Saunders sews a golden thread

As the NFL's regular season comes to an end, Matt Tench finds American Football in very good health as the play-offs approach
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In the end Barry Sanders was unable to cap a champagne season by making turkeys of the Miami Dolphins. Needing 169 rushing yards for him to pass the 2,000 mark for the season, his Detroit Lions side went behind to the Dolphins early on Christmas night, and were forced to pass. After that, records were always going to come second to results, and Sanders was stranded 117 yards short.

But it did not matter much. Sanders may have failed to become only the third player to achieve one of the sport's milestones, but his sustained brilliance was the thread that ran through the 1994 NFL regular season.

Ever since he entered the league, the suspicion has been that the diminutive Sanders is the best back of his generation. This year he proved it. True, Emmitt Smith, of the Dallas Cowboys, had won the NFL's rushing title for the last three years. But, forall Smith's gifts, the feeling remained that had Sanders been playing for such a well-balanced, dominating club as the Cowboys, then even Smith's monstrous yardage would have been surpassed.

This season, as ever, the Lions were a mediocre bunch. They exchanged three unreliable quarterbacks for an expensive unreliable one, assembled a solid though hardly spectacular line, and continued to boast a defense than promised much but delivered rather less. Sanders responded with one of the great seasons of work the league has ever seen. Week after week he would amass staggering numbers, the achievement all the more mind-boggling because it came against defenses designed simply to stop him.

From four months of extraordinary endeavour two performances stand out: the Monday night he single-handedly beat the Cowboys, and the afternoon he ran for more than 200 yards against the Buccaneers in one half.

Sanders's heroics were the highlights of a regular season which saw the game bounce back resoundingly. Twelve months ago there was talk of crisis. Too many field goals, too few touchdowns and far too many boring games had established a climate in which serious questions were being asked about the sport.

The NFL, in a way that may be instructive to English football given its current problems, acted swiftly. Rules were added, others reinterpreted, and suddenly the game reasserted its vigour. The option for a two-point conversion was an immediate success, while the greater protection afforded receivers allowed a shoal of them to stack up remarkable numbers, and the Minnesota Viking's Cris Carter to shatter the single season reception record.

For a time the number of narrow victories reached record proportions and at one point it seemed that every other encounter was decided in overtime.

One of the complaints was that not enough new stars were emerging and, while it is disappointing to report that Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson is emphatically not the next Reggie White, there were optimistic signs here too. Marshall Faulk, the Indianapolis running back, Tim Bowens, the Miami lineman, and DeWayne Washington, the Minnesota defensive back, all made immediate impacts, but perhaps the most promising new face came from a second-year player who started the season as Cincinnati's third-string quar terback.

Jeff Blake would never have played if not for injuries, but his outstanding performances once he got his chance suggest he will be a hot property in the era of free agency. Given that Blake, who is black, was cut by the New York Jets before the season started, it also suggests the NFL is not quite as colour-blind as it likes to think.

Still it was the older players who took centre stage: Joe Montana beating his old friends from San Francisco, Deion Sanders doing much the same, but more noisily, to his former Atlanta colleagues, Dan Marino sustaining Miami's injury-plagued challenge, and in leading the New England Patriots to their first play-off berth in almost 10 years, Drew Bledsoe looked every inch like the next Marino.

The renaissance could not have been better timed. With baseball and ice hockey making fools of themselves, American football had the opportunity to bolster its already dominating position. It surely did.

The one disappointing aspect of a compelling campaign was that few of the threatened changes to the established order materialised. Minnesota and Philadelphia hinted at an overthrow to the NFC elite, San Diego, and conceivably Miami even offered hope of a more radical revolution.

However, as we go into the business end of proceedings, such early-season whimsies have vanished into the winter mist. The 49ers and Cowboys appear destined to meet in the NFC Championship game for the third year running, while the AFC seems incapable ofproducing a side strong enough to seize the Super Bowl.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, with their fearsome defense and home advantage throughout the play-offs, are the team most likely to represent the weaker conference, though Bill Parcells' Patriots may spring a surprise. Neither, though, could be installed as favourites against the 49ers or Cowboys. Still, with so many fundamentals enduring perhaps one should be grateful for small mercies. At least the Buffalo Bills will not be there.