American Football: The 49ers crack as Eagles soar in fault-finding mission: Shock reversal at Candlestick Park highlights topsy-turvy form in potentially thrilling season. Matt Tench reports

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AFTER a month of pleasingly confused endeavour, the 1994 season is already shaping up as the most enthralling in recent memory. This week's action simply added to the fascinating complexities; sharpening up a couple of plotlines, blurring a whole lot more. The Bills and the Giants lost to sides they should have beaten, the Cardinals and Buccaneers beat sides they should have lost to, while the fans of the San Francisco 49ers witnessed the shock of the season.

Regulars at the Candlestick are accustomed to seeing sides beaten by more than 30 points. What they are not used to is seeing their side beaten by 30 points. In any season, the Philadelphia Eagles' 40-8 victory would have raised eyebrows. In this one, which the 49ers began as favourites for the Super Bowl, it is close to unbelievable. 'Not in my wildest dreams did I think this could happen,' Tim McDonald, the 49er safety, said.

Residents of the Bay Area know a thing or two about living with fault lines. What their sporting community have trouble accepting is that they now have the faultiest line of all - the one charged with protecting their quarterback, Steve Young.

Protecting is hardly the word. With half the starters sidelined by injury, the back-ups have allowed Young to receive regular beatings, even when the 49ers have been winning. Against the Eagles, Young was knocked unconscious in the third quarter while being sacked by William Fuller. Having been intercepted twice and sacked in the end zone for a safety, though, his performance had hardly been commanding up to then.

Offensively, the Eagles enjoyed a vintage performance from their quarterback Randall Cunningham, and a highly promising one from the running back Charlie Garner. Cunningham threw for a couple of TDs, Garner, on his

debut, ran for two more and 111 yards. It was the biggest defeat in George Seifert's six years as the 49ers head coach, suggesting that, unless they find a way of keeping Young upright, they stand no chance of making the Super Bowl for all the outstanding talent elsewhere in the team.

The New York Giants lost their unbeaten record in New Orleans, where the Saints defense sacked the quarterback Dave Brown seven times in a 27-22 victory. A third surprise saw the Buffalo Bills beaten in Chicago. Without the injured Thurman Thomas, much of the offensive load fell to the quarterback Jim Kelly, who responded with two interceptions in a 20-13 defeat. 'Offensively we stunk,' Kelly said.

There were more upsets. Just as the Minnesota Vikings were beginning to look like the dark horses of the NFC, they were ambushed in Arizona. Jay Schroeder, the third starting quarterback in three games, played well (itself a surprise) guiding the Cards to their first victory under Buddy Ryan. With Detroit losing mystifyingly against Tampa Bay, despite Barry Sanders routine 100- yard game, the results leave all five teams in the NFC Central within a game of one another, just as they are in the NFC West.

Cincinnati was just about the only place where the form book was rigorously observed. Don Shula pitted his Miami side against the Bengals, who are led by his son, David - the first time father and son have opposed each other as head coaches in an NFL game. David had claimed the support of his sisters, and most of the Shula family, but dad turned up with Dan Marino and the Dolphins ran out comfortable winners.

NFL: NY Jets 7 at Cleveland 27, Detroit 14 at Tampa Bay 24, Green Bay 16 at New England 17, Dallas 34 at Washington 7, Seattle 15 at Indianapolis 17, NY Giants 22 at New Orleans 27, Buffalo 13 at Chicago 20, Minnesota 7 at Arizona 17, Atlanta 8 at LA Rams 5, Philadelphia 40 at San Francisco 8, Miami 23 at Cincinnati 7. Did not play: Denver, Kansas City, LA Raiders, San Diego,

Standings, Sport in Short, page 35