That was a huge swing, for them to be in position to get points before the half, and then we got the big play," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "Our defense was magnificent. It was the difference in the game. We came up with some key stops."
The Saints (11-4) snapped a three-season playoff drought but remained deadlocked atop the NFC South division with Carolina after the Panthers edged Tampa Bay 22-19.
New Orleans can clinch the division crown next week by winning at Tampa Bay or having Carolina lose at Atlanta. The Saints swept two games with Carolina this season to earn a tie-breaker edge.
Atlanta (9-6) can clinch the last NFC playoff spot by beating Carolina but a loss would open the door for the Seattle Seahawks (9-6), who eliminated host Dallas 21-12 to stay in contention before facing Arizona next Sunday.
Dallas rusher Ezekiel Elliott, back from a six-game suspension over a domestic violence issue, was not given the ball late near the goal line and the Cowboys did not score, crushing their victory and playoff hopes.
The Seahawks were the first team since the 1966 Philadelphia Eagles to win a game with more penalty yards than total yardage.
Rams rusher Todd Gurley became the first player since Herschel Walker of Dallas in 1986 to run for more than 100 yards and have more than 150 receiving yards in a game, scoring two TDs as Los Angeles clinched the NFC West title by beating host Tennessee 27-23.
Gurley ran 21 times for 115 yards while catching 10 passes for 158 yards and TDs of 3 and 80 yards.
Rams quarterback Jared Goff completed 22 of 38 passes for 301 yards and four TDs, including the game-winning 14-yarder to Cooper Kupp with 11:51 to play.
The Rams (11-4) took their first division title since 2003 and first playoff berth since 2004, both when the team was based in St Louis. They last won a division title in Los Angeles in 1985.
Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith completed 25 of 39 passes for 304 yards and a TD to power host Kansas City over Miami 29-13 to secure the AFC West division crown.
Baltimore (9-6) can clinch an AFC wildcard berth by beating Cincinnati next Sunday while Tennessee (8-7) can qualify by downing Jacksonville. A loss by either gives a chance to Buffalo (8-7) and the Los Angeles Chargers (8-7), who stayed in contention by defeating the New York Jets 14-7.
New England (12-3) clinched an NFL-record eighth consecutive 12-win season by routing Buffalo 37-16. The Patriots would clinch the top seed in the American Football Conference playoffs by beating the Jets next Sunday.
Philadelphia (12-2) can secure a home-field edge throughout the National Football Conference playoffs by beating visiting Oakland on Monday.
Winless Cleveland fell 3-20 at Chicago to clinch the top pick in next year's NFL Draft and the Browns would join the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only 0-16 clubs in NFL history with a loss next week at Pittsburgh.