American Football: Steelers spoil the Saints' march

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THE New Orleans Saints took the league's last 100 per cent record to Pittsburgh on Sunday. Sixty bruising minutes later the Saints were back among the beatables, while Steeler fans were reminiscing about big hits from the 1970s.

Back then, the sport was dominated by the Pittsburgh Steelers. After the present side's 37-14 demolition of the Saints, those with long memories were entitled to a quick chorus of 'It's good to be back'. It may be too early to talk Super Bowls, but on current form the Steelers look the class of the AFC and, if Sunday's game is anything to go by, more than a match for many in the National Conference as well.

The Seventies Steelers were built around a destructive defense known as the Steel Curtain. Under Bill Cowher, the head coach, the curtain has been redrawn. A vindictive, highly physical unit, it draws inspiration from Rod Woodson, a dynamic cornerback who consistently comes up with game-winning plays. Woodson picked off the Saints' first pass and returned it 63 yards for a touchdown to set the tone for a first half in which the Steelers were utterly dominant.

By the end the Pittsburgh defense had three interceptions, five sacks and had limited the Saints to 49 rushing yards - 110 below their average. 'We went after the ball with fire,' Woodson, who leads the NFL with seven interceptions, said. 'We'd been hearing a lot about how the NFC is superior to the AFC, especially on defense. Tell them the Saints were in Steeler country.' The Steelers have won four in a row, after losing their first two, as have the Dallas Cowboys, who beat the San Francisco 49ers 26-17 in a rematch of last year's NFC Championship game. Michael Irvin claimed a dozen catches including a touchdown, while Emmitt Smith, who missed this season's two losses because of his contract hold-out, rushed for 92 yards and a touchdown.

The Cowboys remain a game behind the New York Giants in the NFC East. The Giants exploited the ravaged roster of the Philadelphia Eagles to win 21-10, Lewis Tillman scampering for 169 yards. For the Eagles, the play list has become secondary to the casualty list, this week's victim being the quarterback Bubby Brister, who sprained an ankle in the first quarter.

The big surprise in this division has been the collapse of the Washington Redskins, who were thrashed 36-6 in Phoenix. Eric Swann, the Phoenix defensive lineman, set up three scores as his side beat the Skins for the second time this season. Washington have now conceded 77 points in their last two games and have lost five in a row.

In California, a familiar figure was faced with a four-point deficit and time running out. He promptly drove his side 80 yards, which included making a fourth and 10, to win the game with less than two minutes remaining. Joe Montana has resumed normal service, only his shirt has changed. The Kansas City Chiefs won 17-14 in San Diego.

NFL: Cleveland 28 Cincinnati 17; Detroit 30 Seattle 10; Houston 28 New England 14; NY Giants 21 Philadelphia 10; Pittsburgh 37 New Orleans 14; Dallas 26 San Francisco 17; Phoenix 36 Washington 6; Kansas City 17 San Diego 14. Did not play: Buffalo, Indianapolis, Miami, NY Jets, Chicago, Green Bay, Minnesota, Tampa Bay.