When Atlanta Falcons running back Jamal Anderson was able to walk off the field after being injured in Monday night's loss to Dallas, no one believed the right knee that had buckled under him a minute earlier was anything more than sprained.

But that was before Anderson's adrenaline faded and before the results of an MRI test were complete. Yesterday, both the picture and the story were much different: Results showed that Anderson -- now unable to do much more than lean on his crutches -- has a torn anterior cruciate ligament, knocking him out for the rest of the season.

The news devastates Atlanta's hopes of repeating as NFC champion and is the latest in a series of setbacks for the four teams that were in the NFL's conference championship games just nine months ago. In that short time, injuries, player controversies and poor play have left the Falcons, New York Jets, Denver Broncos and Minnesota Vikings with a combined 1-7 record, with talk often focusing more on stretchers than Super Bowl rings.

"I'm extremely upset and saddened by this turn of fate," said Anderson, whose "Dirty Bird" dance became a symbol of Atlanta's run to the Super Bowl last season. "I will do everything in my power to return better than I was before, as quickly as I can."

Anderson, 26, held out for two weeks this preseason before signing a five-year, $32 million contract. The deal was based on the franchise-record 1,846 yards Anderson ran last year and the NFL record he set with 410 carries. On Monday, however, he only made it to his third carry of the game before going down without being touched. Without him, Atlanta lost, 24-7, failing to move inside the Dallas 30-yard line until the fourth quarter.

Atlanta Coach Dan Reeves now will have to depend on third-year back Byron Hanspard, who missed last season with an injured knee after rushing for 335 yards as a rookie. When asked yesterday whether he thought Anderson's injury was in any way a result of his contract holdout, Reeves said, "Everybody has got their opinions and so forth, but you don't know and you never will know.

"It is just unfortunate that it happened. It happens a lot. It seems like when a guy holds out, he comes back in and has injuries. That is the tough part."

Denver (0-2) doesn't have as severe an injury problem, although linebacker John Mobley is also out for the season with a torn knee ligament. Still, it's the Broncos' healthy players who can't seem to win, as Coach Mike Shanahan has been forced to play musical quarterbacks. Shanahan started the preseason with Bubby Brister, then switched to rookie Brian Griese. He pulled Griese for Brister in a 26-10 loss at Kansas City on Sunday, although he said Griese will start again next weekend. Meanwhile, high-profile free agent signee Dale Carter, a former all-pro cornerback, was badly beaten twice on deep patterns in his first return to Arrowhead Stadium.

The Vikings (1-1) aren't struggling quite as badly, beating Atlanta in their season opener, but they still are adjusting to a new offensive coordinator. More troubling is the performance of place kicker Gary Anderson, who seems to have lost the golden touch that gave him a perfect field goal record in the regular season last year. In just two games this season, he is 2 for 6.

With six starters out, New York's struggles do appear to be injury-related, especially now that quarterback Vinny Testaverde will miss the rest of the season with a torn Achilles' tendon. Still, Coach Bill Parcells believes his team's level of play could be a lot higher.

"It wasn't injuries," he said of his team's 17-3 loss at Buffalo. "I wouldn't use that as an excuse. It's poor playing, and that's something we need to overcome."

Reeves was equally businesslike when discussing Anderson's injury.

"This is the way life is -- you are not going to get any sympathy from anybody," he said. "People aren't really interested in anything other than results. We're going to have to play the best we can possibly play with whatever people we've got."