It looked as if the Rams were going to be helped by a controversial call on a pass reception for the second straight post-season.
With the Saints facing third and 14 from the Rams 41 and trying to run out the final two minutes, quarterback Aaron Brooks hit receiver Robert Wilson over the middle for what would have been a first down that likely would have secured the victory for New Orleans, which led 31-28.
Wilson caught the ball and fell on his back. After he hit the turf, a defender knocked the ball free and the pass was ruled incomplete, although it appeared to be a legal catch on replays. The play was reviewed, but the call stood, forcing the Saints to punt.
The call proved insignificant when the Rams fumbled the punt, but it was reminiscent of last season's NFC Championship Game when Bert Emanuel's fourth-quarter catch was ruled incomplete, effectively ending Tampa Bay's chances against the Rams.
GONE IN A FLASH: Saints receiver Joe Horn was hit on an incomplete third-and-5 pass from the New Orleans 28 yard line, spraining his right ankle. X-rays taken during the game were negative, but Horn did not return. There was no word on his availability for the Saints' playoff game Saturday at Minnesota.
CLOSE CALL: The franchise's first playoff win almost was not televised in New Orleans because of the NFL's rule requiring a local blackout when a post-season game doesn't sell out at least 72 hours in advance.
The Saints, like the Dolphins and Eagles, needed an extension from the league to meet the sellout demand, distributing a reported 750 tickets by midday Friday.
BREAKING THE MARSHALL LAW: The Saints did a number on Rams running back Marshall Faulk, the league's MVP. After he ripped New Orleans for 220 rushing yards in the regular-season finale last weekend, he was held to 24 yards on 14 carries Saturday.
"(The Saints) played the running game on the edge much better than they did the first time," Rams coach Mike Martz said. "We just weren't able to get the ball outside as easily as we were before. Once we got away from that, we started throwing the ball."
ONCE A GATOR, ALWAYS A GATOR: It's been seven years since Saints receiver Willie Jackson played with the Florida Gators, but they are still a part of him.
After his dazzling three-touchdown day, Jackson made reference to the Gators in town preparing for the Sugar Bowl against Miami on Tuesday.
"I know they were watching me (Saturday)," Jackson said, "and I want to wish them luck on Tuesday."
OH, NO, NOT AGAIN: With the Saints' history of ineptitude, it was natural some fans feared they were going to squander a 31-7 lead. The Rams scored 21 unanswered points in the final 11:57.
"I know a lot of people out there were saying, "The same old Saints,' but we did it," said owner Tom Benson, who paraded around the field after the game carrying a party umbrella.
_ DARRELL FRY