American football: Marino passes magical 400 total

THE MIAMI quarterback, Dan Marino, has been overshadowed by the other passing legend, Denver's John Elway, for much of the season, but on Sunday the veteran Dolphin reclaimed centre stage when he threw the 400th touchdown pass of his 16-year career.

The pass, one of three scoring plays to the receiver O J McDuffie in the 30-10 win over the New Orleans Saints, means that Marino is the only player ever to throw 400 touchdowns. The achievement is all the more remarkable when you consider that Elway, the third most prolific touchdown passer ever, has yet to throw 300.

Marino has been around long enough to realise that owning virtually every record counts for little, and he would probably happily give them all up for the one thing he craves most, a Super Bowl ring. "It's a lot of touchdown passes," he said afterwards, "but winning is the most important thing".

That has always been the tenet of the irascible Saints coach, Mike Ditka, who guided the Chicago Bears to the championship in 1986. Success has proved harder to come by in New Orleans, and while Ditka has worked hard to control his infamous temper, the loss in Miami prompted another spectacular tirade.

"That is the most pathetic exhibition of football I have ever seen," he fumed. "Defense was horrible, offense was horrible, and special teams weren't any better. We were outcoached and outplayed."

High drama in New England, where the Patriots kept their season alive with a dramatic 25-21 victory over the Buffalo Bills. Their quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, played the game despite a double fracture of the index finger in his throwing hand, and his leadership proved the difference in a hard-fought affair.

The game's final moments proved highly controversial. Trailing by four points, Bledsoe led his team on one last drive. With less than 10 seconds left, he completed a pass to Shawn Jefferson. The officials ruled it a good catch, although replays showed that Jefferson was out of bounds.

Then, as time expired, he threw a pass into the end zone which fell incomplete. The referee called a penalty against Buffalo, giving the Patriots one more play with no time left. Bledsoe duly completed the fairytale with a one yard touchdown to Ben Coates, prompting delight on one sideline, protests on the other.

No such excitement in St Louis, where the Atlanta Falcons booked their play-off spot with a 21-10 triumph over the Rams. The Falcons missed their injured quarterback, Chris Chandler, but the running back Jamal Anderson was at his best again, rushing for 188 yards on 31 attempts, including a 27-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter which sealed the win.

There were no problems for two other post-season aspirants, the New York Jets and the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jets disposed of the Carolina Panthers 48-21, the running back Curtis Martin scoring twice and gaining 110 yards in total. The quarterback Vinny Testaverde continued to prosper, throwing a pair of touchdowns to the receiver Wayne Chrebet.

Jacksonville negotiated a potentially awkward trip to Cincinnati thanks to their quarterback, Mark Brunell, who threw four scoring passes in the 34-17 triumph.

Elsewhere, the Green Bay Packers saw the return of the running back Dorsey Levens, who missed the last nine games through injury. The Packers duly disposed of the Philadelphia Eagles, 24-16. The Seattle Seahawks kept their flickering hopes alive when the kicker Todd Peterson converted a 48-yard field goal to give the Seahawks a 20-18 verdict over the Tennessee Oilers.

The pre-season Super Bowl favourites Kansas City ended their wretched six-game losing streak by defeating the Arizona Cardinals. The quarterback Rich Gannon threw three touchdowns, but despite the 34-24 result, the Chiefs' season has effectively come to its end.

Results and tables, Digest, page 27