In the Northeast corner of Ohio on Sunday night, a man with a new life was sipping wine in his living room and watching football on TV. "We're alive," said Cleveland executive vice-president Ernie Accorsi in the wake of the Browns' 23-17 overtime win against the Minnesota Vikings at Cleveland Stadium. "It's incredible, but we're alive. With all the things that have gone wrong this season, we're alive and playing for the division championship in the 16th week."
At the same time, 260 miles to the southwest, Cincinnati quarterback Boomer Esiason was watching Sunday night football, too, without the wine. The Bengals had beaten Houston at Riverfront Stadium, shamelessly running up a 61-7 score because Bengal coach Sam Wyche hates his Oiler counterpart, Jerry Glanville. But unlike Cleveland, Cincinnati has only an outside chance to play in the postseason.
"You figure it out," said Esiason. "We go 5-1 in our division, maybe the toughest one in football. If you had told me we would do that before the season, I'd have said we'd be 13-2 going into the last game. But we're 8-7. It's just weird."
As is the NFL's 70th season. Here's how weird. Eleven AFC teams entered last weekend's games with a chance to make the playoffs, and 11 teams exited them with a chance to make the playoffs. Going into the final weekend of the regular season, 17 of 28 NFL teams are still alive. That's a record.
The NFC East title will be decided 95 miles apart just off 1-95, when the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles each play at home, against the L.A. Raiders and Phoenix Cardinals, respectively. The Vikings, winners of 12 games in a row under their Teflon dome, can take the NFC Central with a home victory over the Bengals or a Green Bay Packer loss to the 1-14 Cowboys in Dallas. As for the NFC West, the only question remaining for the champion 49ers is how ouchy Joe Montana's ribs will be for San Francisco's first playoff game.
The AFC East has a three-way 8-7 tie among the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts. Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly and his team are in trouble. Kelly has sniped at some teammates and his quarterback rating has dropped from 96.9 in Week 12 to 85.0 after Sunday's 21-10 loss in San Francisco, where he threw three interceptions. Buffalo has lost three straight games down the stretch. Coach Marv Levy has but one explanation: "I think this team is drowning in analysis."
The four AFC Central teams are separated by one game, from the 9-6 Oilers to the 8-7 Pittsburgh Steelers. Houston can win the division by defeating Cleveland in the Astrodome. The Denver Broncos clinched the AFC West title a month ago, but three other teams in the division—the Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks—still have wild-card hopes. "This is what the league wants, right?" said Esiason. "Full stadiums, everybody in it to the end. Well, the league has got it now."
On Sunday the fighting was fiercest in Ohio. Great drama in Cleveland and great hatred in Cincinnati. Last Thursday, with the Cleveland area in a panic over the uncertain condition of quarterback Bernie Kosar's right elbow, and with the Browns in serious danger of falling out of the playoffs, TV station WEWS asked the question: "Who should start for the Browns at quarterback Sunday—Bernie Kosar or Mike Pagel?" Over the next 11 hours, viewers phoned in 29,850 toll-free votes, a record for a WEWS poll. Kosar rallied from an afternoon deficit to edge Pagel 51% to 49%. But the message was clear. "It showed the Superman aura surrounding Kosar is a thing of the past," said Nev Chandler, the Browns' radio voice.
Kosar hadn't thrown a touchdown pass in 4½ games, the Browns were 0-3-1 since mid-November, and he would be facing the sack-happy Vikes on a windy 10° day. But Kosar kept Cleveland in the game. Minnesota led 3-0 at the half, and Kosar threw to tight end Ron Middleton for a 7-3 lead early in the third quarter. Twenty-five seconds after the Vikings pulled ahead 10-7 late in the quarter, Kosar found Reggie Langhorne for 62 yards to put Cleveland on top 14-10. Minnesota went back ahead, 17-14, in the fourth, before Matt Bahr forced overtime with a last-minute field goal.
