AMERICAN FOOTBALL: Favourites fall to leave Super Bowl stage set for surprise

WITH ONLY seven weeks left in the regular season, the battle for a place in the Super Bowl continues to throw up surprise contenders and unexpected heroes. The only certainty is that January's finale is likely to be between teams who were not among the pre-season favourites.

That is the case with the Indianapolis Colts, who won just three games last season. Now, following Sunday's 44-17 demolition of the Philadelphia Eagles, the Colts have won eight of their first 10 contests, and appear to be getting stronger with each outing.

The Eagles were undone by a combination of the Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning, who threw three touchdowns, and the rookie running back Edgerrin James, who gained almost 200 all-purpose yards and scored three times. The improvement in Manning, who endured a stormy debut season a year ago, continues apace: he has now thrown a touchdown pass in 23 consecutive games and looks capable of fulfilling the potential he showed during his collegiate career.

The Seattle Seahawks can also be listed among the unlikely contenders. The Seahawks have not qualified for the play-offs since 1988, the longest drought in the league, but look certain to end that run following their 31-19 triumph in Kansas City.

The arrival of their new head coach, Mike Holmgren, has had a galvanising effect on a team that traditionally promises much yet delivers little. The running back Ricky Watters scored twice, while Jon Kitna added a pair of touchdown passes in a win which, barring a late-season collapse, effectively guarantees Seattle only their second divisional title in 24 years.

The St Louis Rams look similarly unstoppable. Their 23-7 win over the ailing San Francisco 49ers may have been short of fireworks, but it marked the first time in 19 seasons that the Rams have completed a clean sweep of their bitter rivals, and the memories of a horrible 17-game losing sequence have finally been erased.

After losing in Buffalo last week, the Miami Dolphins have been forced to endure the harsh words and boot camp brutality of their head coach, Jimmy Johnson, during preparations for the visit of New England. Johnson will doubtless be happy with a performance in which Damon Huard threw a pair of touchdowns to Oronde Gadsden, and the defense contributed five sacks and five interceptions in a 27-17 win.

There were few problems for the Jacksonville Jaguars in their stroll past the willing but inept New Orleans Saints, while the Tennessee Titans can perform a lot better than their 16-10 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers would suggest.

The Green Bay Packers kept their hopes alive with a crucial come-from- behind effort against the Detroit Lions. Defeat would have effectively ended their season, but inspired by the play of their quarterback Brett Favre they overcame a 14-6 deficit when the receiver Corey Bradford made a spectacular one-handed catch to put them ahead.

The Packers prevailed 26-17, but of greater consequence than the scoreline was the play of Favre, who has been troubled by a thumb injury in recent weeks. That the inspirational quarterback has regained his accuracy will be a source of concern for everyone else as the business of play-off qualification begins in earnest.

Results, tables, Digest, page 29

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