AMERICAN FOOTBALL: Viking victory lacks lustre

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The Minnesota Vikings recorded what appeared on paper to be their best result of the season on Boxing Day night. On their own artificial turf, however, some of the lustre in their 21-14 victory over the San Francisco 49ers was diminished because of the lack of motivation demonstrated by the visitors, not to mention the lack of one or two of their key performers.

The 49ers, already assured of home advantage throughout the play-offs, did not field four of their regulars, and chose to make a game of it for all of a quarter. Then, as Minnesota's fearsome defense began to take a hold, George Seifert, the 49ers head coach, decided the safest place for Steve Young and Jerry Rice was on the bench.

The best quarterback-wide receiver combination had already contributed one touchdown, but Young was taking heavy punishment and Seifert understandably opted to save him for more significant battles. "I think it was the longest quarter of my coaching experience, the way Steve was taking those shots," Seifert said, while Rice grumbled: "I hate games like this. I felt I was getting into a groove and then I sat down."

Seifert's decision, with the scores level at 7-7, virtually ceded the 49ers 10-game winning streak, though the Vikings themselves were without their starting quarterback, Warren Moon. Already through to the play-offs, Dennis Green, the Vikings head coach, chose not to risk the injured Moon, and allowed Sean Salisbury to take his first snaps of the season. He hardly made the most of the opportunity, completing less than half of his 34 passes and throwing an interception, but facing an offense shorn of Rice and Young, the Minnesota defense took over.

The victory secured the NFC Central divisional title for the Vikings, and allowed them to play at home in the first round of the play-offs. The Chicago Bears are the visitors on Sunday, when the Vikings are confident that Moon will be back.

Earlier in the day Rich Kotite became the first head-coaching casualty of the post-season. Having presided over a seven-game losing streak at Philadelphia, his dismissal was the least surprising result of the final weekend, and he left without bitterness. "Coaches are hired to be fired," he said. "I don't know if I agree with that but I have the warmest feelings for everybody in this organisation." Kotite has been mentioned as a candidate for head coaching at the expansion franchise in Carolina.

Jeffrey Lurie, who bought the Eagles in the summer, had hoped to lure back Jimmy Johnson, the former Dallas Cowboys head coach, but Johnson's decision to commit himself to at least another season in the commentary booth leaves an open field for one of the plum positions in the league. One surprise candidate is the 58-year-old Dick Vermeil, who coached the Eagles to their one Super Bowl appearance. He has already talked to Lurie about being general manager, head coach, or both. Kotite is unlikely to be the last head coach dusting down his cv this winter, with Tom Flores of Seattle next in the firing line.

WILD CARD ROUND: Saturday: Detroit at Green Bay, Kansas City at Miami. Sunday: New England at Cleveland, Chicago at Minnesota.

Final Regular Season Tables American Conference Eastern Division W L T PF PA *Miami 10 6 0 389 327

*New England 10 6 0 351 312

Indianapolis 8 8 0 307 320

Buffalo 7 9 0 340 356

NY Jets 6 10 0 264 320

Central Division *Pittsburgh 12 4 0 316 234

*Cleveland 11 5 0 340 204

Cincinnati 3 13 0 276 406

Houston 2 14 0 226 352

Western Division *San Diego 11 5 0 381 306

*Kansas City 9 7 0 319 298

LA Raiders 9 7 0 303 327

Denver 7 9 0 347 396

Seattle 6 10 0 287 323

National Conference Eastern Division W L T PF PA *Dallas 12 4 0 414 248

NY Giants 9 7 0 279 305

Arizona 8 8 0 235 267

Philadelphia 7 9 0 308 308

Washington 3 13 0 320 412

Central Division *Minnesota 10 6 0 356 314

*Detroit 9 7 0 357 342

*Green Bay 9 7 0 382 287

*Chicago 9 7 0 271 307

Tampa Bay 6 10 0 251 351

Western Division *San Francisco 13 3 0 505 296

Atlanta 7 9 0 317 385

New Orleans 7 9 0 348 407

LA Rams 4 12 0 286 365

* won through to play-offs