Kosar needed to do something, because the Browns' ground game (29 carries, 64 yards) was doing nothing. Nine minutes into OT, he had positioned Cleveland for a 31-yard Bahr field goal on third down. When Pagel, the holder, saw 11 Vikings preparing to rush the kicker, he called for a fake field goal. Van Waiters, a linebacker lined up at end, broke free and caught a wobbly 14-yard touchdown pass for the winning score.
It was just as cold and far more bitter in Cincinnati, where Wyche had been in bad temper all week over what he considered insults from Glanville and a history of dirty play by the Oilers. So it wasn't a total surprise when the Bengals successfully executed an onside kick after they had built a 45-point lead, or when they trotted out Jim Breech to try a field goal with 21 seconds left. It was a textbook case of running up the score.
Glanville said he couldn't figure out what Wyche's game was, but Esiason said, "I've never been around a team that could bring out the hatred in you like Houston. On the second series, [defensive end] William Fuller absolutely cheap-shotted me. He took three steps after I released the ball and earholed me, waxed me to the ground. Then, bang—[Bengal tackle] Anthony Munoz smacks Fuller and yells, 'You ain't gonna hit our quarterback like that!' After that, we just wanted 'em."
Esiason later picked on Oiler cornerback Cris Dishman, a Bengal archenemy because of his belligerence. "Hey Dishman!" Esiason yelled after one completion. "If you were a bedspread, you couldn't cover a bed!"
Wyche gloated about "humiliating" the "sorry" Oilers and called Glanville "probably the biggest phony" in football. "It's the dumbest, most undisciplined, stupid football team I think we've ever played," said Wyche afterward. "You can only be so stupid, but the Oilers have exceeded the limits. They're a team with no discipline, and when you have no discipline you have no chance of winning."
Wow. When was the last time an NFL coach spilled his guts in public like that? The runaway will haunt them in future games against the Oilers, but it sure made great theater.
We can't leave the AFC Central without mentioning Pittsburgh and its 28-10 victory over the New England Patriots. Chuck Noll's Steelers are 8-5 since getting outscored 92-10 in their first two games. "Noll loses his first two games 300 to nothing, and he keeps an even keel, acts like nothing's wrong," says Accorsi. "He's got to be coach of the decade for that job."
Yes, even the Steelers are still alive. But amid all the confusion, Seattle's situation is the weirdest. A Seahawk win over the Washington Redskins, coupled with losses by the Bengals, Steelers, Raiders, Chiefs, Colts and Bills, would put Seattle in the playoffs. Got that? You're good at the Parity Game.
STATS OF THE YEAR
•The most renowned defensive lines in recent times—the Rams' Fearsome Foursome, Minnesota's Purple People Eaters, Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain—never had as many sacks in a season as the Viking line of Chris Doleman, Henry Thomas, Al Noga and Keith Millard (left) got this year. No asterisk here, either. Until 1978 the NFL played 14-game seasons, and through 14 games this year, Minnesota's front four had beaten them all, with 51½ sacks.
•The Cardinals paid a total of $4.19 million in salary and bonuses this year to their four quarterbacks—the most money paid to any quarterback unit in the league—yet through the last 10 weeks of the season the Cards never ranked higher than 24th in quarterback rating.
•The 49ers are 8-0 at Anaheim Stadium when Joe Montana has started.
•Giants tight end Mark Bavaro hurt his knee early in the third quarter against San Diego in Week 7 and was lost for the season. Here's how New York's offense fared before and after that injury:
•The NFC has won five straight Super Bowls by an average of 23 points. The Broncos, the top AFC candidate to go to New Orleans and the best home team of the decade, lost to the two probable NFC playoff teams on its schedule, the Giants and Eagles, and both games were in Denver.
•By midseason Bengal running back James Brooks had gone 38 straight games without losing a fumble. He fumbled seven times in his next seven games.
•Minnesota kicker Rich Karlis, who was let go by Denver before the season and took a $75,000 pay cut to sign with the Vikings, became the first kicker in history to have a 7-for-7 field goal day. He accounted for all the Vikes' offensive points in their 23-21 overtime victory over the Rams in Week 9.
