The Jacksonville Jaguars had every reason to believe their season would end Sunday.
They were written off at 4-7 after a 28-3 loss at Pittsburgh five weeks ago. And they couldn't help but hang their heads when Morten Andersen took the field for a 30-yard field goal that would have ended their season and their playoff hopes.
"I thought it was over," quarterback Mark Brunell said.
The victory was the fifth in a row for the Jaguars (9-7), capping an amazing turnaround that made them the second second-year expansion team in the playoffs. Carolina, which earlier clinched a playoff berth, won the NFC West by defeating Pittsburgh on Sunday.
"It almost renders me speechless," Coach Tom Coughlin said. "We're in the playoffs."
The season ended fittingly for Atlanta (3-13), which made the playoffs a year ago, but has endured a season marred because of sideline confrontations and questions about whether June Jones would return as coach.
"I'll go in tomorrow and find out," Jones said. "I don't have a crystal ball. I want to come back and I hope that I do. But it's out of my hands."
By turning their season around, the Jaguars had the playoffs firmly in their grasp. All they had to do was beat the Falcons, and that didn't look like it would be a problem when they led, 16-3, midway through the third quarter.
But they kept having to settle for field goals inside the 10-yard line, and it appeared the Falcons would make them pay when Craig Heyward scored on a two-yard run with 5:39 left, cutting the lead to 19-17.
The Jaguars ran three plays and punted, and the Falcons began making big plays. Jamal Anderson ran 14 yards on a draw on third and five from the 35, and a 23-yard screen to Tyrone Brown, a play that had hurt the Jaguars all day, gave Atlanta the ball at the 25.
Bobby Hebert took one last snap to put the ball in the center of the field, but Andersen appeared to slip as he kicked the ball. It was Andersen's first miss from 30 yards or closer since 1989, snapping a streak of 59 consecutive successful kicks from that range.
"I guess I'll have to look at the film and analyze it, but from 31 yards out . . . those are kicks I make in my sleep," Andersen said.
The Jaguars will play Saturday at Buffalo, which knocked Kansas City out of the playoffs with a 20-9 victory.
"Our best football is coming up," receiver Keenan McCardell said. "The playoffs are here, we're in and we're ready to play."
The Jaguars didn't get their best football when they needed it.
With the top passing attack in the league, the Jaguars instead turned to the power running of Natrone Means. He had 110 yards, only the second time the Jaguars have had a running back surpass 100 yards all season.
And Brunell had his fourth consecutive turnover-free game, passing for 222 yards and running for a touchdown.