American Football: Wilkins converts to thwart Saints

Some teams won and didn't make it, while others lost and qualified in a typically chaotic climax to the regular season as the battle for play-off positions reached its conclusion in the NFL on Sunday night.

The New Orleans Saints and the Carolina Panthers faced each other, knowing that victory, while essential, still might not be sufficient for post-season participation. The Saints hung on for a 21-18 verdict, then went to their locker-room to watch the conclusion of hostilities between the St Louis Rams and the New York Jets.

A win for the Jets, and the Saints would be through. Victory for St Louis, however, would see the Rams home at the expense of New Orleans. Nerves were stretched in both camps as New York's kicker Doug Brien, formerly of the Saints, converted a 27-yard field goal to send the game into overtime. Brien then had a chance to win it for the Jets, but his 53-yard effort sailed wide. That gave the Rams hope, and they duly clinched their place, at the expense of New Orleans, when Jeff Wilkins converted a 31-yard kick.

The Saints, winners of four in a row, had left their challenge too late after a slow start to the season. "We know we have a good football team. It showed these last four weeks," said their receiver, Joe Horn. "We should have done it earlier, then we wouldn't have had to watch that screen to see if another team loses or wins for us to get in."

The Jets also edged into the post-season because the Buffalo Bills failed to beat a below-strength Pittsburgh Steelers, while the Denver Broncos also qualified after proving too good for an Indianapolis Colts side who, like Pittsburgh, were resting key players.

The New Yorkers have another reason to celebrate as their running back Curtis Martin finished as the season's leading rusher with 1,697 yards, beating Seattle's Shaun Alexander by a single yard.

Also through, despite an alarming slump, are the Minnesota Vikings, who bizarrely qualified because Carolina lost to New Orleans, thus rendering their own 21-18 reverse in Washington meaningless.

The Vikings are a team in turmoil, having lost seven of their last 10 matches. Even before the finish in Washington, their top receiver Randy Moss left the sidelines for the locker-room, symbolising the divided nature of a franchise of great potential, but seemingly with tendencies towards self-destruction.

Their head coach, Mike Tice, aired his frustrations at a post-match press conference. "This team's going to drive me crazy," he said. Shortly afterwards, the room was plunged into darkness following a power failure. "That's how our whole season has gone," Tice added. The lights will probably go out for good for the Vikings when they visit the Green Bay Packers in their play-off contest next weekend.

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