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American Football: Morton's late touchdown shows Detroit's self- belief is catching

AT THE start of the season it was widely assumed that the Detroit Lions would be an unlikely Super Bowl contender. Their beleaguered coach, Bobby Ross, was perceived as a distant, cold figure, while the team also had to cope with the unexpected retirement of their most gifted player, the running back Barry Sanders, in the summer.

The 1999 campaign was expected to be one of futility. Instead, it is turning into one of genuine excitement. The Lions' thrilling 31-27 victory over the St Louis Rams was their sixth triumph from eight games, and it was achieved without their leading wide receiver, the injured Herman Moore, and their starting quarterback, Charlie Batch, who was forced out with a hand injury.

His replacement, Gus Frerotte, threw a touchdown pass to Cory Schlesinger, but Detroit's cause seemed lost when the St Louis quarterback, Kurt Warner, connected with Ryan Tucker to give the visitors a three-point lead with less than three minutes remaining.

Deep in their own half of the field, facing a massive fourth down and 26 and with less than a minute left, Detroit needed a miracle. Frerotte hurled the ball in the direction of Germane Crowell, who raced past Dexter McCleon for a 56-yard completion. The Lions then finished the job when Frerotte found Johnnie Morton with a 12-yard score with 28 seconds on the clock.

The Lions, who appear to thrive in adversity, are clearly gaining in self-belief. "This game shows we're for real now," said the safety Ron Rice, who intercepted Warner's desperation pass on the last play of the game to seal the win. "We've always believed in ourselves, but I think now other people have to respect us too."

Self-belief is clearly evident in Miami as well, where the Dolphins continue to prevail despite the absence of their talisman, the quarterback Dan Marino. Miami's strength this season is a smothering defence, which choked the life out of the Tennessee Titans in a 17-0 Dolphin win.

Miami's Sam Madison played through a stomach upset but still managed three interceptions, while Marino's replacement, Damon Huard, played within his limitations to throw a pair of touchdown passes. Defense is the story for the Dolphins, however: they have not allowed a touchdown in 14 quarters of play, and have given up 15 points in the last three games.

The memory of Walter Payton, the great former Chicago Bears running back who died last week at just 45, was honoured at grounds around the NFL, but had a particular poignancy in Wisconsin, where the Bears visited the Green Bay Packers. During his 13 years in Chicago colours, Payton had tormented the Packers on several occasions, and it seemed fitting that the 1999 vintage prevailed over their bitter rivals by a narrow 14-13 margin.

Green Bay should have won. Ryan Longwell attempted what would have been a game-winning 28-yard field goal inside the final 10 seconds, but the kick was blocked by Chicago's Bryan Robinson, who later claimed assistance from the other side. "I think Walter Payton actually picked me up," he said. "I can't jump that high."

The Seattle Seahawks are aiming high too. Their 37-20 trouncing of feeble Cincinnati was their sixth win in seven games, the quarterback Jon Kitna throwing three touchdown passes. The Seahawks have not reached the play- offs since 1988, the longest drought in the NFL, but look equipped to end that barren spell.

Similarly the Indianapolis Colts continue to impress, their 25-17 win over the gritty Kansas City Chiefs inspired by their young quarterback, Peyton Manning.