With only four weeks left in the regular season, now is the time for this year's Super Bowl contenders to make their move and the pretenders to get out of the way.
The St Louis Rams and Minnesota Vikings both entered Sunday's contest with post-season aspirations, but the manner of the Rams' 48-17 crushing of their rivals suggests that Minnesota are not destined for glory in the immediate future.
The Vikings were humbled on both sides of the ball. They were unable to cope with the presence of the St Louis defensive end Leonard Little, who had four sacks of Minnesota's quarterback, Daunte Culpepper, while the safety Aeneas Williams, put his name on the scoresheet with a 90-yard return of a Culpepper fumble.
However, the Vikings' chief tormentor was the Rams running back Marshall Faulk, who gained 108 yards and scored three touchdowns, now seemingly fully restored to fitness after missing five games with a broken hand.
Faulk's feasting on the feeble Vikings means that he now has 127 career touchdowns, taking him past two of the biggest names in the sport's history, Jim Brown and Walter Payton.
Like the Vikings, the Carolina Panthers may have started brightly but peaked too soon. Despite another strong effort from the running back Stephen Davis, they fell 25-16 to the ever-improving Philadelphia Eagles, for whom the quarterback, Donovan McNabb, continues to impress.
The Indianapolis Colts suffered a rare home defeat in a thriller against the New England Patriots. Both teams look set for post-season play, but the Colts seemed out of sorts as they faced a 31-10 deficit in the second half.
Inspired by their quarterback, Peyton Manning, who threw three touchdowns, they drew level, only for New England's playmaker, Tom Brady, to put his side back in front with a touchdown for Deion Branch. Even then the Colts could have pinched it but for a brilliant defensive span by the Patriots, who stopped Edgerrin James at the one-yard line.
Of the other contenders, Kansas City continue to enjoy untroubled progress. The team with the league's best record disposed of the feeble San Diego Chargers 28-17. It was the Chargers' 10th defeat of the season, a miserable record equalled by the Atlanta Falcons, who were edged out 17-14 away to the Houston Texans.
The Seattle Seahawks improved their prospects by crushing the Cleveland Browns 34-7, while the Denver Broncos kept their hopes intact with a 22-8 triumph over the Oakland Raiders, the running back Clinton Portis scoring on a pair of short-yardage runs.
Traditionally, the Baltimore Ravens win with punishing defensive work, but for the second week in a row they amassed 44 points under the guidance of their new quarterback, Anthony Wright.
After replacing the injured Kyle Boller, Wright surprised everyone as he trounced the Seahawks last week, and he showed it was no fluke with another assured display in his side's 44-6 demolition of the San Francisco 49ers.
Similarly, the Cincinnati Bengals seemed to be finally for real, on the evidence of a dramatic 24-20 triumph over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite leading for the whole match, the Bengals fell behind with just over a minute remaining when Pittsburgh's Tommy Maddox threw a 16-yard touchdown to Hines Ward.
Previous Cincinnati teams would have folded, but the current vintage oozes self-belief and under the guidance of their quarterback, Jon Kitna, the Bengals hit the winner with only 13 seconds remaining, Kitna throwing an 18-yard pass to Matt Schobel.
For a team without a winning campaign in 13 years, the Bengals are now tantalisingly close to the play-offs. "In the past, we didn't win the tough games and now we are winning them,'' their running back, Corey Dillon, said. "As long as I've been here, December was just December, it doesn't mean much. This is different.''Reuse content