American Football: Jaguars lose battle at Bills

NOBODY SERIOUSLY expects the Buffalo Bills to be among the candidates for end-of-season honours, but few of the contenders will fancy a visit to their Rich Stadium home in upstate New York, which is becoming a graveyard for those with Super Bowl aspirations.

Two weeks ago, the hotly fancied San Francisco 49ers lost their unbeaten record in this inhospitable northern outpost, and on Sunday it was the turn of the Jacksonville Jaguars, whose five-game winning streak came to an abrupt end as the Bills confounded the form book with a thrilling 17-16 victory.

The Jags were undone with 15 seconds remaining when Buffalo's quarterback, Doug Flutie, scored from a yard out. Ironically, Flutie was only playing because of injuries to the Bills' regular passer, Rob Johnson. The former New England Patriot, considered too small to play the position at just 5ft 9in, had not scored an NFL touchdown for a decade, and was making his first start since October 1989.

"He's a big-time player who makes big-time plays," said his colleague, the defensive end Bruce Smith. "His heart is a lot bigger than his size." The Denver Broncos and the Minnesota Vikings are now the league's only unbeaten teams.

Flutie is not alone in the unlikely hero stakes. The Atlanta Falcons owed their 31-23 triumph over the fading New Orleans Saints to a player who began his career while Jimmy Carter was still in the White House. Steve DeBerg may be 44 years old, but he answered the call when Atlanta's starter, Chris Chandler, was forced out of action late in the first half.

DeBerg has been coaching for the past four years, and had not thrown a touchdown pass since 1993. Many questioned the sanity of the Falcons' head coach, Dan Reeves, in coaxing him out of retirement, but the decision was vindicated as the veteran guided his charges to their fifth win of the season. He completed just seven of his 10 pass attempts for just 60 yards, but his eight-yard strike to Bob Christian came at a time when the Saints were rallying.

There was little jubilation afterwards - DeBerg has been around long enough to be realistic about his performance. "My responsibility was not to lose the football game," he said. "I really didn't feel I played as well as I'm capable."

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