Dolphins in the doldrums again

As the Miami Dolphins cruised to victories in their first three games it was possible to believe that Jimmy Johnson was the magician the Florida faithful believed him to be during a summer long on hype but short on reality. Just. Then again Miami usually do well in September. By the time Thanksgiving comes around reality has usually set in, and so it has proved in Johnson's first year, as in so many of his predecessor, Don Shula.

The Dolphins were beaten 17-7 in Oakland on Sunday, a defeat that lowers their record to 6-7 and places their play-off prospects in severe jeopardy. They will probably need to win their remaining three games to earn the right to play in January, though as these include encounters with each of the New York teams that remains well within the bounds of possibility. The crucial fixture will almost certainly come when they play host to Buffalo on Monday week.

Johnson has been brave to the point of foolhardy in discarding proven talent and relying on youngsters, but it was his most proven talent of all - quarterback Dan Marino - who was most a fault for the latest defeat. He threw three interceptions and fumbled the ball away. The Raiders took a grip on the game in the second quarter with touchdowns from Tim Brown and Derrick Fenner. Marino did at least avoid a shut-out, connecting with Randal Hill with two and a half minutes remaining to lend the scoreline a degree of respectability.

The New England Patriots were Miami's first victims, but after an unconvincing start their season has taken a more encouraging shape, and they lead the AFC East following a crushing win in San Diego. Drew Bledsoe threw for four touchdowns as the Patriots capitalised on five turnovers and romped home 45-7.

The Patriots share the lead of their division with Buffalo, who lost in overtime in Indianapolis, but both already know that their participation in the Super Bowl will almost certainly require victory in Denver's Mile High Stadium.

The Broncos ensured home-field advantage throughout the play-offs by beating Seattle 34-17. It was their 12th win of the season, their ninth in a row, and gave them their first AFC West title since 1991. With the best home record of any NFL team over the last decade, the Broncos are already heavy favourites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, and it is a measure of their current strength that they were able to thrash the Seahawks despite the hamstring pull which forced John Elway to play most of the game on one leg.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, widely regarded as the only AFC team capable of victory in Colorado, did their reputation no good at all by losing 31-17 to the Baltimore Ravens. Bam Morris, the running back the Steelers released in July after he pleaded guilty to a charge of marijuana possession, rushed for 100 yards as the Ravens won for the first time in five games.

The New York Jets, by contrast, were able to enhance their reputation - as the league's most hopeless team. Neil O'Donnell, the quarterback expensively signed in the summer, was supposed to play for the first time in two months as the Jets entertained Houston. However O'Donnell strained a calf muscle in the warm-up, sat out the match, and the Jets lost their 10th home game in a row.

Results, standings, page 25

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