Montana's mission will add spice to the NFL's rich play-off diet

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Presumably on the basis that Christmas is a time for excess, the NFL in its infinite wisdom has decided to disrupt family life on not just one of the festive season's holidays, but on all three.

As a result the most likely source of bickering in millions of households across the United States in the next few days will result not from unwanted presents or relatives, but from whether such boring Yuletide sidelines as turkey or carol singing, can be completed in time for the main item on the agenda: to wit, watching the big game on television.

A rich diet of grid-iron begins today with 12 games on somebody's screen somewhere, continues tomorrow evening when the Stateside equivalent of Morecambe and Wise gives way to Marino and Sanders (Miami entertain Detroit), and comes to a conclusion on Boxing Day night when the San Francisco 49ers visit Minnesota. As if the attractions of watching 50 grown men hurting each other was not enough, the league has timed these fixtures to coincide with the final week of the regular season, giving a host of encounters that extra edge.

Nowhere will the added intensity be more noticeable than at the Los Angeles Coliseum, where the Kansas City Chiefs are the Raiders' visitors. The NFL's play-off qualification rules tend to make macro-economics appear straightforward, but the bottom line here is a TV executive's dream. The winner goes through to the play-offs, the loser does not.

As if this was not enough, there is a potentially devastating subtext. It could be Joe Montana's last game. The old boy has not said as much, but reports from Kansas suggest that he will hang up his helmet at the end of the season. In truth there have been signs recently that his extraordinary powers are on the wane, but this is just the sort of high-profile assignment that brings the best out of him - particularly if he gets the ball four points down with a minute and a half to go.

Elsewhere the issues are less clear-cut. The New England Patriots may end the weekend as champions of the AFC East, or not in the play-offs at all. A victory at Chicago sees them through to the post-season, but they need the Dolphins to lose to take the title.

More confusing still is the NFC Central where four teams have a chance of reaching the play-offs - Tampa Bay are, of course, the exception - though none can be sure of a place.The Minnesota Vikings have long looked the class of this division, but face anenormous task against the 49ers, especially if their quarterback, Warren Moon, has not recovered from a knee injury. Their best hope may be a lack of motivation from the 49ers, who are assured of home advantage throughout the play-offs.

FIXTURES (home teams first): Today: Atlanta v Arizona; Chicago v New England, Cleveland v Seattle; Denver v New Orleans; Houston v NY Jets; Indianapolis v Buffalo; LA Raiders v Kansas City; LA Rams v Washington; NY Giants v Dallas; San Diego v Pittsburgh; Tampa Bay v Green Bay. Tomorrow: Miami v Detroit. Monday: San Francisco v Minnesota.

n Channel Four announced yesterday that it has signed a deal with the NFL to show American football for the next three seasons.