American Football: Eagles fly in face of adversity

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The Independent Online
ON the day of the comeback, the Philadelphia Eagles were unable to match Buffalo's record-breaking exploits, but are still entitled to take immense pride in their own version of the game of two halves. Indeed, the Eagles will feel their 36-20 victory in New Orleans, after trailing 17-7 at half-time, was every bit the equal of Buffalo's astonishing defeat of Houston.

Buffalo rallied from a 35-3 deficit to set an NFL comeback record, but it was achieved at home against a Houston team that all season has appeared one helmet short of a huddle.

The Eagles, by contrast, were in the New Orleans Superdome, one of the least hospitable arenas in the sport, facing the league's most vindictive defense. Early in the third quarter the Saints extended their lead by another three but at that point the Eagles changed the momentum of the game with a series of big plays.

Interceptions from Eric Allen and Seth Joyner gained promising field positions for Randall Cunningham and his offense and they responded by putting points on the board. Cunningham threw two touchdown passes to wide receiver Fred Barnett and Heath Sherman ran for another. A safety from Reggie White, a field goal and a second interception from Eric Allen - which he returned for a touchdown - capped an explosion of Eagle scoring. In one eight-and- a-half minute period in the fourth quarter they notched 26 points against a team that had allowed opponents an average of only 13 throughout the regular season.

Sherman eclipsed his fellow running back, Hershel Walker, rushing for 105 yards including the touchdown that put his side into the lead. His recent form has been a large factor in Philadelphia's impressive late-season surge. 'We were able to get Herschel down but we weren't able to get Sherman down. Sherman is the better back,' Vince Buck, the Saints cornerback, said.

The game pitted two sides who, despite consistent success in the regular season in recent years, have continually stumbled in the play-offs. The Saints have never won a post-season game, while the Eagles' last victory was 1980. This was their first play-off victory away from Philadelphia since 1949.

Seth Joyner, the Eagles ebullient linebacker, told his team-mates in the huddle before his interception: 'This series, somebody's going to have to make the big play, and I'm tired of waiting for someone else to do it.' Afterwards Joyner, who has talked himself into trouble several times this season, was more selfless. 'I'm especially happy for Randall,' he said. 'I'm tired of hearing that he can't win the big game.'

The Eagles now travel to Dallas for an intriguing confrontation with their hated division rivals. The score stands at one rout apiece from the regular season, and though the Cowboys are the stronger all-round team, and have home advantage, the Eagles finally showed in New Orleans that their brand of unpredictable brilliance can work in the play-offs.

The Saints were left numbed by their defeat - 'it was like dying by inches,' said their defensive lineman Frank Warren - and might share a post post-season post-mortem with Houston. They, too, dragged defeat from the jaws of victory, allowing a Buffalo side sans Kelly, Thomas and Bennett to overwhelm them in the second half.

The game again illustrated the dangers of playing a 'soft defense' (when defenders are prepared to give up some yardage, but not the big play). Well though Buffalo and their back-up quarterback Frank Reich played, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it was a game spectacularly lost, not spectacularly won.

For Warren Moon there can be only sympathy. After a near faultless first half in which he threw four touchdowns it was his overtime interception that set up the winning field goal - leaving him nine months to reflect on the capriciousness of sport.

NFL first-round play-offs. AFC: Buffalo 41, Houston 38 (OT). NFC: Philadelphia 36, New Orleans 20.

Next weekend's play-off schedule. Saturday: Buffalo at Pittsburgh (AFC). Washington at San Francisco. (NFC). Sunday: Philadelphia at Dallas (NFC). San Diego at Miami (AFC).

----------------------------------------------------------------- LARGEST COMEBACKS IN NFL HISTORY ----------------------------------------------------------------- Pts Team Match Comeback 32 Buffalo v Houston (3 Jan, 1993) Trailed 35-3, won 41-38 (OT) 28 San Francisco v New Orleans (7 Dec, 1980) Trailed 35-7, won 38-35 (OT) 25 St Louis v Tampa Bay (8 Nov, 1987) Trailed 28-3, won 31-28 -----------------------------------------------------------------