Double despair for Los Angeles as the Raiders lose out

AMERICAN FOOTBALL The festive hangover arrived a little early for the grid-iron fans of Los Angeles, as they awoke yesterday to the realisation that the Raiders were out of the play-offs, while the Rams are probably out of LA.

It has been a topsy-turvy year for the Silver and Black, tipped by many at the start of the campaign to go all the way to the Super Bowl. After three months of sloppy defeats and splendid victories it all came down to a simple equation: they had to beat their AFC West rivals from Kansas City in their final regular season game on Christmas Eve to reach the play-offs.

The Chiefs, who had endured a similarly mixed season, also needed to win to progress, and for one of their number the confrontation had an extra edge. Marcus Allen established his reputation as one of the great running backs of his generation as a Raider, but after a long and bitter feud with Al Davis, the Raiders' owner, was traded to the Chiefs a couple of years ago.

The Raiders have never properly replaced Allen, and he duly reminded them of what they let go by rushing for 132 yards as the Chiefs recorded a surprisingly comfortable 19-9 victory. "Obviously, from a human side, it is a little special when you do it against your former club," Allen said.

Joe Montana, the Chiefs quarterback, left the game in the fourth quarter with an injured knee, but insisted he could have returned if necessary.

At exactly the same time, across the city in Anaheim, the Rams were entertaining the Washington Redskins in what may have been their last game on the West Coast. Entertaining is probably not how the crowd of 25,705 saw it, as the Rams allowed the Redskins to end a long losing streak and win 24-21.

The Rams appear bound for St Louis, a city which lost the Cardinals franchise to Phoenix seven years ago, though their owner, Georgia Frontiere, has made no public commitment. With the club expecting to lose $6m (£3.9) this year in bankrupt Orange County, and having recorded its fifth double-digit losing season in a row, a fresh start seems a good idea all round.

Of those teams seeking play-offs berths, the most impressive winners were the New England Patriots, who notched their seventh consecutive success, 13-3 in Chicago. Bill Parcells' team are now settling games with some authority, and the combination of a bruising defense, vibrant young offense and Parcells' tactical nous makes them formidable foes as the season goes into its next stage.

Despite the defeat the Bears also reach the play-offs, along with three other sides from the NFC Central, Minnesota, Green Bay and Detroit. Such strong representation from a single division is an NFL record, but it will be halved next weekend when the four contest the first-round matches, and it will be a major surprise if any of them make it to the NFC Championship game.

The form team at the moment appear to be the Packers, who won at the improving Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "We're right at the top of our game at the right time," Brett Favre, their quarterback, said.

The most unlucky side were the New York Giants, whose season came to an end, despite beating the Dallas Cowboys. Rodney Hampton rushed for 91 yards as the Giants won15-10. The Cowboys are not entering the crucial stage of the season with their customary bravado, though they were without Emmitt Smith, and Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin were used sparingly.

The Philadelphia Eagles exceeded even their own lamentable standards in finding ways to lose from winning positions. They were 27-10 in the third quarter in Cincinnati and still three points ahead inside the last minute.

Jeff Blake, the Bengals quarterback, then added to his burgeoning reputation by marshalling a 73-yard drive, which resulted in Doug Palfrey hitting the tying field goal with three seconds left. The Bengals then recovered their onside kick on the 35-yard line, and Palfrey converted a 54-yarder to hand the Eagles their seventh defeat in a row.

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