American Football: Colts clinch play-off spot as Manning stalks Marino mark

At the start of Sunday's action, only the Philadelphia Eagles were assured of post-season play, but they now have plenty of company following another dramatic weekend. The Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts and Atlanta Falcons all claimed play-off berths following important wins.

At the start of Sunday's action, only the Philadelphia Eagles were assured of post-season play, but they now have plenty of company following another dramatic weekend. The Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts and Atlanta Falcons all claimed play-off berths following important wins.

The Colts edged past the Houston Texans 23-14, but the triumph lacked their characteristic sparkle. Peyton Manning threw two more touchdown passes, to move within two of Dan Marino's record of 48 in a single season. But the Colts lost a chance to become the first team in the sport's history to score 40 or more points in five consecutive games, as Houston proved unwilling sacrificial lambs.

Having watched the Colts score their fewest points all season, Manning was in philosophical mood. "Every game makes you better, so long as you win," he said. "I need to do whatever it takes to win." A similar note of reality was struck in Atlanta, where the Falcons made sure of their place in next month's post-season courtesy of a team-record four rushing touchdowns from T J Duckett in a 35-10 stroll past Oakland. "This is nice, but there are other things we want to do," said their impressive first-year head coach, Jim Mora.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are also through following a gritty 17-6 battle with the New York Jets. The affair hung in the balance until the fourth quarter, when the veteran running back Jerome Bettis literally took matters into his own hands. First, he threw a touchdown pass to Jerame Tuman, catching the Jets completely off-guard. Then, to make things safe, he also scored by more conventional means, courtesy of a 12-yard run.

New England's 35-28 triumph over the Cincinnati Bengals was their 27th from their last 28 games, and fittingly, it was their running back, Corey Dillon, who opened the scoring. Dillon had spent seven stormy seasons in Cincinnati before being traded to the Patriots during the summer. Fiery, outspoken and difficult he may have been as a Bengal, but, as a Patriot, Dillon has become quite a diplomat, and there were no harsh words for his former employers.

"I'm pretty sure everybody's sitting here waiting for me to say something negative about Cincinnati," he said. "It's not going to happen. I respect those guys." A changed man indeed, but the powerful running of Dillon has always been a potent weapon, and he is one of the main reasons why the Patriots remain favourites to win their third Super Bowl in four years.

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