Some lights went out last weekend in the National Football League playoffs, leaving the Denver Broncos to battle the Cleveland Browns for the AFC title Sunday, followed by the Washington Redskins vs. the New York Giants for the NFC crown later the same day. The two winners earn a trip to Super Bowl XXI in Pasadena on Sunday, Jan. 25. And there's enough loot to spread around that even the losers get to live happily ever after.
Huddled around their living room TV sets watching the conference championships will be the vanquished of a week ago - the New York Jets, the New England Patriots, the San Francisco 49ers, and the defending Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears. With 20-20 hindsight, the losers now have all the answers as to what went wrong. In fact, their explanations are suddenly appearing faster than spots on the shirt of a two-year-old drinking chocolate milk.
But Jack Dempsey, a heavyweight from another sport, probably summed up things like this best years ago when, after losing his world title to Gene Tunney, he told his wife: ``I forgot to duck.''
While the Browns are to be admired for their gratitude, the Broncos for their aptitude, and the Redskins for their fortitude, the team that jolted the Richter scale last week was the New York Giants. New York overwhelmed a pretty good San Francisco team, 49-3, resorting to nothing but power, defense, and execution. By the time the game was over, the 49ers looked as though they had been plowed under by a bulldozer. Quarterback Joe Montana had left with his bell ringing at the end of the first half, and the demoralized 'Niners weren't able to regroup with Jeff Kemp at the controls.
The Giants are a team that just flat out sends this message to opponents: ``We're coming after you.'' With quarterback Phil Simms and running back Joe Morris leading a potent attack, and with all-pro linebacker Lawrence Taylor bulwarking a solid defense, they've got the starters who can do this, and the reserves who can back them up.
While New York is not all that fancy about what it does, it has such a good mix on defense that opposing quarterbacks often aren't sure whether they are working against zone or man-to-man coverage. But regardless of how this unit lines up, someone is always around the ball.
When the Giants hired Bill Parcells to replace Ray Perkins as head coach in 1983, the excitement generated by their fans was about the same as if the club had bought a new piece of furniture from Sears. Even though Parcells had been a longtime head coach in the college ranks, and had twice worked as an assistant in the pros, New Yorkers suddenly acted as though they were all from Missouri.
With an injury-depleted roster, Parcells' first year at the helm (3-12-1) was a disaster. Since then, however, the Giants have gone 9-7, 10-6, and 14-2.
What the Giants will be facing on Sunday is a good but not great Washington team that few people thought could beat the Bears in Chicago. This was the thinking even though Chicago had to go with inexperienced Doug Flutie at quarterback. And despite their 27-13 upset win in that game, most observers still doubt that they have enough manpower to handle the Giants.
Washington would need a super effort from quarterback Jay Schroeder, running back George Rogers, and its defense to pull an upset. In their two regular season meetings, New York won 27-20 at home and 24-14 on the road.
Cleveland undoubtedly lost some believers last weekend when it had to come from 10 points behind in the last two minutes just to tie the New York Jets. Then it took the Browns one entire overtime period and part of another before they won 23-20 on a field goal by Mark Moseley.
In what has probably been the most bizarre incident in the playoffs to date, the Browns acted like schoolboys after a pass from quarterback Bernie Kosar to wide receiver Webster Slaughter got them within five yards of the Jets' goal line near the end of regulation time.
Although still trailing by three points with less than a minute left, most of the Browns started to celebrate. Only Kosar and a couple of others seemed to realize that the clock was still running. Because of the noise and confusion, it took Bernie almost 30 seconds to get his teammates regrouped and back on the line of scrimmage.
With a chance to win with a touchdown, Kosar's next pass was batted out of bounds. Only then did coach Marty Schottenheimer send in Moseley to boot the field goal that sent the game into overtime.
The Broncos, who play the Browns in Cleveland on Sunday, just managed to eliminate New England, 22-17, but are always dangerous whenever quarterback John Elway is hitting his receivers.
Actually, the winning touchdown in this game came on a fluke. Trailing New England, 17-13, with time for one play remaining in the third period, Elway pulled the Patriots offside with a long count.
As soon as Elway saw what happened, he knew he had a free play. That is, he could throw one up for grabs, knowing that even if he was intercepted it would still be Denver's ball because of the penalty. And of course if the pass was completed the Broncos would just refuse the penalty - which is exactly what happened, as Vance Johnson came up with the winning TD reception.