AMERICAN FOOTBALL: Stampeding Broncos look hard to stop

TRADITIONALLY, THE half-way point of the season is a time for pundits to assess whether those teams which have so far managed to avoid defeat can maintain their progress and join the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only team in history to have enjoyed a perfect campaign.

This year, only the Denver Broncos and the Minnesota Vikings have maintained an unblemished record, and while the Vikings have some difficult games in prospect, it is becoming difficult to see who can topple the Broncos.

The defending Super Bowl champions were expected to be given a severe test by the Jacksonville Jaguars, but the 37-24 scoreline barely reflects Denver's superiority. It was the Broncos 12th win a row, and their 20th at home.

The win will be remembered for two individual performances. The Denver running back, Terrell Davis, gained 136 yards on the ground, thereby giving him 1,000 for the season. Only gridiron legends Jim Brown and O J Simpson have ever achieved that feat in seven games, and Davis is on course to beat the single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards set by Eric Dickerson in 1984.

The Denver kicker, Jason Elam, is less likely to be remembered as one of the game's greats, but his date with destiny came just before half- time, when he converted a 63-yard field goal, equalling the all-time record set by Tom Dempsey of the New Orleans Saints in 1970.

The kick prompted wild celebrations on the Denver sideline. "The goalposts looked pretty skinny from way back there, so I tried not to look at them too much," he said. "It's an old record, and I'm proud to have a piece of it."

No such heroics in Detroit, where the Vikings' unbeaten record looked in danger as the Lions enjoyed a 13-10 advantage at half-time. However, the second half was a different affair. The quarterback, Randall Cunningham, threw a 10-yard touchdown to Cris Carter, the running back Robert Smith scored on a 57-yard run, and Jimmy Hitchcock thrilled Vikings fans with a 79-yard interception return for a touchdown as the Vikings ran out comfortable 34-13 winners.

Afterwards Cunningham gave credit for the victory to his head coach, Dennis Greene, whose famed powers of motivation certainly had an effect on his players.

"He came in at half-time and said a few things that came from the heart," he said. "I believe he's going to be a preacher one of these days."

Another win for the San Francisco 49ers, and more honours for the receiver Jerry Rice. Rice set a new record by catching a pass in his 184th consecutive game, then picked up a touchdown pass from Steve Young, the 79th time that the partnership has connected for a score, equalling the record established by Dan Marino and Mark Clayton of the Miami Dolphins. The 49ers were too strong for the St Louis Rams, their 28-10 triumph confirming that they remain genuine Super Bowl candidates.

Elsewhere, the Buffalo Bills stampeded to their fourth win in a row, overwhelming the Carolina Panthers, 30-14. The victory was inspired by their reserve quarterback, Doug Flutie, who continues to confound his critics. "I can't throw deep, I'm too old, I'm too short, I can't play in the cold. I've heard it all," he said. After Flutie completed 18 of his 22 passes for 282 yards and two scores against the Panthers, his detractors may elect to maintain a low profile.

After enduring some sticky moments in recent weeks, the Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints all returned to winning ways at the expense of the Baltimore Ravens, San Diego Chargers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers respectively.