Patriot gains end the Buffalo era

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The Independent Online
With no baseball or ice hockey, and basketball still missing Michael Jordan, it has been a bad year, but for millions of American sports fans Christmas came a week early this year. The Buffalo Bills are not going to be in this season's Super Bowl.

Their four successive appearances on the game's big day will surely rank as one of the great futile efforts in modern sport, though even to describe it in those terms is to adopt the perversely myopic standards that prevail across the Atlantic.

Since 1990 the Bills have won 65 of the 92 matches they have played, have coped admirably with the injuries, the internal strife, not to mention the best that their conference could throw at them, and have won the last four AFC Championships. Only in America could they have become synonymous with losing.

The losing, of course, came in the Super Bowls, all four of them. For while it is in the nature of the event for the victors to be exalted to ludicrous extremes, the vanquished are suddenly transformed from talented contenders to despised pretenders, largely to blame for another one-sided showpiece.

The truth is the Bills have been victims of a phenomenon more profound than their inability to perform in the biggest game: the long-term dominance of the NFC over the AFC. It started well before the Bills claimed sole bragging rights in their conference, and with the 49ers and Cowboys the class of '94, shows every sign of continuing into the post-Bills era.

For all the vilification heaped upon them, they were over-matched in all but their first appearance, when they were mugged by an ageing but unforgiving bunch from New York, and a deceptively simple Bill Parcells game plan. Only then could they claim to be the league's best team, and Parcells responded by denying them the ball.

There is some symmetry, then, in Parcells' presence on Sunday, when his current side, the New England Patriots, consigned the Bills to their first January of inactivity since 1987. The Patriots won 41-17 in Rich Stadium, rallying impressively from a 17-3deficit, to post their sixth straight win. Drew Bledsoe, the Patriots quarterback, threw three TD passes as the Pats gave the broadest hint yet that they may be the new ruling class in the AFC East.

"To come here and beat these guys in this place, to put them away, that's something not too many teams have done in the past few years," Parcells said. "I know the season is over for them. But it doesn't end without tremendous respect for what they have accomplished. Like Dracula we drove a stake through their hearts, and then you still wonder if it's in there."

Like Dracula the Bills did not die easily. Because of the bewildering rules of play-off qualification, the Bills would have lived on had the Kansas City Chiefs been beaten.

A few hours later, however, Joe Montana administered the coup de grace, throwing two TD passes as the Chiefs strolled past the hapless Houston Oilers 31-9, and an era was at an end. "It's a feeling of sadness that we are not the team we have been," Marv Levy, the Buffalo head coach, said.

The Patriots could even win the AFC East. Miami's mercurial season continued with a defeat by Indianapolis, and if their vulnerability in December continues in Detroit on Christmas Day the Patriots will be champions if they win in Chicago.

Elsewhere in the AFC, the crucial victories went to the San Diego Chargers, whose defeat of the New York Jets finally secured the title in the West, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, who triumphed in the battle for the Central. The Steelers are now certain ofhome-field advantage throughout the play-offs. The Los Angeles Raiders' win in Seattle sets up an intriguing showdown with the Chiefs on Christmas Eve.

In the NFC the big losers were the Philadelphia Eagles. They led the New York Giants 13-6 in the fourth quarter, but Dave Meggatt's late touchdown, and Brad Daluiso's 18-yard field goal with 54 seconds left saw the visitors prevail and confirmed the Eagles to be in disarray. They were 7-2 in early November, but six successive defeats has put them out of the play-off hunt, and their head coach, Rich Kotite, surely out of a job.

The Giants are still in the picture, but only just. They must beat the Cowboys, and Green Bay lose at Tampa to progress. Once upon a time the Tampa Bay element of the equation would be a foregone conclusion, but Sunday's victory over the Redskins was their fourth in a row, their best run since 1979. For the Redskins a miserable season has seen them without a win in Washington for the first time.

NFL (home teams first): Buffalo 17 New England 41, Chicago 27 LA Rams 13, Green Bay 21 Atlanta 17, NY Jets 6 San Diego 21, Washington 14 Tampa Bay 17, Arizona 28 Cincinnati 7, Seattle 16 LA Raiders 17

/BT NFL STANDINGS AMERICAN CONFERENCE

Eastern Division W L T PF PA *Miami......................9 6 0 362 307

New England..........9 6 0 338 309

Buffalo......................7 8 0 331 346

Indianapolis...........7 8 0 297 311

NY Jets......................6 9 0 254 296

Pittsburgh...........12 3 0 282 197

*Cleveland............10 5 0 305 195

Cincinnati................2 13 0 243 376

Houston...................1 14 0 202 342

Western Division San Diego............10 5 0 344 272

LA Raiders.............9 6 0 294 308

Kansas City............8 7 0 300 289

Denver.....................7 8 0 319 366

Seattle......................6 9 0 278 288

NATIONAL CONFERENCE Eastern Division Dallas...................11 3 0 380 217

Arizona...................8 7 0 229 257

NY Giants...............8 7 0 264 295

Philadelphia.........7 8 0 278 275

Washington..........2 13 0 296 391

Central Division Detroit...................9 6 0 337 315

Minnesota...........9 6 0 335 300

Chicago.................9 6 0 268 294

Green Bay...........8 7 0 348 268

Tampa Bay.........6 9 0 232 317

Western Division San Francisco 13 2 0 491 275

New Orleans.......6 8 0 302 355

Atlanta.................6 9 0 307 379

LA Rams..............4 11 0 265 341

*Clinched play-off berth Clinched Division title /ET

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