The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could have confirmed their place had they won in Oakland. Instead, they were handed the worst defeat in the franchise's 24-year history, the Raiders proving utterly dominant in a 45-0 whitewash that made a mockery of Tampa Bay's Super Bowl aspirations.
Likewise the Detroit Lions had a chance for qualification, only to suffer a 28-10 humbling in Chicago. Marcus Robinson was the chief Lion tamer - the former NFL Europe wide receiver caught a career-high 11 passes for 170 yards and three touchdowns as the Bears romped home.
The Seattle Seahawks seem bent on self-destruction. Their 36-30 loss in Denver was their fourth in a row, made all the more frustrating by the fact that they scored 10 points in the final two minutes to send the game to overtime.
Their quarterback Jon Kitna then fumbled the ball, which was returned 37 yards for the winning touchdown by Denver's Glenn Cadrez.
The Dallas Cowboys lost their unbeaten home record when they were undone 22-21 in front of their fans by the lowly New York Jets, for whom John Hall converted a game-winning 37-yard field goal with less than two minutes left.
The Washington Redskins were also losers, but their 24-21 reverse in Indianapolis hardly counted as a shock. The Colts claimed their first divisional title since 1987 with the victory, and remain strong Super Bowl contenders, having won 10 games in a row. The running back Edgerrin James scored a pair of touchdowns, taking his tally for the season to 14, a record for a rookie.
Miami and Buffalo both spluttered their way to important verdicts. The Bills held off a late Arizona rally to win 31-21 in Phoenix, while the slumping Dolphins were indebted to their kicker Olindo Mare, who scored all their points in a dour 12-9 effort over lacklustre San Diego. Mare has converted 37 field goals this season, equalling the all-time league record.
Celebrations in Tennessee, where the Titans clinched their play-off spot with a 30-17 triumph over Atlanta Falcons, a result made safe when the quarterback Steve McNair scored on a three-yard run in the fourth quarter. In their first year in Nashville the franchise formerly known as the Houston Oilers are enjoying their best season since 1993.
The St Louis Rams continue to impress, barely breaking sweat in the 31- 10 disposal of the New York Giants. The win ensured that the Rams will enjoy home advantage throughout the play-offs, further strengthening the belief that they are bound for the Super Bowl. St Louis are unbeaten at home in their last eight games, having won by an average score of 35-10. "This team [the Giants] was playing well and we beat them soundly," said the Rams quarterback, Kurt Warner. "The critics can doubt us all the way to the Super Bowl if they want."
Jacksonville Jaguars, the team with the best record in the league, duly disposed of the Cleveland Browns, the worst, but the biggest drama of a routine 24-14 win saw the Cleveland offensive tackle Orlando Brown do a Paolo Di Canio by sending the referee Jeff Triplette flying with a two-handed shove.
The formidable and feisty Brown, who once turned down a contract to join the World Wrestling Federation, took exception when a penalty flag thrown by Triplette inadvertently struck him in the eye. The player was eventually escorted from the field by stadium security and now faces a bodyslam in the form of a hefty league suspension and fine.
Results and standings, Digest, page 23