In St Louis, Jeff Wilkins kicked a 31-yard field goal with 3:02 left in overtime to lift the Rams to a 32-29 victory over the Jets, for whom Doug Brien had missed an earlier 53-yard attempt.
Despite the defeat, the Jets clinched an AFC wild card spot thanks to Buffalo’s 29-24 loss to Pittsburgh, whose 14th straight win gave them a 15-1 record for the season - the best in the NFL since 1998.
The Rams needed not only the win but also a loss by Minnesota, who obliged with a 21-18 defeat at Washington.
“We knew Washington had won during the fourth quarter, so we knew if we won we would get in,” said quarterback Marc Bulger, who finished three yards shy of matching a career-high for passing.
“This is the team I always felt we could be,” Rams’ coach Mike Martz said.
“We’ve overcome a great deal of adversity. It’s good to be in the play-offs.”
The Vikings finished the season 8-8 after their 5-1 start to the season, but secured a wildcard when the Carolina Panthers fell 21-18 to New Orleans.
The Panthers, who were trying to become the first team in NFL history to make the play-offs after a 1-7 start, instead became the fourth straight defending NFC champions to miss the play-offs the season after going to the Super Bowl. Their disappointment provided a reprieve for the Vikings, as coach Mike Tice admitted.
“Our early start to the season enabled to get us in at 8-8,” he conceded. “Then we backed in. We didn’t march into the play-offs face first.”
In the first round of the play-offs next weekend, Minnesota will visit NFC North champions Green Bay.
The Packers tuned up for the play-offs with a 31-14 victory at Chicago. Quarterback Brett Favre played just over a quarter, but threw for two touchdowns to set a record with his eighth 30-touchdown season.
In Seattle, Shaun Alexander fell just short in his bid to win the rushing title, but the Seahawks claimed the NFC West crown ahead of St Louis with a 28-26 victory over NFC South champs Atlanta.
The Seahawks stopped Atlanta’s Warrick Dunn just shy of the goal line on a two-point conversion run on the game’s final play after Falcons’ rookie Matt Schaub threw a three-yard touchdown pass to Brian Finneran.
Seattle, who haven’t won a play-off game since 1984, will host the Rams in the first round.
Philadelphia, already assured of a first-round bye, rested quarterback Donovan McNabb and closed the regular season with a 38-10 loss to Cincinnati.
“You want to win every game you possibly can,” said Eagles coach Andy Reid, who lost star receiver Terrell Owens to injury two weeks earlier.
“But be smart with it at the same time.”
Indianapolis also played it safe, so the Denver Broncos didn’t have to beat superstar quarterback Peyton Manning to make the play-offs.
With the Colts sure of the AFC’s number three seed, coach Tony Dungy played Manning and leading rusher Edgerrin James for just one series.
That smoothed the way for Denver’s 33-14 victory - enough to book the Broncos’ wild card berth. But they can expect a tougher time next weekend when they visit Indianapolis in the first round.
Denver’s triumph put paid to the slim hopes of Baltimore, who beat Miami 30-23, and Jacksonville, who defeated Oakland 13-6.
Reigning Super Bowl champs New England matched the best record in club history, as San Francisco concluded one of their worst.
Tom Brady completed 22-of-30 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns as the Patriots beat the 49ers 21-7 to complete their second consecutive 14-2 season.
San Francisco finished the season 2-14, their worst record since 1979, and will have the first overall selection in this year’s draft.
San Diego, already locked into the AFC’s fourth seed, rested Drew Brees, LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates for the first-round game against the Jets, but still emerged with a 24-17 victory over Kansas City.
In other games, Eli Manning, the top pick in the draft who was traded by San Diego to the New York Giants, claimed his first win in his seventh NFL start as the Giants recorded a 27-24 victory over Dallas.
Manning, younger brother of Colts star Peyton, engineered the game- winning drive and also had a five-yard completion to tight end Marcellus Rivers around three runs by Tiki Barber, who capped his night with a three-yard touchdown run with 11 seconds left.
Tennessee beat Detroit 24-19, Arizona downed Tampa Bay Buccaneers 12-7 and Cleveland defeated Houston 22-14 to break a nine-game losing streak and end the season on a positive note.