Teams that can put together four tough periods of defense in the National Football League playoffs, even if they don't always score a lot of points, usually avoid the embarrassment of going home early. So there will be no secrets regarding what the eight remaining Super Bowl challengers plan to do to each other this weekend. Look for a lot of aggressive hitting, an increase in zone pass coverage, plus even greater emphasis on taking as much set-up time as possible away from opposing quarterbacks.
Saturday it's the New York Jets, who eliminated Kansas City in the AFC wild-card game, against the Cleveland Browns, followed by the Washington Redskins, who beat the Los Angeles Rams in NFC wild-card action, against the defending league champion Chicago Bears. On Sunday the San Francisco 49ers visit the New York Giants and the New England Patriots travel to Denver to meet the Broncos.
Every year pro football has its ``Cinderfella'' team, and this season that distinction belongs to the Cleveland Browns, not the same Browns obviously that gave up 41 points to the Bears on opening day. After viewing films of that game, coach Marty Schottenheimer began making adjustments in his defense to make opponents pay a heavier price for moving the ball.
This isn't to suggest that Cleveland is capable of inflicting the same physical punishment that the Bears and the Giants regularly hand out to running backs and pass receivers. But considering how the Browns started the season, what first looked like the NFL equivalent of the Edsel has since become a Mercedes.
Offensively, Cleveland (391 points overall) has outscored all but three NFL teams, which finally brings us to second-year pro Bernie Kosar, whose throwing arm deserves a lot of the credit for his team's sucess.
Still, the awful things the critics have been saying about this kid - that he works off the wrong foot; that his passes have no zip; that he hides in the pocket while his receivers do all his work for him - is enough to make you think that Bernie can't do anything.
Forget it. The truth is Kosar is a sharp operator with the same feel for the seams in a zone defense that Willie Sutton once had for bank vault tumblers. Sure, you can laugh at his less-than-classic style, but the fact is he's led Cleveland to eight wins in its last nine games.
All the Browns have to do this weekend to advance to the American Conference championship game is beat the Jets, who snapped a five-game losing streak Sunday by whipping Kansas City, 35-15.
The Jets, who were 10-1 at one point, started the season as a beautifully balanced team. But they went into reverse about three-quarters of the way through the season when they lost several key players to injuries.
Coach Joe Walton, who switched to backup quarterback Pat Ryan against the Chiefs because he felt regular starter Ken O'Brien was pressing, has said that he may go back to O'Brien this week. If he does and the Jets lose, Walton will be second-guessed by the New York press from here to eternity for benching Ryan, who not only threw for three touchdowns against Kansas City but also ran the offense well.
The best game of the four this weekend in terms of trench warfare will probably be the Redskins-Bears showdown in Chicago. While the Bears are not the same with Doug Flutie at quarterback as they were under the injured Jim McMahon, Chicago's defense, which has surrendered less than 200 points, looks like a carbon copy of last season's Super Bowl unit.
The veteran Redskins have a chance, but not an especially good one considering that anytime you play the Bears in Chicago, it's like going into the water with an octopus. Besides, Washington never looked that good last week in its 19-7 victory over the Rams, who fumbled themselves into obscurity by committing six turnovers.
The New York Giants, who were beaten only twice all year (by Dallas and Seattle), play host to a San Francisco team that looks overmatched on paper. But if 49er coach Bill Walsh (Super Bowl wins in '82 and '84) can come up with one of his creative defenses and the Niners manage to get a few breaks, this game could go either way.
Don't ask me to explain it, but something bizarre is bound to happen in any encounter between Denver and New England. The Patriots seem to enter most of their games with the same philosophy that gray squirrels employ while crossing a parkway. This is an unpredictable team.
If quarterback John Elway is having a good day, and the Bronco defense can regroup after giving up 41 points to Seattle in its final regular-season game, Denver will be hard to stop. To suggest that the scoreboard operator at Mile High Stadium may be the most overworked person at Sunday's game is not the least bit absurd!