American Football: Inspired Falcons fly high on emotion to claim title

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WITH JUST one week remaining in the regular season, the play-off picture is finally starting to make sense. In the NFC, the Minnesota Vikings clinched home advantage throughout the play-offs with a remarkable 50- 10 humiliation of the Jacksonville Jaguars, while victories for the Dallas Cowboys and the Atlanta Falcons confirmed their continued participation into January. The Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco 49ers have earned wild card berths, while the final spot will go to either Arizona, Tampa Bay or the New York Giants.

In the AFC, Denver, Jacksonville and the New York Jets are divisional winners, while Buffalo and the New England Patriots have secured wild cards. Barring a late season collapse, the Miami Dolphins should see off the challenge of the Tennessee Oilers to claim the last place.

The most emotional game of the weekend came in Detroit, where the Atlanta Falcons secured only their second NFC West title with a 24-17 win over the Lions. The win was achieved without their head coach, Dan Reeves, who underwent quadruple heart bypass surgery last Monday, but there is little doubt that his absence acted as a source of inspiration for the team.

"This win today was special, just special," said the running back Jamal Anderson, whose one-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter secured victory. "It was a little scary, but I'm glad he got to watch us win. He's a good man."

Under Reeves' shrewd guidance, the Falcons have enjoyed the best season in their history, but Sunday's joy was tempered by the news that the coach has been readmitted to hospital in Atlanta, after watching his team triumph on television at home.

Elsewhere, the New England Patriots booked their place with a 24-21 triumph over the San Francisco 49ers. The kicker, Adam Vinatieri, converted a 35-yard field goal as time expired to win the game, but the real hero was the quarterback, Scott Zolak. Pressed into service because of Drew Bledsoe's broken finger, Zolak made only his second start in six years, but threw a pair of touchdown passes and providing the maturity and motivation needed in a tense situation.

There was also plenty of motivation for the Arizona Cardinals, who are now one win away from their first post-season appearance in 16 years following their narrow 19-17 triumph over the New Orleans Saints. Trailing by a point, the Cards prevailed as time expired when Chris Jacke nailed a 36- yard field goal. Arizona will qualify for the play-offs if they beat the San Diego Chargers next week.

However, the Minnesota Vikings will now be established as Super Bowl favourites following their demolition of Jacksonville. Admittedly, the Jaguars were forced to start their rookie quarterback, Jonathan Quinn, but he cannot take sole responsibility for another awesome Viking performance.

Minnesota's quarterback, Randall Cunningham broke his non-throwing hand in the game, but still completed three touchdown passes. Even the defense got into the act, Jimmy Hitchcock intercepting a Quinn pass and returning it 30 yards for a touchdown. The kicker, Gary Anderson, converted four more field goals to extend his NFL record streak: he has yet to miss this season.

The Vikings need 12 points from Saturday's game with the Tennessee Oilers to break the all-time NFL record of 541, set by the Washington Redskins in 1983. The Oilers need to win to keep their slender play-off hopes alive.