The 37-34 triumph over the Miami Dolphins improved the Colts' record to 10 victories from 12 games, producing the first 10-win season for 22 years for the franchise, and all but guaranteed involvement in next month's play-offs. Furthermore, the manner of their eighth win in succession served notice that the Colts are now genuine Super Bowl contenders.
As they have been for much of the campaign, the Colts were indebted to their triple offensive threat of the quarterback Peyton Manning, the running back Edgerrin James and the wide receiver Marvin Harrison, all of whom made significant contributions. The Dolphins never held a lead but rallied from 31-17 down to tie the game when Dan Marino threw his third touchdown pass of the night to Stanley Pritchett. Marino's efforts were in vain, however, when the Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt converted a 53-yard field goal to give them a three-point edge in the dying seconds.
Afterwards, Marino vented his frustration on reporters during the post- game press conference. "I'll tell you how tough it is," he said. "You work your butt off all week and lose a game like that by three points with two seconds left. That's how tough it is, but you wouldn't know, would you?"
The St Louis Rams, became the first franchise this season to qualify for post-season play following the 34-21 victory in Carolina, a result which also gave the Rams their first divisional title in 14 years. Their quarterback, Kurt Warner, threw three touchdown passes to give his side an early 21-point advantage, while the running back Marshall Faulk gained more than 200 yards of total offense.
Like the Colts, the Rams look genuine Super Bowl contenders, but the manner of the Panthers' rally - at one stage they reduced the deficit to three points - suggests they are not yet the finished product.
"We have a long way to go," said Warner. "We've got a great team and we play together. We have so many guys who can make plays, we just have to go out and show everybody."
Elsewhere, the Detroit Lions continue to prove that there is life after Barry Sanders. Most observers expected the Lions to flop following the surprise retirement of their major running back in the summer. That has not been the case, a fact confirmed by their 33-17 stroll past the Washington Redskins.
History was against the Lions: they had been beaten by their rivals on 16 consecutive occasions in a streak dating back to 1965. However, they also unleashed an unlikely potent weapon. Desmond Howard, the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XXXI, was signed by the team on Saturday, and within 24 hours he repaid Detroit's faith by breaking a 10-10 tie when he scored on a 68-yard punt return.
The moment would have been all the sweeter for Howard, who was drafted by the Redskins in 1991 but failed to shine in the nation's capital. Subsequently cut by both Oakland Raiders and Green Bay Packers, Howard's career has been in limbo, but the move to Detroit may give him the boost his career needs.
Washington's loss, combined with the Dallas Cowboys' unexpected 13-6 defeat in New England, means that the NFC Eastern division is wide open. Both the Arizona Cardinals and the New York Giants took advantage with wins, although the Cardinals left it until the final minute before Jake Plummer scored on a one-yard run to give his side a 21-17 win.
No such drama in New York, where the Giants downed the Jets 41-28. The quarterback Kerry Collins threw three touchdowns passes, while the receiver Amani Toomer caught six receptions for 181 yards.
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