American Football: Depleted Vikings too strong for Bears

AMERICAN FOOTBALL
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The Independent Online
By Nick Halling

THE MINNESOTA Vikings remain on course for an appearance in next month's Super Bowl following their emphatic 48-22 demolition of the Chicago Bears. Nothing remarkable about beating the toothless Bears, but the points total, Minnesota's greatest in 10 years, was achieved without their first-choice quarterback, running back, and both starting wide receivers.

Already deprived of former London Monarch passer Brad Johnson, running back Robert Smith, and Jake Reed, the Vikings lost the veteran receiver Cris Carter in pre-game warm-ups, when he strained his right calf muscle.

The Vikings simply did not miss any of them. Led by the quarterback Randall Cunningham, an outstanding deputy for the often-injured Johnson, the Vikings owed their success to three more touchdowns from the rookie receiver Randy Moss, and a pair of scores from Smith's replacement, Leroy Hoard.

The Vikings have now scored a league-high 442 points this season, coincidentally smashing the existing franchise record with three games left to play. Other personal highs have followed: Moss has 14 touchdowns, a league record, while Cunningham has thrown four touchdowns in a game on four separate occasions, a team record, and has 27 for the season.

Even the kicker, Gary Anderson, is in on the act. Having successfully converted 28 of his field goal attempts in succession, the veteran South African is just three more kicks away from establishing a new NFL record. With 12 wins from their 13 appearances to date, the Vikings have clinched the NFC Central division, and are looking unstoppable.

"If you had told us before the season that at some point we'd lose our starting quarterback, running back and both starting receivers, and we'd be 12-1, I would never have believed it possible," said Cunningham.

With each victory, the Vikings enhance their claims for Super Bowl legitimacy. The same can be said for the defending champions, the Denver Broncos, who remain unbeaten following a 35-31 triumph over the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Broncos were given a scare by the Chiefs, who had the temerity to take a 21-7 lead, only to be confounded by John Elway's game-winning touchdown pass to Shannon Sharpe in the fourth quarter. Denver remain on course to achieve perfection. "You could feel the intensity on the sideline," said the linebacker Bill Romanowski. "We knew that somehow, some way, we were going to find a way to win."

The New York Jets found a way to win with the considerable assistance of the referees. Facing a fourth down with less than 30 seconds remaining, the Jets needed a touchdown to edge past the Seattle Seahawks. Their quarterback, Vinny Testaverde, made a desperate dash for the end zone, before being buried under a pile of despairing Seahawks close to the goal line.

After a long delay, the officials signalled touchdown, although television replays showed that Testaverde had been halted almost a yard short. The 32-31 result effectively ends Seattle's season, and probably the tenure of their head coach, Dennis Erickson, who has failed to take his team to the play-offs in five years.

The post-season aspirations of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Oakland Raiders and Arizona Cardinals now hang by the slenderest of threads following losses to the New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins and New York Giants respectively.

The San Francisco 49ers booked their place, but the 31-28 win over the Carolina Panthers was far from convincing, the 49ers ultimately prevailing on Wade Ritchey's overtime field goal.

The Jacksonville Jaguars look certain to join the post-season party following their humbling of the Detroit Lions. Celebrations in North Florida were short-lived, however. The Jags quarterback, Mark Brunell, suffered an ankle sprain on the game's second play, and his status for the remainder of the season is uncertain.

Standings and results, Digest, page 27

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