American football: Officials cause play-off mayhem

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The Independent Online
IT IS not only managers and players from the Premiership who are unhappy about refereeing standards. Their counterparts across the Atlantic have been seething all year about a series of blown calls and debatable decisions, and the clamour for the return of the instant replay system will doubtless intensify after two of the weekend's four play-off games were effectively determined by officiating errors.

The San Francisco 49ers prevailed 30-27 over the Green Bay Packers in a game of genuine drama that was overshadowed by a bad call on the 49ers' final drive. Trailing by three points, the Packers took the lead when Brett Favre threw a 10-yard touchdown to Antonio Freeman with less than two minutes left.

Needing a touchdown to win, San Francisco's hopes looked to be dashed when the receiver, Jerry Rice, fumbled. The officials ruled that Rice was down before the ball came loose, although replays showed that he had lost the ball prior to contact with the ground.

It proved to be a game-changing decision, because with just three seconds remaining, Steve Young threw a 25-yard touchdown to the receiver Terrell Owens, and the 49ers were through to a meeting with the Atlanta Falcons in the most dramatic of circumstances.

There was nothing but bitterness in the visitors' locker-room afterwards. Players who criticise officials are fined, but Green Bay's general manager, Ron Wolf, allowed his frustration to boil over. "It's tough to lose no matter how you do it, but when you make a play, and it's not awarded to you, something's wrong with the whole system," he said. "It is something that has to be addressed."

Frustration, too, for the Buffalo Bills, who were penalised nine times for 93 yards in their 24-17 reverse at the Miami Dolphins. At least four of the penalties were highly questionable, but the worst came when the Bills, trailing by 10 points, had a touchdown called back, the officials ruling that the receiver Andre Reed had come up short of the end zone.

Again, replays suggested that Reed had scored, and the receiver reacted with such anger that he was ejected from the game. Instead, the Bills had to settle for a field goal, and found themselves with too much to do with time running out. The Dolphins now meet the Denver Broncos.

"I don't know if they have other jobs or what, but they need to devote full-time to what they do," Reed fumed. "They need to go back to school because some of the calls they made were the worst in the last 20 years."

The NFL abandoned the use of instant replay three years ago, but in a season marred by poor officiating, its return seems inevitable.

No such controversy in the weekend's other two play-off games. The long- suffering Arizona Cardinals won their first post-season contest since 1947 by upsetting the Dallas Cowboys 20-7. The underdogs from Arizona harried the Dallas quarterback, Troy Aikman, sacking him four times and forcing him to throw three interceptions. In contrast, the Cards' quarterback, Jake Plummer, threw scoring passes to Adrian Murrell and Larry Centers to cause the biggest upset of the season. Arizona will visit the Minnesota Vikings in the next round.

The injury-plagued New England Patriots were unable to overcome the absence of their quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, a brave but ultimately futile rearguard action resulting in a 25-10 reverse at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Jaguars had injury problems of their own. Their quarterback, Mark Brunell, returned after missing five weeks with an ankle sprain, but looked less than impressive in completing just 14 of his 34 passes. Fortunately for Jacksonville, the running back Fred Taylor was at his best, rushing for 162 yards and scoring the game's opening touchdown on a 13-yard run. Their reward is a daunting trip to the New York Jets next week.

NFL PLAY-OFFS: Miami 24 Buffalo 17; Arizona 20 Dallas 7; Jacksonville 25 New England 10; San Francisco 30 Green Bay 27.

DIVISIONAL GAMES SCHEDULE (Saturday): NFC: San Francisco at Atlanta; AFC: Miami at Denver. (Sunday): AFC: Jacksonville at NY Jets. NFC: Arizona at Minnesota.