Even the margin of victory reminded the playoff-bound Washington Redskins of Sean Taylor.
"I was on the sideline and guys were talking about the score, and then it hit me - we won by 21," veteran left tackle Chris Samuels said. "I came in the locker room and I yelled it out, and immediately I just kind of broke down in tears. Because I miss Sean, you know."
From disarray and heartache to confidence and dominance, the Redskins will enter the playoffs as the hottest team in the NFC after yesterday's 27-6 win over visiting Dallas.
And with the hottest quarterback. And maybe the hottest running back. And with a defense coming off a game in which it allowed exactly 1 yard rushing.
And, perhaps most importantly, on a mission for the teammate who wore No. 21. It's been 4 weeks since the Redskins attended the funeral of their best defensive player, and they haven't lost since.
"Win for Sean" was as strong yesterday as it was when the four-game winning streak began Dec. 6, reinforced by everything from the fiery speech given by kick returner Rock Cartwright on the field before the game to the white "21" on the front of the black baseball cap worn by coach Joe Gibbs at his postgame news conference.
"Play for the guy who's on your jersey - the guy who's not here, who should be here," Cartwright said he told his teammates. "We know how he played the game. That's why I think guys came out and played so hard."
The Redskins (9-7) will travel to Seattle on Saturday for a 4:30 p.m. game. Washington will be riding the longest current winning streak in the NFC, including three straight victories by double digits. It's a remarkable renaissance for a team that stayed afloat with close, ugly games before losing four straight, the last defeat coming the day before Taylor's funeral.
"To think 4 weeks ago, where we were, and where we are tonight, it was a great experience and a great ride," said Gibbs, who has quieted doubters with perhaps the best performance of his Hall of Fame career. "To get in the playoffs was a dream of ours, and 4 weeks ago, obviously everybody would have said, 'You know, it looks next to impossible.' "
The Cowboys (13-3), who will have a bye next week, tried to muster any motivation they could find, but almost none of their goals were realized. They had hoped to win a 14th regular-season game for the first time in franchise history. Jason Witten caught only two passes, falling four short of becoming the second tight end to get 100 in a season. Receiver Terry Glenn, active for the first time all season, failed to catch a pass.
Quarterback Tony Romo (7-for-16 86 yards) was pulled in the third quarter but set the single-season franchise record for completions (335). And four injured starters - including Terrell Owens - got extra time to heal, although Phillips said Owens (ankle sprain) would be "iffy" for the playoffs.
Bears 33, Saints 25
Devin Hester raced past the New Orleans Saints and ended their bid for a return to the playoffs.
Hester sprinted 64 yards for a touchdown on a punt return, his NFL-record sixth kick runback for a score this season to break his own mark set a year ago. He also caught a 55-yard touchdown pass from Kyle Orton (12-for-27, 190 yards) as host Chicago beat the Saints, 33-25.
New Orleans' slim chances hinged on beating the Bears and hoping for losses later in the day by the Redskins and Vikings. Chicago (7-9) was eliminated from the postseason picture 2 weeks ago. The Bears won their final two games, their only two-game winning streak all year.
Drew Brees (35-for-60, 320 yards) and Marques Colston hooked up for two first-half touchdown passes for the Saints (7-9). Brees set a single-season NFL record for completions, passing the previous mark of 418 set by Rich Gannon in 2002. He needed just 11 entering the game.
Broncos 22, Vikings 19
Jason Elam kicked a 30-yard field goal less than a minute into overtime to give host Denver a 22-19 win over Minnesota. The Vikings (8-8) needed a win and a Washington loss to top-seeded Dallas to sneak into the playoffs, but neither the Redskins nor the Broncos (7-9) obliged.
Minnesota, which scored 16 points in the final 5:18 to erase a 19-3 deficit, won the overtime coin flip, but on the Vikings' second snap, Tavaris Jackson was sacked and fumbled. Elvis Dumervil recovered at the Minnesota 12, and the Broncos' field goal unit rushed onto the field for their fourth game-winner of the season.
With the playoffs out of his reach, Vikings rookie running back Adrian Peterson settled for the NFC rushing title. He gained 36 yards on 11 carries with his fourth straight subpar performance, his 1,341 yards edging the Eagles' Brian Westbrook by 8 yards. *