Cowboys defense to the rescue

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The Independent Online
For much of the season it has looked improbable, occasionally close to impossible, but in the end the Dallas Cowboys wrapped up their fifth consecutive NFC East title with a game to spare. It came following Sunday's defeat of the New England Patriots and owed much to their resilience, and not a little to the faltering challenges of their principal rivals.

As has become the custom these days, their victory came thanks to their league-leading defense, which restricted the high-octane Patriots attack to six points. The Cowboys offense found scoring almost as much of a problem, but four Chris Boniol field goals were enough for a 12-6 win.

The demise of the Cowboys has been widely predicted almost from the moment of their third Super Bowl triumph in four years last January, but despite a 1-3 start, and a continuing backdrop of criticism, they look capable of mounting another formidable play-off run.

The Cowboys' status at divisional champions is a particularly bitter blow for the Washington Redskins, who at one stage led the East with a 7-1 record. Their most recent reverse during a disastrous second half to the season, saw them beaten 27-26 by Kevin Butler's last kick of the game for the Cardinals in Arizona. It was the Redskins' sixth defeat in seven games and keeps them out of the play-offs for another year.

The loss crystallised the NFC, with Green Bay, Carolina, San Francisco, Dallas, Minnesota and Philadelphia assured of the six play-off spots, though who plays whom and where has still to be determined.

The 49ers responded well to last week's home defeat by Carolina by becoming the first team in 13 games to visit Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium and depart with a win. Steve Young threw three first-half touchdowns, one to Jerry Rice, in a 25-15 victory. "A heck of a lot better than last week," George Seifert, the 49ers head coach, said.

Over in the AFC, Jacksonville's fourth success in a row - 20-13 over Seattle - kept them in the play-off hunt, a game behind Indianapolis and Kansas City. Those two met at Arrowhead Stadium with the Colts emerging 24-19 winners, as the Chiefs - a popular pick for the Super Bowl before the season started - continue their winter depression.

What they would give for Cincinnati's late-season form. Their 20-13 win in Houston took their record to 6-2 since Bruce Coslet replaced David Shula as head coach. Coslet has finally got the Bengals achieving the results their talent warrants, and he was deservedly rewarded with a contract that keeps him in charge until the year 2000.