American football: Familiar failings for head Chief

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American football

MATT TENCH

January is a cruel month for Marty Schottenheimer. One of the most experienced head coaches in the business, the leader of the Kansas City Chiefs has made a name for himself by turning round franchises and coaxing winning performances from moderate teams.

Once the play-offs begin, however, his record trails off like a Duran Duran single. For all his success, Schottenheimer has never been to a Super Bowl. This year, though, he appeared destined for a happier New Year. Having taken the original route to success of no longer employing Joe Montana, the Chiefs compiled the best regular season record in the league.

This guaranteed them home advantage throughout the post-season and, as they had not been beaten at Arrowhead Stadium all year, or in any play- off game, their fans were entitled to be looking up flights to Arizona.

That their visitors on Sunday were the Indianapolis Colts only heightened the optimism. The Colts, who squeaked into the the play-offs, upset the odds by winning in San Diego a week ago, but were without the running back Marshall Faulk, their only outstanding player, and looked ripe for a beating.

When Steve Bono found Lake Dawson for a 20-yard TD in the first quarter such confidence seemed well-placed. But once the Colts had drawn level - from a Jim Harbaugh pass to Floyd Turner - Schottenheimer was faced with a massive dose of deja vu. His offense repeatedly stalled, and on the rare occasions they ventured within field-goal range Lin Elliott missed them, from 35, 39 and 43 yards. The last was in the final minute and its failure meant that Cary Blanchard's 31-yard kick gave the Colts a remarkable 10-7 victory.

"Everybody's disappointed," Schottenheimer said in a speech he knows well. "The players, the coaches, our organisation and our fans. It's never easy to be eliminated from the playoffs," Which has been the fate of the Colts in each of the last six years under Schottenheimer, a period when they have reached the championship game just once. It was much the same in Cleveland, where Schottenheimer was head coach in the Eighties. There, he led the club to four play-off berths without making it to the Super Bowl.

The Colts' reward is a trip to Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship, which looks a journey too far, though in a season characterised by upsets we may have another shock or two in store.

If so, it is marginally more likely to come in Dallas at the NFC Championship game. Having deposed the Super Bowl holders, the Green Bay Packers will feel confident taking on anybody, and in Brett Favre they have the sport's hottest player. However, there were signs in the Cowboys' pummelling of Philadelphia that they are back to their awesome early-season form and, in Deion Sanders, they have unleashed a new offensive running talent.

His remarkable scramble began a 30-11 rout, and had his quarterback drooling. "I've never seen anything like it," Troy Aikman said. "It was absolutely unbelievable. I started to try to throw a block but decided, 'Naw, I'll just get out of the way.' "

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