With only one week remaining in the regular season, the race for play-off places has almost been finalised. The Denver Broncos, Tennessee Titans and Dallas Cowboys clinched their spots with important victories on Sunday, while there was despair for the Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints, who both crashed out in unexpected circumstances.
At the start of the season, few observers expected the Cowboys to be among the contenders. Despite the presence of a new head coach, the veteran Bill Parcells, the Texas franchise was mired in a four-year losing sequence, and in need of a considerable overhaul.
Parcells, however, has turned three losing franchises into winners in his long and successful career, and his impact on the Cowboys has been felt immediately. They were not at their best in downing the New York Giants 19-3, but the victory guarantees them a post-season appearance.
The Super Bowl is probably beyond them this year but one of the secrets of Parcells' success is that he sets high standards. "This league is such that if you get things going, get the right pieces at the right time and get a couple of breaks, you can make some advancement," he said. "But I didn't come here just to do that."
The Titans owed their win to the heroism of their oft-injured but seemingly indestructible quarterback, Steve McNair. Despite playing with a cracked bone spur in his ankle, McNair rallied his side past the Houston Texans with a 23-yard touchdown to Drew Bennett with only 17 seconds remaining. "McNair was the difference," Tennessee's Jevon Kearse said. "If he hadn't been out there, I don't think the result would have been the same."
The most impressive performance, however, came from the Denver Broncos, who have found their best form at the right time. The odds seemed stacked against them when they visited the Indianapolis Colts without their star running back, Clinton Portis, but what should have been a bruising battle turned into a one-sided stroll.
The Broncos controlled the clock for nearly 45 minutes, gained 227 yards rushing, and unveiled a new talent in the running back Quentin Griffin, who gained 136 yards in relief of Portis, as Denver won 31-17.
Joy for Denver and Tennessee meant despair for Miami, who crashed out despite winning 20-3 in chilly Buffalo. Miami, among the pre-season favourites for the Super Bowl, continue to flop at crucial times, and their head coach, Dave Wannstedt, may be spending more time with his family this Christmas as a consequence.
The Cincinnati Bengals look likely to miss out following their 27-10 humbling in St Louis, and their place now looks like going to the Baltimore Ravens, who thrashed Cleveland 35-0, with the running back Jamal Lewis gaining 205 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Lewis, who looks poised to become only the fifth player in history to gain 2,000 rushing yards in a single season, clearly thrives on facing the Browns, having gained 500 yards against them in two contests this year. Victory for the Ravens in their final game of the campaign next weekend will see them qualify.
However, the New Orleans Saints are out in the most unlikely circumstances. Needing to win in Jacksonville to keep their hopes alive, the Saints had one final play remaining to attempt to send the affair to overtime.
In desperation, they turned to rugby, throwing a series of lateral passes, until Jerome Pathon crossed the line for the most spectacular touchdown of the season. All the Saints needed was the extra point but incredibly their kicker, John Carney, missed it. The Saints have never appeared in a Super Bowl, and their long wait goes on.Reuse content