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Panthers give Saints the boot

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NEW ORLEANS — John Kasay came through in his last, best chance to guarantee the Carolina Panthers would have a playoff game on their home field, where they are unbeaten.

DeAngelo Williams rushed for 178 yards, Steve Smith had 134 yards receiving, and Kasay's 42-yard field goal with a second left lifted Carolina to a 33-31 victory over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, locking up the NFC South title and the second seed in the conference.

"By God's grace, this one went in," Kasay said of the winning kick, which came a week after his 50-yard miss near the end of regulation cost Carolina the NFC's top seed in an overtime loss to the New York Giants.

Carolina (12-4), the only team to go 8-0 at home this season, still gets a first-round playoff bye and then a chance to extend its perfect record in Charlotte in the divisional round.

The Panthers' defense intercepted Drew Brees once and sacked him twice, performing just well enough to prevent the quarterback from breaking Dan Marino's 1984 single-season NFL record of 5,084 yards passing. Brees needed 402 yards to set the mark. He finished with 386, which made him only the second player to pass for more than 5,000 yards.

"When I sit back and look at it, that record's stood for a long time. One of greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game owns it," Brees said, adding he wasn't sure setting a new mark while his team fell to 8-8 was "necessarily the way that record deserves to be broken. That's why I'm able to accept the fact it didn't happen."

VIKINGS 20, GIANTS 19: At Minneapolis, Ryan Longwell's 50-yard field goal as the game ended lifted the Vikings to the NFC North title for their first postseason appearance in four years. They face Philadelphia next weekend.

David Carr took over at quarterback for Eli Manning after halftime and threw a touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon midway through the third quarter for a 16-10 lead. But New York (12-4), the NFC East winner with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, was on cruise control from there with a bunch of backups on the field.

The Vikings (10-6), who pulled within two points on a 54-yard touchdown pass by Tarvaris Jackson to a wide-open Bernard Berrian after third-string cornerback Terrell Thomas fell down, weren't complaining.

FALCONS 31, RAMS 27: At Atlanta, after a wild ending to their improbable regular season, the Falcons are headed to a wild-card playoff game.

Jerious Norwood ran for two touchdowns, including the go-ahead 45-yard run with 3:41 left, and the Falcons held off the Rams (2-14) to clinch the No. 5 seed in the NFC. The Falcons improved to 11-5, completing their improbable run to the playoffs after a 4-12 finish in 2007. They will travel to NFC West champion Arizona for a wild-card game next weekend.

Atlanta overcame three turnovers, including two in the fourth quarter, to give the Rams their 10th straight loss under Jim Haslett, who replaced Scott Linehan an 0-4 start.

RAVENS 27, JAGUARS 7: At Baltimore, Le'Ron McClain ran for two touchdowns in the pivotal first half as and the Ravens routed the Jaguars.

It was 24-7 at halftime, and Baltimore (11-5) never let up against the stumbling Jaguars (5-11), who committed four turnovers and were held scoreless over the final 45 minutes. The seven points were a season low for Jacksonville.

A year ago, Baltimore went 5-11 and finished last in the AFC North. This season, with a first-year coach and a rookie quarterback, the Ravens reversed their record and finished the regular season with nine wins in their last 11 games.

TEXANS 31, BEARS 24: At Houston, the Bears' playoff chances ended against a team long eliminated from postseason contention. Andre Johnson had two touchdowns for the Texans, who finished 8-8 for the second straight year.

The Bears (9-7) needed a win to keep any postseason hopes alive. The Vikings beat the Giants to take the NFC North title, but Chicago could have gotten in with a wild-card spot by winning and getting help. They blew a 10-0 lead.

RAIDERS 31, BUCCANEERS 24: At Tampa, Fla., Oakland third-stringer Michael Bush rushed for a career-high 177 yards and scored on a 67-yard fourth-quarter jaunt that helped the Raiders rally to end the Buccaneers' season.

Even with a win, the Bucs (9-7) would have needed help to make the playoffs and avoid one of the biggest collapses in franchise history. They were 9-3 and tied for first heading into December but finished with four consecutive losses, two at home after going 6-0 at Raymond James Stadium.

PATRIOTS 13, BILLS 0: At Orchard Park, N.Y., a nasty wind strong enough to tilt the goal posts was no match for Matt Cassel and the Patriots.

LaMont Jordan scored on a 2-yard run set up by Cassel's 12-yard completion into the wind on fourth down, and Stephen Gostkowski hit a pair of field goals.

Then came the hard part for the Patriots (11-5), who had to wait to find out they didn't make the playoffs when Miami and Baltimore both won.

The Bills managed 276 yards offense but squandered several scoring chances, and wrapped up a season at 7-9 for the third straight year under Dick Jauron. His status as coach won't be determined until end-of-season meetings with team owner Ralph Wilson.

STEELERS 31, BROWNS 0: At Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger gave the playoff-bound Steelers a major scare by sustaining a concussion during an essentially meaningless victory over the embarrassed Browns that likely was Romeo Crennel's last as Cleveland's coach.

Roethlisberger, expected to play a half to stay sharp before a two-week break, lay on the turf for nearly 15 minutes after being leveled by Willie McGinest and D'Qwell Jackson while delivering a pass late in the second quarter.

Despite the long delay, Roethlisberger's teammates did not react as if he had been seriously hurt and the quarterback flashed a thumbs-up while being driven off the field. Unless follow-up tests unexpectedly reveal additional problems, the injury probably won't sideline Roethlisberger for the No. 2-seeded Steelers' AFC playoff game Jan. 10 or 11.

49ERS 27, REDSKINS 24: At San Francisco, the San Francisco 49ers followed Joe Nedney's game-ending field goal with an even bigger bang, swiftly confirming that coach Mike Singletary will be back next year.

Nedney kicked a 39-yard field goal as time expired, and the 49ers dramatically finished their late-season surge under their no-longer-interim coach with a 27-24 victory over the Washington Redskins on Sunday.

A few minutes after Nedney's kick sneaked inside the upright to cap a cool 60-second drive led by Shaun Hill, the 49ers officially announced Singletary will keep his job. San Francisco won five of its final seven games and went 5-4 overall under Singletary, the Hall of Fame linebacker who took over for Mike Nolan on Oct. 20.

CARDINALS 34, SEAHAWKS 21: At Glendale, Ariz., Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald sent the Cardinals into the playoffs as winners. Warner threw four touchdown passes, his most in seven years, then sat out the fourth quarter as the Cardinals spoiled the final game of Mike Holmgren's decade as Seahawks coach.

Two of Warner's TDs went to Fitzgerald, who caught five passes for 130 yards.

The Cardinals (9-7), blown out twice since clinching the NFC West title, finished the regular season with a winning record for the first time in a decade and only the second time since 1984. They will play a first-round playoff game at home against Atlanta next weekend.

BENGALS 16, CHIEFS 6: At Cincinnati, Cedric Benson ran for 111 yards and a touchdown, putting a little bite into the Bengals' depleted offense, and Cincinnati completed its late-season surge.

The Bengals (4-11-1) will most likely stay the course after their latest losing season. Coach Marvin Lewis has two years left on his contract, and there is no general manager to replace — owner Mike Brown makes the important decisions.