American football: Super Bowl date for Patriots and Packers

For four years the New England Patriots have performed in a way so at odds with the instincts of their head coach that at times he has seemed in need of psychiatric help. For their most important game of the period, however, at least half the side remembered his roots, and played like a Bill Parcells team.

Before arriving in Massachusetts, Parcells had won two Super Bowls with a New York Giants outfit that relied on a brilliantly intimidating defense, could run the ball well, and appeared willing to pass only when all else had failed. Yet Parcells' first action in charge of his new side was to use the top pick of the draft to acquire Drew Bledsoe, the quarterback billed as the new Dan Marino. There followed a fascinating period during which probably the most traditional coach in the league presided over its most hi-tech offense and made do with a defense that was never remotely considered among the league's best.

Small wonder that when the equally lopsided Jacksonville Jaguars arrived for Sunday's AFC Championship game the general expectation was for a high- scoring bonanza. Instead Bledsoe's unit was rendered virtually powerless, but the Patriots won 20-6 thanks to a superhuman effort from their defenders.

The Patriots now meet the Green Bay Packers in this season's Super Bowl at the Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans, on Sunday week. The Pack were much more rounded as they dispensed with the Carolina Panthers in Arctic conditions in the NFC Championship game at Lambeau Field, and have already been installed as heavy favourites. The Pats' only chance would appear to lie with the wiles of Parcells, who would become the first coach to win the Super Bowl with different sides if he did pull off an upset.

Midway through the second quarter of the game at Foxboro the stadium lights went out, which seemed appropriate on a day that New England's attack completely lost its spark. Despite scoring early, it stuttered from the start, got worse, and was only rescued by the Pats' excellent special teams (coached by Parcells himself) and resolute defense, which enabled them to go in at half-time with a 13-3 lead.

In the third quarter Mark Brunell, the Jags quarterback, added to his growing reputation as the most dangerous young play-caller in the league, but a series of impressive drives only resulted in the lead being cut to 13-6. Then with just under four minutes left, and the Jags seemingly poised to score the tying touchdown, Brunell's pass was intercepted by Willie Clay in the end zone. Two further turnovers allowed the Patriots to win by the deceptively comfortable score of 20-6, which was almost as unfair as the fact that Brunell's one bad play proved crucial, rather than Bledsoe's generally dismal display.

Green Bay's Brett Favre was also at fault as the Pack began hesitantly in temperatures that, with the wind chill, went as low as -27C. Favre was intercepted deep in his own half, and then dropped the ball while scrambling, the Panthers capitalising on both to score 10 points.

But in between Favre had thrown a perfect 29-yard scoring pass to Dorsey Levens, and as the game progressed so it was the quarterback's virtues that prevailed and, with Levens contributing 205 yards, the Pack ran out 30-13 winners. It was the sweetest of triumphs for the fanatical fans of the NFL's smallest but oldest franchise, one that returns it to the Super Bowl for the first time since a certain Vince Lombardi was in charge, but nobody in Wisconsin was happier than Favre himself. "This is what we play our whole lives for," he said.

Bobby Ross, the head coach of San Diego until his resignation a fortnight ago, has taken charge of Detroit after agreeing a five-year, pounds 4.7m deal.

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