American Football: Montana makes magic: Injury-prone quarterback goes the full distance to lift Chiefs to victory over fancied Bills. Matt Tench reports

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IF THEY played once a month then Joe Montana could be a Super Bowl quarterback into the next century. Playing as they do once a week there are doubts about Montana's ability to guide the Kansas City Chiefs to the big game this year, but few of them concern his talent.

Montana, 37, starting for the first time since October, played as if he had never been away on Sunday, passing for 208 yards, including a couple of touchdowns, as he guided the Chiefs to a comfortable 23-7 victory over the fancied Buffalo Bills. 'I still had those jitters about getting back in there,' Montana said. 'On the whole I'll take it, but hopefully it'll get better.'

Since Montana left San Francisco in the summer the most carefully scanned reports in Missouri have been his medical bulletins. He has eluded the season-ending injuries that have taken care of Randall Cunningham and Dan Marino, but a succession of smaller ones have made him an infrequent performer. Even when he has started there has been no guarantee he would finish, prompting the riddle: what's the difference between Joe Montana and a dollar? You get four quarters out of a dollar.

The state of Montana must still be the biggest worry for the Chiefs, but they are on top of the highly competitive AFC West and playing well. (Marcus Allen, another veteran superstar to join in the summer, is having an excellent season.) Dauntingly, for the rest of the conference, they are 5-0 when Montana starts.

Montana's previous employers, the 49ers, had another resounding victory, 35-10 at the Los Angeles Rams, with Jerry Rice bagging another couple of TDs and Steve Young passing for a career-high 462 yards. The 49ers know a thing or two about timing patterns, and again seem to have pulled off the most important one of all: how to be playing well at the business end of the season. With the Cowboys losing twice last week, the 49ers suddenly look the team to beat.

The Houston Oilers won their sixth in a row, beating the Pittsburgh Steelers, their principal rivals in the AFC Central, 23-3 in the Astrodome. The Cleveland Browns, contenders in that division until recently, lost for the fourth time in a row since their head coach, Bill Belichick, cut Bernie Kosar, and will struggle to make the play-offs. If they fail, Belichick is unlikely to make next season.

Another head coach who could be heading for the exit is Joe Bugel at Phoenix. After a number of disappointing seasons, the Cardinals owner, William Bidwill, has said that Bugel would be fired unless he constructed a winning season in 1993. After this week's defeat by New York Giants the Cards' record is 3-8, making 8-8 the most they can hope for.

The Cincinnati Bengals will not have a winning season either, but at least they have a win. After 10 successive defeats this season, and 11 overall, the Bungles supped victory for the first time in nearly a year with a 16-10 victory over the Los Angeles Raiders.

NFL: Atlanta 17 Cleveland 14; Cincinnati 16 LA Raiders 10; Green Bay 13 Tampa Bay 10; New Orleans 17 Minnesota 14; Philadelphia 17 Washington 14; NY Jets 6 New England 0; Kansas City 23 Buffalo 7; San Francisco 35 LA Rams 10; NY Giants 19 Phoenix 17; Denver 17 Seattle 9; Houston 23 Pittsburgh 3; Kansas City 23 Buffalo 7; San Francisco 35 LA Rams 10; NY Giants 19 Phoenix 17; Denver 17 Seattle 9.

Standings, Sporting Digest, page 39

(Photograph omitted)