American Football: Falcons' message is `we are for real'

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IN THE 33-year history of the Atlanta Falcons, there has been little cause for celebration. They have won just one divisional title, back in 1980, and have never been a serious Super Bowl contender. On Sunday, however, the Falcons served notice that their time as one of the league's perennial losers could be over following their convincing 31-19 triumph over the San Francisco 49ers.

The win, their eighth of the year, gives the Falcons leadership of the NFC Western division, but perhaps more importantly confirms that the team's recent good run is no accident. The 49ers had won 11 of the last 13 meetings between the two sides, but they never held a lead in the game and, apart from a brief late scare, the Falcons were always in control.

"We not only wanted to win this game, we wanted to send a statement to the rest of the league, let everyone know we are for real," said the Falcons linebacker Jessie Tuggle. With a relatively easy schedule to come, the Falcons are not only for real, they have become realistic Super Bowl contenders.

Chris Chandler, the Falcons' quarterback, enjoyed an efficient outing, supported by 100 rushing yards and two touchdowns from running back Jamal Anderson. The key to the victory, however, was Atlanta's opportunistic defence, which forced two crucial turnovers in the second half.

Ray Buchanan intercepted a pass from Steve Young, the 49ers' quarterback, returning it to the one-yard line and setting up Anderson's second scoring run. Then, on San Francisco's next possession, Young fumbled, with the ball eventually being recovered in the end zone by Tuggle for another touchdown.

There were some anxious moments as Young fired long touchdown passes to Terrell Owens and Jerry Rice to reduce the deficit to five points, but Chandler's 78-yard strike to Terence Mathis calmed the nerves and confirmed Atlanta's 15th win in their last 18 games.

The Oakland Raiders also look set for the play-offs following their hard- earned 20-17 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. Greg Davis won the game on a 37-yard field goal with just 21 seconds remaining, but the most significant contribution came from Desmond Howard, who returned a punt for 63 yards for a touchdown late in the first half.

It was Howard's first touchdown since scoring for the Green Bay Packers against the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl two seasons ago, a performance which earned him Most Valuable Player honours. Following that game, he was awarded a four-year, $6m (pounds 3.6m) deal by the Raiders, but had done little to justify the investment in the interim. "It's probably been the most frustrating time of my life," he admitted. "But you realise this game is full of peaks and valleys. You have to keep plugging away and your just due will come."

No problems for the Packers, who disposed of New York Giants 37-3. The game will be remembered only by Brett Favre, the Packers quarterback, who threw his 200th touchdown, passing the 25,000 career passing mark along the way. Running back Darick Holmes became the first Packer this season to rush for more than 100 yards in a game.

Things are starting to look brighter for Peyton Manning, the Indianapolis Colts quarterback. Manning led his team to a 24-23 win over the New York Jets when he threw a 14- yard pass to Marcus Pollard with 24 seconds remaining.