Curtain falling on mighty 49ers

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The Independent Online

The San Francisco 49ers have been the most dominant team in the National Football League over the last 20 years. In that time, they have won five Super Bowls, and have missed qualifying for the play-offs just once since 1982, a sequence of excellence without parallel.

The San Francisco 49ers have been the most dominant team in the National Football League over the last 20 years. In that time, they have won five Super Bowls, and have missed qualifying for the play-offs just once since 1982, a sequence of excellence without parallel.

That impressive run seems destined to come to an end in 1999. On Sunday night, the once-mighty Californians were humbled 24-6 by the feeble New Orleans Saints, who had won only one game all season and had failed to score more than 21 points. Such is extent of the 49ers' malaise that they never seemed in the hunt against one of the league's perennial punchbags.

"We're searching for answers, and I'm beating myself up trying to find a way to do that on both sides of the ball," said their coach, Steve Mariucci. Indeed, the team is riddled with problems. Without their inspirational quarterback Steve Young, who is sidelined with concussion problems, their offense seems flat and lacking in ideas.

Of equal concern is a defence which continues to leak points at an alarming rate. The Saints' quarterback, Billy Joe Tolliver, was the chief tormentor, throwing a touchdown to Andre Hastings, and running for two more scores himself. San Francisco have lost five games in a row, their worst sequence since 1980.

If there are any crumbs of consolation for the stricken 49ers, they are not alone among fallen giants. The Green Bay Packers' season continued its downward spiral following a 27-13 in Texas at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys. Green Bay's quarterback, Brett Favre, rallied his team from a 20-3 deficit to move within seven points. However, with the Packers driving, George Teague intercepted a pass and returned it 95-yards for a touchdown to ensure a Dallas victory. Favre must hate Texas Stadium: he has played there eight times, suffering defeat on every occasion.

The Denver Broncos' season is effectively over, the defending Super Bowl champions losing 20-17 when the Seattle quarterback Jon Kitna threw a 20-yard scoring pass to Sean Dawkins in the fourth quarter. The Broncos need a miracle if they are to qualify for post-season play.

The Detroit Lions suffered a surprise reverse in Arizona, despite a career-high 375 yards passing from their stand-in quarterback, Gus Frerotte. The Cardinals gave a first start to the running back Michael Pittman, and he responded with 123 yards, including a 53-yard touchdown run, and a 46-yard catch which helped set up another score.

Similarly the Miami Dolphins fell foul of a 23-3 humbling against the Buffalo Bills. Their coach, Jimmy Johnson, summed it up in a post-game press conference, which lasted 45 seconds before he stormed out.

"They beat the hell out of us," he said. "Obviously we weren't ready to play today." Johnson's temper will not have improved with the news that his running back, Cecil Collins, is lost for the season with a broken leg.

Plenty of points in Chicago, where the brave Bears were beaten 27-24 in overtime by the improving Minnesota Vikings. The Bears were reduced to their third-string quarterback, the much-travelled former NFL Europe veteran, Jim Miller, and he rose to the challenge, throwing for three touchdowns and 422 yards, the fourth-highest tally in team history.

Miller's efforts were in vain, however, because Minnesota's Jeff George threw three touchdowns to the receiver Cris Carter, while Gary Anderson finished the job in overtime with a 38-yard field goal. The result was particularly sickening for Chicago's kicker Chris Boniol: he missed a 41-yard kick in the extra session which would have given his team victory.

NFL: Buffalo 23 Miami 3; Minnesota 27 Chicago 24 (ot) ; Tennessee 24 Cincinnati 14; New Orleans 24 San Francisco 6; Indianapolis 27 New York Giants 19; Philadelphia 35 Washington 28; Cleveland 16 Pittsburgh 15; St Louis 35 Carolina 10; Tampa Bay 17 Kansas City 10; Jacksonville 6 Baltimore 3; Oakland 28 San Diego 9; Arizona 23 Detroit 19; Dallas 27 Green Bay 13; Seattle 20 Denver 17.

AMERICAN CONFERENCE

CENTRAL DIVISION W L T F A Indianapolis 7 2 0 250 181 Miami 7 2 0 192 166 Buffalo 7 3 0 204 149 New England 6 2 0 191 150 NY Jets 2 6 0 126 150

CENTRAL DIVISION Jacksonville 8 1 0 216 79 Tennessee 7 2 0 190 171 Pittsburgh 5 4 0 172 124 Baltimore 3 6 0 139 150 Cleveland 2 8 0 99 253 Cincinnati 1 9 0 130 302

WESTERN DIVISION Seattle 7 2 0 205 145 Kansas City 5 4 0 200 136 Oakland 5 4 0 185 162 San Diego 4 5 0 136 194 Denver 3 7 0 194 205

AMERICAN CONFERENCE

EASTERN DIVISION W L T F A Dallas 5 4 0 226 169 Washington 5 4 0 287 257 NY Giants 5 4 0 157 165 Arizona 3 6 0 115 187 Philadelphia 3 7 0 149 212

CENTRAL DIVISION Detroit 6 3 0 201 171 Minnesota 6 4 0 237 199 Tampa Bay 5 4 0 139 128 Green Bay 4 5 0 166 192 Chicago 4 6 0 167 201

WESTERN DIVISION St Louis 7 2 0 300 128 Carolina 3 6 0 196 204 San Francisco 3 6 0 156 258 Atlanta 2 7 0 117 216 New Orleans 2 7 0 147 185

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