The Atlanta Falcons might have beaten the New Orleans Saints if not for a failed fourth-and-1 in their own territory in overtime when they met earlier this season.
Now the gap seems much wider.
Drew Brees set the NFL record for yards passing in a season, breaking a mark that Dan Marino had held for nearly three decades, and New Orleans clinched the NFC South title with a 45-16 victory over the Falcons on Monday night.
Brees threw for 307 yards and four touchdowns, the last a 9-yard strike to Darren Sproles that set the record with 2:51 to go.
Falcons coach Mike Smith was quick to congratulate Brees and also to criticize his own squad, which came in hoping to remain in the hunt to repeat as division champions.
"We didn't really play well enough in any phase of the game to give ourselves a chance to win," Smith said. "There were some opportunities early on, and then it kind of got out of hand there at the end. ... It's not the type of effort that you want to have with so much on the line with what the outcome could have meant to our team."
Matt Ryan had 373 yards passing and one TD, including a 21-yard scoring strike to Julio Jones that gave the Falcons (9-6) a 10-7 lead late in the first quarter. But that turned out to be Atlanta's only touchdown and the Saints (12-3) took the lead for good on their next drive when Brees hit Marques Colston for an 8-yard score.
"We have to get a lot better in the red zone," Ryan said. "We needed a lot more touchdowns than the field goals we got out there."
Atlanta finished with 469 total yards, six more yards than New Orleans, only to lose by more than four touchdowns. However, a lot of the Falcons' yards came through the air after they were behind and had to abandon the running game, which accounted for only 35 yards.
Jones had eight catches for 128 yards and Roddy White had 11 catches for 127 yards.
Brees broke Marino's record on his final throw of the game and it gave him 5,087 yards passing — with one game still to play. Marino finished with 5,084 yards for the Miami Dolphins in 1984.
Minutes after Brees broke the record, Marino offered congratulations on his Twitter account.
"Great job by such a special player," Marino wrote.
As Sproles spiked the ball, Brees thrust his fist triumphantly in the air and started walking toward midfield while the Superdome crowd went wild and his teammates chased him down. Offensive guard Carl Nicks was the first one to get there and tried to lift Brees onto his shoulder, but couldn't do it as teammates swarmed around.
"If I could have put him on my shoulders and paraded him around the whole stadium I would have done that. He deserves it," Nicks said. "It's like a movie, man. Just a movie ending. It's beautiful. ... You could tell by everyone's reaction after he did it how much people care about that guy. We all love him."
Brees' four touchdown passes gave him 276 for his career, moving him ahead of Joe Montana (273) and Vinny Testaverde (275) for ninth all-time. He is the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for more than 5,000 yards twice — he had 5,069 in 2008.
"Honestly, I was really trying not to think about the record or anything," Brees said. "I knew we were close. A couple guys mentioned stuff to me on the sideline. I didn't want to hear it. It's like a pitcher with a no-hitter, I guess."
Brees' second scoring pass went for 9 yards to Jimmy Graham. In the third quarter, Brees hit Robert Meachem for a score from 24 yards out, which made it 28-10.
Brees might have broken Marino's record in the third quarter if not for Sproles' 92-yard kickoff return, which set up John Kasay's 29-yard field goal. Brees also was intercepted twice, once in the Falcons end zone, but New Orleans was still dominant enough to take a big lead.
The game became a romp when Jones was stripped by Scott Shanle and Malcolm Jenkins returned it 30 yards for a score to make it 38-16 in the fourth quarter. The Superdome crowd was in full celebration by then, but the play also meant fans would have to wait until later in the fourth quarter before Brees finally got his chance to break the passing record.
Atlanta is headed to the playoffs as a wild card and could potentially be back in New Orleans again in two weeks.
"We don't care which team we have to play. We are in the playoffs," running back Michael Turner said.
Both teams scored on all their possessions in the opening quarter, with the Saints briefly pulling in front 7-3 on Pierre Thomas' 4-yard touchdown run, after which he pulled a bow from his uniform pants, put it on the football and offered it as a gift to a woman with a parasol in the front row behind the end zone.
The referees weren't cutting Thomas any slack on his Christmas-themed celebration, flagging him for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Notes: Atlanta's defense allowed the Saints to convert 10 of 13 third downs. ... Brees has passed for 300 yards or more an NFL-record 12 times this season. ... New England quarterback Tom Brady could also pass Marino next week — and maybe Brees, too. Brady has thrown for 4,897 yards this season. ... The Falcons were 0 for 3 on fourth-down attempts.