It had been billed as a preview of this season's Super Bowl, but Saturday's encounter between the Seattle Seahawks and the Indianapolis Colts was never going to excite, for reasons which had nothing to do with the game.
Last Thursday, James Dungy, the 18-year-old son of Colts head coach Tony, was found hanged in his home city of Tampa. Dungy was immediately given indefinite leave of absence by the club, while the players attempted to carry on without him. With home-field advantage already secured throughout the play-offs, the Colts rested many of their top names and never threatened the Seahawks, who ran out 28-6 winners.
"I don't think there is anyone here who would want to play a football game under these circumstances," said the team's president, Bill Polian. "But it is our obligation, and we will fulfil that obligation because that's what Tony wants us to do." The game will be remembered only for three more scores for the prolific running back Shaun Alexander, who equalled Priest Holmes's record of 27 touchdowns in a season. Alexander will almost certainly set a new mark when the Seahawks end their regular season in Green Bay next weekend.
Elsewhere, with only one more week remaining, the action was more intense. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers maintained their prospects with a bizarre 27-24 triumph over the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons had a chance to win in overtime, but Todd Peterson's 31-yard field goal attempt was blocked. Tampa failed to capitalise when their kicker, Matt Bryant, contrived to miss a simple 27-yard effort. With only 15 seconds remaining, however, Bryant atoned with a 41-yard game-winner, a result which means Atlanta cannot qualify for the post-season.
The Dallas Cowboys still can, courtesy of their 24-20 triumph against the Carolina Panthers. The running back, Julius Jones, had a career-high 194 rushing yards and two touchdowns, but Dallas only secured their win in the dying seconds, when the quarterback Drew Bledsoe threw a two-yard touchdown to Terry Glenn.
The New York Giants were unable to secure their post-season berth, when they were humbled by the Washington Redskins, 35-20. The inconsistent Redskins seem to have found their form at the right time: Saturday's victory was their fourth in succession, and if they defeat Philadelphia next week, they will qualify.
Santana Moss caught three touchdown passes for the Redskins, but victory came at a price. Their quarterback, Mark Brunell, sustained a knee injury, and may not recover in time for the Philadelphia contest.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, like Washington, are hitting form at precisely the right time. They devastated their arch-rivals the Cleveland Browns 41-0 with a thrilling combination of powerful running and uncompromising defence.
Charlie Frye, Cleveland's rookie quarterback, was sacked eight times by the rampant Steelers, while Pittsburgh's running back, Willie Parker, gained 130 yards on the ground, including an 80-yard touchdown run.
"Everything clicked real good for us on offence, and our defence was really flying around," said the quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. "They are fun to watch when they are playing like that. We went out there and did what we wanted to do." Pittsburgh need to beat lowly Detroit next week to confirm their play-off spot, but there is no waiting for the Jacksonville Jaguars, who confirmed their post-season participation following a 38-20 win over the Houston Texans, LaBrandon Toefield scoring three rushing touchdowns.
However, the campaign is over for the San Diego Chargers. They are being called the best team not to go to the play-offs, but they were never in the picture in a vital game in Kansas City, the Chiefs prevailing 20-7.
Kansas City's running back Larry Johnson confirmed his reputation with two more touchdowns, but like the Chargers, the Chiefs seem set to miss out on the post-season. They need to win next week, and hope Pittsburgh slip up against Detroit, to have any chance of progressing.