As the Carolina Panthers began celebrating their historic triumph over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night, the rest of the NFL was coming to terms with an aspect of the victory of even more significance than the presence of both expansion teams in the Championship games. It was the end of an era.
For most of the 1990s the Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers have completely dominated the sport, winning the last four Super Bowls between them. This season neither will make the big game, nor even the NFC Championship game which they once made their own private battleground. The 49ers were dispatched on Saturday, outclassed by the Green Bay Packers, the Cowboys followed them 24 hours later, their defeat by the Panthers bringing to a close a troubled and troubling 11 months for the reigning champions.
For much of that period they have appeared a franchise in disarray, beset by scandal, unable to play to their potential with any consistency and with a head coach whose leadership qualities generated rather less respect than those of John Major. Still it seemed unwise to rule out their chances of a fourth title in five years, particularly after regular season victories over the Packers and the 49ers.
When they produced their best football of the season to overwhelm Minnesota in the first round a week ago, it seemed possible that the whiff of the play-offs had once again stimulated the ferocious fighting qualities of a once magnificent team. In Charlotte, though, they were well beaten by a team that did not exist until the second of the Cowboys' Super Bowls had been won. When the Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars entered the league 18 months ago their fans were told to be patient, that expansion teams could not be expected to produce winning seasons for five years or more.
With both a game away from the Super Bowl, it is clear that in the era of free agency good teams can be quickly constructed - provided you have the right architect.
In the Panthers' case this is Dom Capers, a defensive mastermind, and his fearsome unit did not let him down. In the first quarter they knocked Michael Irvin, the Cowboys' key wide receiver, out of the game with a sprained ankle (Deion Sanders was later consigned to the sidelines as well). They went on to intercept Troy Aikman three times, including on a potential game-winning drive when the Cowboys trailed 23-17. Pat Terrell returned that pick to set up John Kasay's fourth field goal to seal a 26-17 victory.
Irvin's early departure was a fitting end to a calamitous week, though the latest leaks from a Dallas police investigation suggest he will not be charged following the allegations from a woman who says she was raped by Irvin, his team-mate Erik Williams and a third man after the Minnesota game. Both Irvin and Williams have vehemently denied the claim, but there can be no doubt the case did not help the Cowboys' preparation.
"That's all it takes," Nate Newton, the Dallas lineman, said. "When anyone male, female, animal, child, anything or anybody can make a claim against the Dallas Cowboys, it has to have an effect. You can't prepare for a game like this with something like that going on."
What happens now in Dallas will be intriguing. There had been much speculation that the head coach Barry Switzer would be replaced, even if the Cowboys won another title. His departure now would therefore be no surprise, despite repeated protestations by the owner Jerry Jones that Switzer will coach the Cowboys into the 21st century.
There may also be changes in San Francisco, where the league's most absurd example of job creation - Bill Walsh's role as a "consultant" - cannot last. Walsh, the scion of the 49er dynasty, will surely move up, or out. If he moves up, just about everybody's job is under threat, including, incredibly, that of the head coach George Seifert.
One head coach more likely to stay put is Bill Parcells of New England. Parcells gave every indication that this would be his last year in Massachusetts but, after his young side's brilliant victory over Pittsburgh, the shock now would be if he opted to retire again.
NFL PLAY-OFFS (away teams first) AFC: Jacksonville 30 Denver 27; Pittsburgh 3 New England 28. NFC San Francisco 14 Green Bay 35; Dallas 17 Carolina 26.
CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES: NFC: Carolina at Green Bay. AFC: Jacksonville at New England (both Sunday 12 January).Reuse content