GOOD PARTS, BAD TEAMS
The best teams always get the most attention. Here are four units that quietly excelled on teams that didn't.
1) San Diego's pass rush. Quick, tell us one thing—anything—about Leslie O'Neal or Lee Williams. O.K., they're linebackers. You may have heard that O'Neal missed the '87 season and part of '88 recovering from knee surgery. But did you know that Williams and O'Neal are ranked first and fourth, respectively, in the AFC in sacks this year? And that O'Neal is playing outside linebacker for the first time after a career inside? Don't worry, you're not alone. "Nobody knows who I am," says Williams.
2) Tampa Bay's wideouts. Bruce Hill and Mark Carrier are the genuine article, and when quarterback Vinny Testaverde learns to make fewer mistakes, Carrier could become the next Steve Largent. He has great hands and has been among the receiving leaders all season. Bucs coaches have calculated that, through 15 games, Carrier caught 80 of the 87 passes he touched this year. Hill hauled in 50. Give the personnel staff a hand: Carrier was picked in the third round of the '87 draft, Hill in the fourth.
3) Detroit's special teams. Frank Gansz may not have the touch as a head coach—he led the Chiefs to an 8-22-1 record in 1987 and '88—but he sure has it as a special-teams boss. The Lions ranked 17th in kickoff-return average and 15th in punt-return average last season. This year, with Gansz in charge, they have the league leaders, Mel Gray (kickoffs) and Walter Stanley (punts), in both categories. Further, Detroit has improved from ninth in kickoff-return defense and 15th in punt-return defense to join the league leaders in each.
4) New Orleans's run defense. The Saints had been respectable against the run for a couple of years, allowing 4.0 yards per carry in 1987 and '88. But they became downright stingy this season, leading the league for much of the way with an average of around 3.5. Inside linebackers Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson have solidified their roles as the league's premier run-stuffing tandem. But the difference this season has been nosetackle Jim Wilks. A 12th-round pick in 1981 and a defensive end until this season, Wilks won the nosetackle job in camp by default and greatly exceeded the coaches' expectations. He's durable too. Wilks has dressed for 131 of New Orleans's 132 nonstrike games in his career.
1990 ALL-FREE-AGENT TEAM
With top rookies often holding out in pursuit of high salaries, many NFL executives may be willing to give up two No. 1 draft picks—the compensation for signing a premier free agent—to land a topflight veteran. Here is an all-star team of likely free agents as of Feb. 1.
Wide Receivers: Anthony Carter, Vikings; Tim McGee, Bengals; John Taylor, 49ers
Tight End: Rob Await, Cardinals
Tackles: Anthony Munoz, Bengals; Jim Lachey, Redskins
Guards: Steve Trapilo, Saints; Ron Hallstrom, Packers
Center: Jim Sweeney, Jets
Quarterback: Jim Everett, Rams
Running Backs: Christian Okoye, Chiefs; Neal Anderson, Bears
Ends: Chris Doleman, Vikings; Eric Williams, Lions
Tackles: Tony Casillas, Falcons; Erick Howard, Giants, Al Noga, Vikings
Linebackers: Charles Haley, 49ers; Leslie O'Neal, Chargers; Kevin Greene, Rams; John Offerdahl, Dolphins; Pat Swilling, Saints; Mike Johnson, Browns
Cornerbacks: Frank Minnifield, Browns; Eric Thomas, Bengals
Safeties: Joey Browner, Vikings; David Fulcher, Bengals
Kicker: Mike Cofer, 49ers
Punter: Sean Landeta, Giants
Return Man: Vai Sikahema, Cardinals
Designated Pass Rusher: Rufus Porter, Seahawks
Avg. Rushing Yards/Game
Avg. Total Yards/Game
Avg. TE Catches/Game
6½ games with Bavaro
8½ games without Bavaro