American Football: Cowboys make giant stride to Super Bowl: Smith inspires Dallas while Oilers coaches supply feud for thought. Matt Tench reports

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The Independent Online
A REGULAR season that has incurred more than its usual share of criticism ended in spectacular fashion on Sunday with a fistful of games that will be talked about long after the dust has settled on the 1993 campaign.

On a normal day the Dallas Cowboys' 16-13 overtime victory at the New York Giants would have dwarfed everything else, securing as it did the NFC East title and home field advantage all the way to the Super Bowl. This, though, was no normal day. Two more games with play-off implications were decided in overtime, Detroit won the NFC Central with a 14-point fourth-quarter comeback, while in Houston the most dramatic action consisted of the team's defensive co-ordinator swinging a punch at their offensive co-ordinator.

Nothing, however, can eclipse the Giants-Cowboys confrontation before a record crowd of 77,356 in New Jersey. A classic NFC match-up had just about everything, including, somewhat poignantly, commentary from CBS's Pat Summerall and John Madden (who will soon be making way for Fox television).

In a definitive game of two halves - or rather two halves, and a bit - the Cowboys dominated the first, and were 10-0 ahead before the Giants had registered a first down. Emmitt Smith caught a Troy Aikman pass for the opening touchdown and he dominated the early stages, rushing for 109 yards by the time the teams went off at half-time with Dallas 13-0 ahead.

However, Smith dislocated his shoulder late in the second quarter and, when the third got underway, his injury appeared to hand the momentum to the Giants. Built around the contribution of their own outstanding running back, Rodney Hampton, they clawed their way back with 10 third-quarter points and tied the game up at 13-13 with 10 seconds left.

Despite his injury, Smith continued to dominate the Cowboy offense. The Giants were forced to kick away the first possession of overtime allowing the Cowboys, and Smith in particular, another chance to win it. A 12-play, 52-yard drive involved him no fewer than nine times and culminated in Eddie Murray's game-winning 32-yard field goal.

Afterwards Jimmy Johnson, the Cowboys head coach, said: 'I talked to Emmitt and suggested we use Lincoln (Coleman, Smith's back- up), but he said: 'Let me play until I can't, I want to finish this.' '

Smith, whose 168 yards secured the NFL rushing title for the third successive year, said: 'I wanted to win this game very badly and have the week off. I never thought of sitting down. With the help of the Lord I hung in there and got the job done. We gutted it out.'

Another divisional title was on the line in Detroit, where the Lions scored 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to beat the Green Bay Packers 30-20. The Pack were again undone by Brett Favre's knack of throwing interceptions, four of them more than offsetting his one TD pass. There was some consolation for Sterling Sharpe, the Packers wide receiver, who caught six passes to take his season's tally to 112, surpassing his own record of 108 set a year ago.

The result means the two teams will meet again in the same place next weekend in the first round of the play-offs. So will the Los Angeles Raiders and Denver Broncos after the Raiders' 33-30 overtime win in the Coliseum. A remarkable match in which the scores after each quarter were 0-0, 13-13, 20-20, and 30-30 was finally won by Jeff Jaeger's 47-yard field goal with 7:50 of overtime remaining.

The third overtime game was at Foxboro where the Miami Dolphins, apparent play-off certainties a month ago, lost for the fifth consecutive time and thus miss out on post-season play. Drew Bledsoe's 36-yard touchdown pass to Michael Timpson won it for the born-again New England Patriots, who have now won four in a row.

Don Shula, the Dolphins head coach, summed up his team's frustration. 'After having the season we had going for us, to have this happen, and not be able to get it done when we needed to win each of the last two weeks, this is hard to take. It's really tough to handle,' he said.

The final AFC play-off place was claimed by the Pittsburgh Steelers, who came back from a 9-3 half-time deficit to beat the Cleveland Browns 16-9. That victory alone did not put the Steelers into the post- season, they also required their divisional rivals from Houston to beat the New York Jets.

This the Oilers did, 24-0, to clinch their 11th win in a row, but the result was overshadowed by a remarkable incident on the sidelines. The Oilers, 14-0 up with 24 seconds left to play in the first half, were in possession at their own 18. Instead of running out the clock they opted for a couple of pass plays. Neither was completed and on the second Cody Carlson, replacing the injured Warren Moon, fumbled.

Unable to contain his frustration Buddy Ryan, the Oilers cantankerous defensive co-ordinator, immediately swung at Kevin Gilbride, his offensive counterpart, taking a feud that has simmered all season long between the two to a new high, or low, depending which side of the ball you play on. In one sense, though, the story did have a happy ending: the Jets missed the ensuing field goal.

NFL: Buffalo 30 Indianapolis 10; Pittsburgh 16 Cleveland 9; Dallas 16 New York Giants 13 (ot); Detroit 30 Green Bay 20; New England 33 Miami 27 (ot); Phoenix 27 Atlanta 10; Kansas City 34 Seattle 24; Los Angeles Raiders 33 Denver 30 (ot); San Diego 32 Tampa Bay 17; Los Angeles Rams 20 Chicago 6; New Orleans 20 Cincinnati 13; Houston 24 New York Jets 0.

----------------------------------------------------------------- NFL STANDINGS ----------------------------------------------------------------- AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE ----------------------------------------------------------------- Eastern Division W L T PF PA * Buffalo 12 4 0 329 242 Miami 9 7 0 349 351 NY Jets 8 8 0 270 247 New England 5 11 0 238 286 Indianapolis 4 12 0 189 378 Central Division * Houston 12 4 0 368 238 Pittsburgh 9 7 0 308 281 Cleveland 7 9 0 304 307 Cincinnati 3 13 0 187 319 Western Division * Kansas City 11 5 0 328 291 LA Raiders 10 6 0 306 326 Denver 9 7 0 373 284 San Diego 8 8 0 322 290 Seattle 6 10 0 280 314 ----------------------------------------------------------------- NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE ----------------------------------------------------------------- Eastern Division W L T PF PA * Dallas 16 12 4 376 229 NY Giants 16 11 5 288 205 Philadelphia 15 7 8 256 281 Phoenix 16 7 9 326 269 Washington 16 4 12 230 345 Central Division * Detroit 10 6 0 298 292 Green Bay 9 7 0 340 282 Minnesota 9 7 0 277 290 Chicago 7 9 0 234 216 Tampa Bay 5 11 0 237 376 Western Division * San Francisco 10 5 0 439 258 New Orleans 8 8 0 317 343 Atlanta 6 10 0 316 385 LA Rams 5 11 0 221 367 ----------------------------------------------------------------- * clinched division title; clinched play-off berth. Not including last night's game between Philadelphia and San Francisco. -----------------------------------------------------------------

THIS WEEKEND'S PLAY-OFF GAMES

SATURDAY

Pittsburgh at Kansas City (AFC)

Green Bay at Detroit (NFC)

SUNDAY

Denver at Los Angeles Raiders (AFC)

Minnesota at New York Giants (NFC)

(Photograph omitted)

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