American Football: Atlanta and Denver reach Super Bowl

THIS YEAR'S Super Bowl will see the Denver Broncos defend their title against the surprise team of the season, the Atlanta Falcons. The Broncos rallied from a dreadful start to defeat the New York Jets 23-10 in Sunday's AFC Championship game, while the Falcons prevailed 30-27 in overtime against the seemingly invincible Minnesota Vikings. The Broncos are no strangers to the Super Bowl: this will be their sixth appearance in America's premier sporting contest.

It is new territory for the Falcons, although their head coach, Dan Reeves, guided Denver to three losing appearances in four years in the 1980s. Ironically, he was fired by the Broncos in 1992, and there is no love lost between him and his replacement, Mike Shanahan, nor Denver's veteran quarterback, John Elway.

Few neutrals expected Atlanta to prevail in Minnesota. The Vikings boasted the most prolific offense in the game's history, and when they built a 27-17 lead with less than 14 minutes remaining, the underdogs' brave challenge seemed in vain. With just over two minutes remaining, Minnesota's kicker, Gary Anderson, attempted a routine 38-yard field goal which would have effectively sent his team to Miami for Super Bowl XXXIII on 31 January. The South African-born veteran had successfully converted his previous 122 kicks, but, astonishingly, the most important one of his 17-year career was wide by a matter of inches.

The Falcons grabbed their lifeline, the quarterback Chris Chandler threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to Terence Mathis with 49 seconds remaining to send the game to overtime. With sickening irony Atlanta's kicker, Morten Andersen, then converted a 38-yard kick, the same distance Anderson had failed from, to send Atlanta to the Super Bowl.

"There are no words to describe how I feel," said Anderson. "Six inches one way or another makes such a difference. With such tremendous expectations, this makes it 10 times more disappointing."

"If I can handle this, with my heart, I can handle anything," said Reeves, who underwent quadruple heart bypass surgery last month. "I'm just so pleased I was able to watch this game."

In truth, the Falcons deserved the victory. The Vikings seemed to rest on their laurels at half-time. Certainly they lacked their usual potency in a second half in which they managed to score just seven points.

"It's about respect," said Atlanta's cornerback, Michael Booker. "When we got here, we found they were already booking tickets for the Super Bowl. Well, if they're coming to the Super Bowl now, they'll have to watch the Falcons."

Or, perhaps, the Broncos, who after an uncertain first half overcame the Jets. Trailing by 10 points, Denver were again indebted to their running back, Terrell Davis, who gained 167 yards, and who has now equalled an NFL record with six consecutive 100-yard play-off games.

The match was billed as John Elway's farewell to the city of Denver. After a glittering 16-year career, he is expected to announce his retirement after the Super Bowl. He was far from his best, completing just five of his first 19 passes, before finally finding his form with an 11-yard touchdown to Howard Griffith in the third quarter.

Davis duly did the rest, closing the scoring with a 31-yard touchdown run, although the Jets campaign was fatally flawed by four fumbles and two interceptions. "We helped them along quite a bit," said their head coach, Bill Parcells, who was trying to become the first coach to take three different teams to the Super Bowl. "You cannot make those mistakes and expect to win a championship game. Mistakes were the difference."