American Football: Jacke comes up trumps for the Cards

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THE ARIZONA Cardinals have not won a play-off game since 1947, have failed to win their division since 1975, and last qualified for post- season play 16 years ago. For much of their long but less than illustrious history they have come to embody futility and ineptitude. In this, their centenary year, things are finally changing because the Cardinals are through to the play-offs following an extraordinary 16-13 triumph over the San Diego Chargers.

The Cards were aware that destiny lay in their own hands - a win, and they were in. In typical Arizona fashion they made heavy work of it all, and the game appeared set for overtime when the San Diego quarterback, Craig Whelihan, threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Thelwell with just 16 seconds remaining.

Instead, Eric Metcalf, a former Charger, returned the ensuing kick-off into San Diego territory, and as time expired Chris Jacke converted a 51- yard field goal to send the long-suffering Cardinals' fans into delirium.

Ironically, Jacke had earlier missed two far simpler attempts, but he seems to thrive on pressure - this was the third week in a row that he had won a game with a kick in the dying seconds.

Arizona probably deserve their moment in the spotlight. Their promising young quarterback, Jake Plummer, showed glimpses of why the franchise has elected to pay him a staggering $29.7m (pounds 18.2m) over the next four years, while Kwamie Lassiter equalled an NFL record with four interceptions of the wretched Whelihan. On this evidence, Arizona's involvement in the post season will be terminated by the Dallas Cowboys, their opponents next week.

It was another weekend of record-setting achievements around the league. The Minnesota Vikings became only the third team to win 15 games in a season with their 26-16 success against the Tennessee Oilers. Their kicker, Gary Anderson, successfully converted three field goals and two extra- point attempts to become the first player in history not to miss a kick all season.

The Atlanta Falcons were too strong for the Miami Dolphins, prevailing 36-16. Running back Jamal Anderson gained 103 yards while establishing a new record for most rushing attempts in a season - the overworked Anderson finished with 410 carries, breaking a 16-year-old record.

Once again, the Falcons were inspired by their ailing coach, Dan Reeves, who underwent quadruple heart bypass surgery two weeks ago, yet left hospital to make a speech to his players before the game. "It was definitely a motivating factor for us," said the Atlanta quarterback, Chris Chandler.

The Denver Broncos returned to winning ways with a 28-21 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. Having won their first 13 matches, the current Super Bowl champions needed a win to settle their nerves after two successive losses. John Elway produced four touchdown passes, and running back Terrell Davis gained 178 yards, thereby becoming only the fourth player ever to rush for 2,000 yards in a season.

The Broncos remain favoured to retain their title, but stern opposition may come from the rejuvenated New York Jets. After losing their first two matches, the Jets have won 12 of their last 14, with the veteran quarterback, Vinny Testaverde, enjoying an unprecedented level of success.

Testaverde threw four more scoring passes in the Jets' 31-10 humbling of the New England Patriots to finish his campaign with 29 touchdowns.

The off-season purge of coaches began yesterday when Dom Capers of Carolina Panthers, Dave Wannstedt of Chicago Bears, Ted Marchibroda of Baltimore Ravens and Ray Rhodes of Philadelphia Eagles were all fired.