AMERICAN FOOTBALL : Cowboys' spirit not enough to stop 49ers american football: San Francisco on course for Super Bowl record against the Ch argers. Matt Tench reports

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The Independent Online
Deion Sanders said it would be the Super Bowl, but the game itself made a mockery of that prediction. It was much, much better than that. This season's NFC Championship game produced a struggle of such titanic proportions that the Super Bowl on S unday week will surely not withstand the comparison.

By the end the sport's ruling dynasty, the Dallas Cowboys, had been overthrown, their crown almost certain to pass to the victorious San Francisco 49ers, who have already been installed as huge favourites to beat the San Diego Chargers and claim a recordfifth Super Bowl.

But in defeat, the Cowboys demonstrated the full range of the extraordinary fighting qualities that made them the NFL's champions for the past two years. Many times their hopes appeared on the point of extinction, many times they found the big play that breathed new life into their cause.

Big plays, indeed, provided the punctuation to a game which refused to settle into a pattern. The first three went to the 49ers, all turnovers, all converted into touchdowns. With less than eight minutes on the clock they were 21-0 ahead. At that point every other team in the NFL would certainly have accepted the day was not theirs, but not the Cowboys. By the end of the quarter they had set about reparing the mess.

Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin, responsible for one each of those early turnovers, defied the double coverage for a dazzling touchdown to cut the deficit to 21-7, and in the second quarter the impetus appeared to shift to the visitors. They had closed thegap to 24-14, when they punted away possession with a minute left in the half.

The next drive, according to Young, determined the game. He advanced his troops, and with 13 seconds remaining and no time-outs, it was time to go for the kill. Dropping back, Young propelled the perfect pass, deep into the left-hand corner of the end zone, where it was beautifully snared by the diving Jerry Rice.

The sense of comfort engendered by a 17-point half-time lead evaporated on the opening kick-off, as the Cowboys forced a fumble and soon pulled back to 31-21. Young then marched his men downfield again, and scored himself. When Sanders intercepted Aikmanlate in the third, and Emmitt Smith eventually pulled up early in the fourth, it appeared the Cowboys resistance was finally broken. But back they came thanks to another Irvin touchdown, and with nine minutes left and 10 points to make up, the reigning champions appeared the stronger.

However, a combination of fierce San Francisco defending, an accumulation of injured Cowboys and a number of unlucky refereeing calls (including one which brought a 15-yard penalty on their head coach Barry Switzer, when he he touched an official while contesting it), proved too much.

The 49ers had won a memorable match 38-28, one that produced contrasting outcomes for two defensive veterans. Charles Haley, once a 49er and now of the Cowboys, announced his retirement, though he may reconsider the decision when he reflects on the $1.8m(£1.2m) his contract is worth next year. For Rickey Jackson of the 49ers, the victory was worth $838,000. He signed for the league's minimum of $162,000 for the season, with that figure rising to $1m should the 49ers reach the Super Bowl.

There were many more paradoxes. That the 49ers outrushed the Cowboys; that the Cowboys outpassed the 49ers; that, despite a staggeringly lopsided opening, the contest never ceased to be compelling, and that, in spite of his three interceptions, Aikman o u tplayed Young, but lost his first championship game in three attempts.

Not that the latter will bother Young much. He knows plenty about playing brilliantly and having to swallow his disappointment. As he danced around Candlestick Park at the end, with the crowd chanting "Steve, Steve, Steve", you sensed that the shadow of Joe Montana was finally beginning to fade.

"With Deion we've learned to enjoy the path to victory. Even George [Seifert] is loose, and that is saying something," Young said.

Seifert, the 49ers head coach, also enjoyed a sense of redemption. However ludicrous, there have been rumours that he would lose his job if the 49ers missed the Super Bowl. With victory came the opportunity to demonstrate the new-found looseness.

"Think of the most emotional day in your life, and multiply it by 25," he said. "I wanted to win so bad for everyone who have worked their butts off. And the fans. The crowd was the best since I've been here. It was the best bunch of berserk jerks since the days of Haight-Ashbury."

Young gave every indication that he was about to join them. "Tonight," said a direct descendent of one of the pillars of the Mormon faith,"we are going to celebrate. We are going to take over some place, and run the joint till it dies."

NFL Championship games (home teams first). AFC: Pittsburgh 13 San Diego 17. NFC: San Francisco 38 Dallas 28.