American Football: Resurgent Giants regain their stride

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The Independent Online
A month ago anyone suggesting that the New York Giants were going to appear in the play-offs this season was in danger of being directed to one of the city's many psychiatrists. Four victories later it is the Giants' rivals in the NFC East who req uire along lie down, while the Philadelphia Eagles clearly need their heads examining.

Having begun the season with three victories, the Giants lost their next seven, leaving New York's traditionally derided Jets to receive the greater slice of adulation in the Big Apple. The Giants have responded by winning their last four, a sequence that has taken them to joint second in the East.

A three-yard touchdown run 40 seconds from time by Rodney Hampton secured Sunday's win over the Cincinnati Bengals, but if the club's volatile fans were tempted to make something of it, the team's head coach, Dan Reeves, was quick to dampen play-off fever.

The Giants probably still have to win their final two games, against Philadelphia and Dallas, to make the post-season, and Reeves, for one, doubts they will. "I'd say our chances are still really slim," he said.

While the Giants may have left their revival too late, the Eagles are spectacularly transforming a season of high promise into one of lasting recrimination.

By early November, boasting a 7-2 record and a victory in San Francisco, they appeared play-off certainties. Five defeats later they are in turmoil, and should the slide continue there is sure to be blood-letting in a city where the sporting atmosphere is rarely one of brotherly love.

Rich Kotite, the Eagles head coach, had threatened to bench his quarterback, Randall Cunningham, going into Sunday's game in Pittsburgh, a move scarcely calculated to boost the troubled quarterback's confidence as he prepared to face one of the league's most vengeful defenses. Cunningham played, but passed for only 59 yards, his lowest return in a 10-year career, as the Eagles lost 14-3. For three quarters the Eagles matched the Steelers in the miserly defense stakes, but two TDs in the fourth quarter sealed Pittsburgh's sixth win in a row.

Unless the Eagles engineer another turnaround, neither Kotite nor Cunningham may be in Philadelphia next season. Jeffrey Lurie, who bought the franchise in the summer, is a keen admirer of Jimmy Johnson, the former Cowboys head coach, and may offer the big bucks to entice him back into coaching. It is thought that the Eagles have already been prepared to listen to offers for Cunningham, though in a league short of quality QBs, he would surely have no trouble in finding employment elsewhere.

The Minnesota Vikings were in as much trouble as the Eagles a fortnight ago but a couple of wins has re-established them as the side to beat in the NFC Central. Sunday's victory was Warren Moon's first success in six attempts in Buffalo. As well as the game the Bills lost Jim Kelly after he was hit by the Minnesota lineman, Henry Thomas. Kelly left the game with a sprained left knee, and said yesterday he expected to be out for the rest of the season.

Kelly's team-mates claimed Thomas had made a deliberate attempt to hurt their quarterback. "Their defensive line coach teaches those guys to go down like that on a certain individual, especially a quarterback," Thurman Thomas, the Bills running back, said. "There was no doubt in anybody's mind that was exactly what he was doing, going straight down for the knee." The accused took a different view. "It was an accident. I tripped. I stumbled," he said.

Buffalo's defeat means that the Cleveland Browns get full reward for their victory in Dallas, a place in the play-offs. Elsewhere the significant victories in the AFC went to the Los Angeles Raiders, who defeated an Elway-less Denver, and the New EnglandPatriots, who beat the Indianapolis Colts despite four interceptions from their brilliant young quarterback Drew Bledsoe.

Certain to be there are the San Francisco 49ers, who took full advantage of Dallas's defeat by fusing the Chargers in San Diego. They look the class of '94, and need just one more win to secure home advantage throughout the play-offs.

NFL (home teams first): Tampa Bay 24 LA Rams 14, Buffalo 17 Minnesota 21, Green Bay 40 Chicago 3, New York Giants 27 Cincinnati 20, New England 28 Indianapolis 13, Pittsburgh 14 Philadelphia 3, LA Raiders 23 Denver 13, San Diego 15 San Francisco 38, Houston 14 Seattle 16, Arizona 17 Washington 15, Atlanta 20 New Orleans 29.