Underdogs just fail at final hurdle

AMERICAN FOOTBALL: Dallas and Pittsburgh struggled to reach Super Bowl, reports Matt Tench
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The Independent Online
The Green Bay Packers and Indianapolis Colts will have a long time to come to terms with heroic failure. Both were given little chance when entering hostile territory against highly-fancied opponents, and both produced outstanding performances. But both will be back home awaiting the start of the 1996 season when the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh's Steelers contest the Super Bowl in a fortnight.

In the process, the two underdogs posed some serious questions about the calibre of their adversaries. If the Steelers cannot contain an Indianapolis offense shorn of its most lethal weapon, what chance do they stand against a Dallas armoury boasting Aikman, Smith and Irvin, not to mention Sanders? If the Cowboys' defense allows a one-dimensional attack such as Green Bay's so many chances, can it really be more effective against the better- balanced Pittsburgh unit?

Overall, though, the feeling remains that the Boys are by some way the Class of '96, that they simply have too much talent in too many areas to be denied. A fearsome Pittsburgh defense can be expected to confront the challenge with gusto, but is unlikely to be able to cope with Emmitt Smith. Few do.

The Packers kept an enthralling NFC Championship game close for three quarters, but at the death were beaten by their own exhaustion. For this, Smith and the daunting bunch of heavies known as his linemen must take the credit. Never more threatening than in a big game Smith rushed for 150 yards and three touchdowns, including the two scores in the fourth quarter that gave the Cowboys a 38-27 victory.

That Green Bay were in contention for so long was largely due to Brett Favre. The Pack quarterback's first six passes fell incomplete, but his seventh and eight yielded scores, and having trailed 14-3 (thanks to two Michael Irvin TDs) the visitors suddenly led 17-14.

The Cowboys were back in front by half-time, but a 10-point third quarter saw the Packers regain the lead again. By now, though, the cumulative effects of Smith's relentless plunges down the middle had taken their toll, and come the denouement Green Bay simply had no answer to him.

Because they were without the reliable running of the injured Marshall Faulk, the Colts had been given little chance in Pittsburgh, but as has been their wont throughout the play-offs, Ted Marchibroda's team rose to the occasion. Indeed they very nearly made it to the Super Bowl. With five seconds left and trailing 20-16, Jim Harbaugh launched a bomb into the end zone which tumbled on to the chest of receiver Aaron Bailey as it bounced off a sea of hands. Had Bailey clung on it would have been one of the plays of all time, but the ball rolled down his arm and fell incomplete.

For the Steelers and their enthusiastic fans it brought an ecstatic ending to a nerve-wracking day, but they will have to play a great deal better if Dallas are to be seriously challenged for the Super Bowl.

n Gil Haskell, the Green Bay wide receivers coach, was taken to hospital with a fractured skull after banging his head on the artificial turf following an accident on the sidelines in the championship game. Haskell fell when the Dallas safety Darren Woodson hit the Green Bay receiver Robert Brooks into touch, and Brooks fell into 51-year-old Haskell. His condition yesterday was described as "serious".