AMERICAN FOOTBALL: McNair magic stalls Jaguars

BEFORE THEIR trip to Nashville on Sunday, the Jacksonville Jaguars boasted the best record in the National Football League, with a record of 13 wins from 14 contests. However, most of their triumphs had come against the game's lesser lights, fuelling a belief that they might not fare so well when facing opponents of genuine quality.

So it proved when the Jaguars were tamed 41-14 by the Tennessee Titans, for whom the quarterback Steve McNair completed 23 of 33 passes and five touchdowns. Even worse for the humbled Jaguars, their quarterback, Mark Brunell, left the game with a knee sprain and may not play in next week's regular-season finale.

Both Jacksonville and the Titans, who have won all eight games in their debut season in Nashville, have qualified for the play-offs. But the manner of this defeat suggests that the Jaguars are clearly not the force many thought they were.

The post-season also beckons for the Washington Redskins, Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, all of whom posted important victories. The Redskins prevailed in overtime in San Francisco when the quarterback Brad Johnson threw a touchdown pass to Larry Centers for a 26-20 victory.

Johnson, who played for the London Monarchs in 1995, set a new Redskins record with 471 passing yards, and is the main reason why Washington have made the play-offs for the first time since 1992. "This team has grown a lot," their head coach, Norv Turner, said. "They have grown through adversity. Our guys have been through ups and downs the whole season, but have never backed off."

Minnesota's 34-17 win over the New York Giants was confirmed when Moe Williams raced for an 85-yard kick-off return early in the fourth quarter, while the Buccaneers proved too strong for the Green Bay Packers, winning 29-10, a result which leaves the Packers on the brink of elimination.

Despite losing 17-7 to the Denver Broncos on Christmas Day, the Detroit Lions also made the post-season because Green Bay, Arizona and Carolina all lost.

The Indianapolis Colts, winners of three games last year, completed the biggest single-season transformation in NFL history, but their 29-28 win over the Cleveland Browns was hardly cause for celebration. The Browns, with the worst record in the league, were only seconds away from the biggest upset of the season. However, Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt safely converted a 21-yard field goal with four seconds remaining to give his side their 13th victory of the season.

After losing four games in a row, the Seattle Seahawks knew that only a win against Kansas City would keep their play-off aspirations alive. They duly obliged, the quarterback Jon Kitna throwing touchdowns to Sean Dawkins and Derrick Mayes, while Seattle's defence intercepted the Kansas City quarterback Elvis Grbac three times. Seattle have not reached the play-offs since 1988, but can end that barren spell with a victory over the New York Jets next weekend.

Similarly, the Buffalo Bills stand poised on the post-season threshold, following their 13-10 triumph over the fading New England Patriots. Buffalo's kicker, Steve Christie, converted a 23-yard field goal with less than two minutes left in overtime to keep Buffalo hopes intact.

With one week remaining in the regular season, the play-off picture is at last taking shape. Three teams from Seattle, Kansas City, Buffalo and Miami will be added to Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Tennessee from the American Football Conference. In the National Football Conference, St Louis, Washington, Minnesota, Tampa and Detroit will be joined by one of either Dallas, Green Bay, Carolina and the New York Giants, all of whom lost this weekend.

Results and tables,

Digest, page 15

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