American Football: Bills count the cost

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The Independent Online
THE continuing inability of the AFC to produce a legitimate contender for the Super Bowl has haunted the NFL for eight seasons now, and with this year's play-offs less than a month away it looks as though we are destined for another hyped up mis-match.

Two of the division leaders in the American Conference lost this week, as did Miami and Denver who nurture realistic post-season ambitions, and even Pittsburgh's 10th win (which guarantees them work into the New Year) was achieved with a notable lack of elan.

Most worried by their recent form will be the Buffalo Bills, who followed up defeat in Indianapolis a week ago with a loss at home to the New York Jets. The Jets' preparation was overshadowed by the broken neck suffered by the defensive end Dennis Byrd in their previous game against Kansas City. Byrd remains seriously injured, feared paralysed, in hospital, and all his team-mates and some of the Bills wore his No 90 on their uniforms as a tribute to their stricken colleague.

Without six starters the Jets should not have been able to compete with the Bills but a spirited, hustling performance saw them level at 17-17 late in the fourth quarter. Brian Washington then intercepted a Jim Kelly pass and returned it 23 yards for the winning touchdown. 'It was therapeutic to get back out there on the football field and let it all out,' Marvin Washington, the Jets defensive end, said.

Buffalo are still the most talented team in the conference, but their fragile psyche is unlikely to cope with many more surprise defeats, and even if they do make it to a third successive Super Bowl the signs are they will be less able than ever to chalk up a victory.

The Kansas City Chiefs, like the Bills, remain top of their division despite defeat. They faltered in Los Angeles where the Raiders restricted their feared rushing attack to a laughable 17 yards. Jay Schroeder had one of his better games, throwing for two touchdowns as the Raiders won 28-7.

Miami were thrashed 27-3 in San Francisco, their fifth defeat in seven after starting the season 6-0. Don Shula, their head coach, found consolation hard to come by. 'That's about as bad as it gets. We never challenged them,' he said. Highlight of the game was when Jerry Rice set a new NFL record by hauling in his 101st touchdown pass.

Denver lost at home for the first time this season, beaten 31-27 by Dallas. However, against a team many expect to get to the Super Bowl, and without John Elway again, they will be less discouraged than many of their AFC brethren. After the Cowboys had gone ahead early the Broncos tried everything to win the game including trick plays and alternating their back-up quarterbacks.

Pittsburgh did manage a win, but their 20-14 defeat of Seattle was not the sort of performance to worry potential rivals. They threw five interceptions, including Neil O'Donnell's first three attempts of the game, failed on four straight plays on the Seattle one- yard line, and then lost O'Donnell when he suffered a broken right leg. The only plus was the overused but ever reliable Barry Foster, who rushed for 125 yards. 'I am beginning to feel it physically,' he said. 'Every week, I feel the aches and pains longer. I'd like to see more passing.'

Over in the NFC the most significant development may be a return to form by Randall Cunningham. The Philadelphia quarterback was back doing what he does best - scrambling and unsettling defenses - in the Eagles

28-17 victory over Minnesota. Cunningham ended up with 121 yards, two touchdowns and a smile on his face. 'Richie (Kotite, the Eagles head coach) told me during the week that the Vikings defense is quick and strong. He told me to take off whenever I could,' Cunningham said. 'Right now I'm the happiest I've been in my life.'

NFL: Cleveland 37 Cincinnati 21; Green Bay 38 Detroit 10; Indianapolis 6 New England 0; Philadelphia 28 Minnesota 17; New York Jets 24 Buffalo 17; Pittsburgh 20 Seattle 14; Dallas 31 Denver 27; Los Angeles Raiders 28 Kansas City 7; San Francisco 27 Miami 3; San Diego 27 Phoenix 21; Washington 28 New York Giants 10; LA Rams 31 Tampa Bay 27.

----------------------------------------------------------------- NFL STANDINGS ----------------------------------------------------------------- AMERICAN CONFERENCE ----------------------------------------------------------------- Eastern Division W L T F A Buffalo 9 4 0 331 223 Miami 8 5 0 285 244 Indianapolis 6 7 0 169 266 NY Jets 4 9 0 197 266 New England 2 11 0 162 300 Central Division *Pittsburgh 10 3 0 267 176 Houston 7 5 0 270 218 Cleveland 7 6 0 231 211 Cincinnati 4 9 0 227 306 Western Division Kansas City 8 5 0 258 207 San Diego 8 5 0 241 203 Denver 7 6 0 215 254 LA Raiders 6 7 0 207 205 Seattle 2 11 0 113 251 ----------------------------------------------------------------- NATIONAL CONFERENCE ----------------------------------------------------------------- Eastern Division *Dallas 11 2 0 324 192 Washington 8 5 0 247 200 Philadelphia 8 5 0 297 205 NY Giants 5 8 0 261 307 Phoenix 3 10 0 208 309 Central Division Minnesota 9 4 0 324 219 Green Bay 7 6 0 225 242 Chicago 4 8 0 241 288 Tampa Bay 4 9 0 243 302 Detroit 3 10 0 227 291 Western Division *San Francisco 11 2 0 366 199 *New Orleans 10 3 0 257 168 Atlanta 5 8 0 248 328 LA Rams 5 8 0 248 291 ----------------------------------------------------------------- (* secured play-off berth) -----------------------------------------------------------------