New England and Kansas City were the big winners on the final weekend of the National Football League regular season, completing a playoff lineup that should produce quite a bit of excitement over the next three weeks. The Patriots did it the hard way Monday night in the game that rang down the curtain on the 16-week regular campaign, beating the Dolphins 34-27 in Miami. Even an injury to starting quarterback Tony Eason early in the second quarter couldn't deter them as veteran backup man Steve Grogan came off the bench for the first time in nine weeks and looked as though he'd never been away, completing 15 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns. Wide receiver Stanley Morgan also put on a dazzling show, catching eight passes for 148 yards and a pair of TDS.
A day earlier, the Chiefs defeated Pittsburgh 24-19 to enter the postseason parade for the first time in 15 years. The two late winners thus join Cleveland, Denver, and the New York Jets - all of which had already clinched playoff spots - in the battle for the AFC title and a berth in the Super Bowl at Pasadena Jan. 25.
In the National Conference, San Francisco won the only game of the final weekend that had any bearing on the playoff picture, gaining the West Division crown and relegating the Los Angeles Rams to a wild card spot. Chicago's defending Super Bowl champions, the New York Giants, and Washington had already clinched the other playoff berths.
The Giants and Bears wound up sharing the league's best won-lost record at 14-2 each, with tiebreaking points giving New York the home field advantage for any potential showdown. Cleveland's best-in-the-AFC 12-4 mark similarly earns the Browns the home edge as long as they remain in the playoffs.
But all those regular season numbers are history now, and best forgotten heading into this ``second season.'' The only question that really counts anymore is how the teams are playing now - not what they did a couple of months ago. ``Who's hot,'' in other words, ``and who's not?''
The Bears, of course, had a big question mark hanging over them as recently as a few weeks ago with quarterback Jim McMahon out for the season due to an injury. But 1984 Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie, who was signed in midseason, has come along faster than a lot of people expected and now appears ready to play a major role in the playoffs. After a couple of fine performances coming off the bench, the former Boston College star got his first start Sunday and threw two touchdown passes in a 24-10 victory over Dallas.
The Giants also closed out their regular season impressively, crushing Green Bay 55-24 as Phil Simms capped a big season with 18 completions for 245 yards and three TDs.
Meanwhile the 49ers demonstrated that they too must be reckoned with now that Joe Montana is back in top form after missing half the season with an injury. Montana has already taken this team to two Super Bowl triumphs, earning MVP honors on both occasions. And the way he played in last weekend's key 24-14 win over the Rams, hitting 23 passes for 238 yards, indicated that he's ready to try for another one.
Realistically, the NFC champion should emerge from this trio, any of which would make a good Super Bowl representative. The Rams and Redskins, who start things off with their wild card game in Washington Sunday, are both longshots - though as we saw last year with New England, such teams do sometimes pull surprises.
In those 1985-86 playoffs, one may recall, the wild card Patriots upset the New York Jets, the Los Angeles Raiders, and the Miami Dolphins - all on the road - before meeting their match in a 46-10 annihilation by the Bears. This time they get a week off as a division champion, and have what appears on paper to be a less difficult route to a potential return Super Bowl appearance - yet who knows if they can recapture the magic that carried them to such heights a year ago?
Cleveland's AFC Central Division champions, who warmed up with a 47-17 rout of the San Diego Chargers Sunday, appear the most formidable obstacle. This would create quite an interesting Super Bowl possibility, too, if the Browns and the Bears happen to be the teams that make it. The opposing quarterbacks in that case would be Bernie Kosar and Flutie, who last faced each other in the Orange Bowl when Flutie and Boston College upset Kosar's Miami Hurricanes via the desperate touchdown strike at the final gun that lives on in the memory of all football fans as simply ``The Pass.''
First, though, the Browns must get past the winner of Sunday's AFC wild-card game between the Chiefs and Jets at the New Jersey Meadowlands - and assuming that New York prevails as expected, that may be no easy task. The Jets are easily the biggest anomaly among this year's playoff teams. Right now they look like anything but a winner, entering postseason play in the throes of a five-game losing streak capped by a 52-21 thumping at the hands of Cincinnati Sunday. But for the first 11 weeks of the season they were arguably the best team in the league as they stormed to a 10-1 record. Will the real Jets stand up for the playoffs? And if so, which ones are they?
The Patriots and Broncos, who meet in the other conference semifinal at Denver's Mile-High Stadium on Jan. 4, are not quite in that Jekyll-Hyde category but are both somewhat erratic in their own right. Thus the AFL championship and a shot at the Bears, Giants, 49ers, or whoever a month from now in Pasadena also appears very much up for grabs.