American Football: Oilers rolling towards final fulfilment: Houston display touch of steel to clinch Central Division despite tragedy of lineman's suicide

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The Independent Online
FOR the Houston Oilers a year of extremes may be drawing to an upbeat close. They clinched the AFC Central on Sunday to qualify for the play-offs and, having won nine in a row, must be rated one of the favourites to make the Super Bowl. Then again, after the last 12 months they won't be banking on it.

It all began in Buffalo last January when the Oilers endured the limits of sporting highs and lows in one play-off match with the Bills. They led 35-3, only to allow the Bills to pull off the biggest comeback in NFL history.

The failure of a talent-laden team to make the big game yet again inevitably brought repercussions, notably the dismissal of the defensive coordinator Jim Eddy. He was replaced by the crustiest of the NFL's many crusty veterans, Buddy Ryan. Within weeks Ryan had upset just about everybody, including the Oilers' head coach, Jack Pardee, whose job he was rumoured to covet. Ryan did little to quell the speculation.

However, the Oilers remained brimming with good players, added another with the acquisition of the linebacker Wilber Marshall from the Washington Redskins, and began the season in their perennial position: highly fancied.

Four defeats in their first five games put the franchise back into disarray. By early October it was in crisis, with Pardee benching their brilliant quarterback Warren Moon while Ryan, displaying all the diplomacy of Julian Clary, seemed to insult someone new with every press conference.

Then suddenly in October the Oilers started winning. To begin with it was against weaker teams, but as the run gathered momentum they were beating everybody.

Last week brought a different kind of adversity. The Oilers were still celebrating win No 8 over Cleveland when Jeff Alm, a defensive lineman, committed suicide after being involved in a car crash which killed his best friend. The Oilers, who were preparing for Sunday's visit to Pittsburgh, went into shock. 'Sport does not happen in a vacuum,' Spencer Tillman, the Oilers' special teams captain, said. 'When you don't know how to cope, then tragic things happen. But as cold as it seems, we have to retain a sense of normalcy.'

Alm's picture flashed on the scoreboard at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium as both teams stood at attention before the national anthem, and the Oilers wore his No 76 stickers on their helmets. But once the action started they managed to keep their minds on the game and beat the Steelers 26-17.

Houston attacked from the start and offense and defense had notched touchdowns before the game was six minutes old. They were 20-6 ahead by half-time and never seriously threatened. 'It was hard to put it out of our minds, but I think the team did a great job of staying focused. We wanted to win for Jeff, and we're sending the game ball to his parents,' Moon said.

'I thought about it every time I turned around and saw that 76 on a helmet. At the same time, you have to put it out of your mind, and concentrate on what you have to do. And we did what we had to do,' the defensive end William Fuller said.

The Oilers won, but both sides suffered serious losses to the treatment table. Webster Slaughter, the Oilers wide receiver, is out for the season with torn ligaments and Greg Lloyd, the Steelers linebacker, is out indefinitely with a pulled hamstring. More bad news in Pittsburgh was that running back Barry Foster is also out for the season.

Buffalo made serious progress towards the play-offs with a 47-20 victory in Miami in the NFL's highest scoring game of the season. The Bills made the most of turnovers to go a game ahead in the AFC East, while the Dolphins have now lost three in a row, all at home.

The Kansas City Chiefs are also on course for the post-season after beating the San Diego Chargers 28-24. Not for the first time, Joe Montana's was the key contribution. Shaking off the effects of a big hit on the previous play, he connected with J J Birden for the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter.

Montana's previous employers do not seem to be missing him much, however - the San Francisco 49ers crushed Detroit 55-17 in the Silverdome to win the NFC West for the 10th time in 12 years. They scored on every possession in the first half and ended the game with seven touchdowns, four of them courtesy of the Steve Young's arm.

With the Dallas Cowboys joining the New York Giants in the play- offs, the main focus of NFC attention is on the ever-confusing Central Division, which the limping Lions still lead. Green Bay could have sealed a play-off place when they entertained the Minnesota Vikings but were beaten 21-17. Scottie Graham, the latest in a long list of productive Viking running backs, rushed for 139 yards.

The league's three worst teams (in statistical terms at least) all won. The New England Patriots were victorious in Cleveland, to increase the clamour for Bill Belichick's head, the Washington Redskins beat Atlanta and the Cincinnati Bengals trounced the Los Angeles Rams 15-3. The Bengals, incidentally, are 2-0 against teams from LA, and 0-9 against anyone else.

NFL: Chicago 3 Denver 13; New York Jets 7 Dallas 28; Cincinnati 15 LA Rams 3; New England 20 Cleveland 17; Minnesota 21 Green Bay 17; Buffalo 47 Miami 34; Houston 26 Pittsburgh 17; Washington 30 Atlanta 17; San Francisco 55 Detroit 17; Kansas City 28 San Diego 24; LA Raiders 27 Tampa Bay 20; Phoenix 30 Seattle 27 (ot); Philadelphia 20 Indianapolis 10.

----------------------------------------------------------------- NFL DIVISIONAL STANDINGS ----------------------------------------------------------------- AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE ----------------------------------------------------------------- Eastern Division W L T PF PA Buffalo 10 4 0 283 218 Miami 9 5 0 302 273 NY Jets 8 6 0 256 207 Indianapolis 4 10 0 179 310 New England 3 11 0 167 259 Central Division *Houston 10 4 0 324 231 Pittsburgh 8 6 0 286 256 Cleveland 6 8 0 253 277 Cincinnati 2 12 0 153 282 Western Division Kansas City 10 4 0 284 237 Denver 9 5 0 333 234 LA Raiders 9 5 0 273 268 San Diego 6 8 0 245 253 Seattle 5 9 0 240 274 ----------------------------------------------------------------- NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE ----------------------------------------------------------------- Eastern Division W L T PF PA NY Giants 10 3 0 245 158 Dallas 10 4 0 322 213 Philadelphia 6 8 0 219 255 Phoenix 5 9 0 282 253 Washington 4 10 0 218 293 Central Division Detroit 8 6 0 248 258 Green Bay 8 6 0 292 252 Chicago 7 7 0 214 190 Minnesota 7 7 0 233 271 Tampa Bay 4 10 0 203 334 Western Division *San Francisco 10 4 0 432 248 New Orleans 7 6 0 260 266 Atlanta 6 8 0 289 337 LA Rams 4 10 0 187 319 ----------------------------------------------------------------- * clinched division title clinched play-off berth -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)

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