At Long Last
On Sunday, 10 months after Jeff Hostetler quarterbacked the Giants to the NFL championship on the same Tampa Stadium field, Phil Simms got the opportunity to play in his own personal Super Bowl. It was only a regular-season game against the 2-9 Buccaneers, but that didn't diminish his performance. Simms proved to anyone who has doubted him in this, his most disappointing season, that he still has what it takes to be a winner.
"That's a $3 million quarterback you're talking about," said Tampa Bay linebacker Broderick Thomas of Simms, who relieved an injured Hostetler in the third quarter and guided New York on a 90-yard, game-winning drive in the final 1:41. The 21-14 victory put the Giants' record at 7-5 and kept them in the slugfest for three NFC wild-card playoff berths.
"Did I have any doubts about myself?" said Simms, 36, on Sunday night. "No. There was nothing to put any doubt in my mind. I still knew I could play. And I will. I'll play [full-time] again, sometime, somewhere. Sometimes this fall I've gotten down in the dumps, but knowing I'd play again is the only thing that kept me going sometimes."
Last season it was Simms who was knocked out of the starting lineup by an injury, a sprained right arch after he had gotten the Giants off to an 11-3 start. Hostetler came on and led New York to five straight wins, the last its Super Bowl victory. With the exception of mop-up duty in a 30-7 loss to the Eagles on Nov. 4, Simms had not taken a game snap since suffering his injury.
Nobody knew quite what Simms had in him on Sunday when he relieved Hostetler, who chipped his third vertebra when he was slammed to the ground by Thomas and who will be sidelined for two to three weeks. But Simms showed plenty on the decisive TD march, which started at the Giants' 10-yard line: Simms to Mark Ingram for nine yards, Dave Meggett carries for four yards, Simms to Ed McCaffrey for 13, Simms to Meggett for 11, Simms to Odessa Turner for seven, Simms to McCaffrey for five, Simms to Stephen Baker for 11, Simms to Baker for 30 and a touchdown.
"He's had that touchdown drive in him a long time," said Simms's wife, Diana.
Along with the Redskins, who suffered a stunning loss to their NFC East rival Cowboys (page 38), the leaders of the league's other five divisions took it on the chin Sunday as well.
•Patriots 16, Bills 13: Buffalo (10-2) should have won this AFC East matchup by, oh, 50 points. The Bills blocked four New England kicks, sacked Hugh Millen six times, intercepted two Millen passes and held the Pats (4-8) to 2.7 yards per rush. One problem, though—the real Jim Kelly didn't show up. AFC defensive coordinators should study what New England's Joe Collier has been doing against the Buffalo quarterback. In two Bills-Pats games this year, Kelly has thrown two touchdown passes and six interceptions. Against the rest of the league, he has 24 TD throws and eight interceptions.
•Steelers 26, Oilers 14: Houston (9-3) could have clinched its first AFC Central title, and the circumstances of this game couldn't have been more favorable to the Oilers. Pittsburgh (5-7) was playing without its two best players—tight end Eric Green (broken ankle) and cornerback Rod Woodson (pulled hamstring)—and had lost five of its last six games. But Houston quarterback Warren Moon threw a career-high five interceptions and lost a fumble as he failed to beat the Steelers for the third consecutive time. "There's just something about Houston, man, that makes us play hard, real hard," said Pittsburgh safety Thomas Everett.
•Seahawks 13, Broncos 10: The Denver players' minds were three time zones away, happily musing over the Oilers' and the Bills' losses earlier in the day, which had given the Broncos (8-4) a better shot at the home-field advantage in the playoffs, assuming that they win the AFC West title. Oops. Denver had four turnovers against Seattle (6-6) and never got anything going offensively. "We were worried about all those other teams, but not ourselves," said Bronco cornerback Tyrone Braxton. "I really think that took away from our focus." Now Denver has slipped into a tie for the division lead with the Raiders, who have the tiebreaker advantage in determining a playoff spot.
•Dolphins 16, Bears 13: It was 27° and snowing, a perfect day in Chicago for the Bears (9-3), the front-runners in the NFC Central. Miami (6-6) had won only one game in its 25-year history when the temperature was at or less than 28°, but this time the Dolphins were ready thanks to special teams ace Jim Jensen. Recently, Jensen read about Alaskan fishermen who keep warm by putting cayenne pepper in their socks and gloves. So Jensen bought some of the spice, and 11 players, including quarterback Dan Marino, used it to keep their hands and feet warm. A Marino pass covering 31 yards was gathered in with one arm by a supine Mark Clayton—"I happened to be lying in the right place at the right time," Clayton said—in overtime to set up Pete Stoyanovich's 27-yard, game-winning field goal.
•Falcons 23, Saints 20: For the second consecutive week, the vaunted defense of New Orleans (9-3) yielded 10 fourth-quarter points on the way to a loss. Wide receiver Michael Haynes of Atlanta (7-5) caught six passes for 187 yards and two touchdowns as the Falcons sidetracked the Saints in their bid to win their first NFC West title. Haynes, who played trumpet, not football, as a schoolboy in New Orleans, caught Chris Miller's 57-yard bomb to set up Norm Johnson's 50-yard field goal in OT "I love playing in front of my home crowd," said Haynes, meaning football, not the trumpet.
Stats of the Week
•Linebacker Pepper Johnson's 4½ sacks in the Giants' victory over the Bucs were more than he had in any previous season.
•Jeff George has been sacked in 24 of his 25 games as the Colts' quarterback, including seven times in a 14-10 loss to the Packers on Sunday.
Game of the Week
Kansas City at Seattle, Sunday. With command of the AFC West on the line, the Chiefs had two winnable games the past two weeks (against Denver at home and Cleveland on the road) and lost both of them. K.C. turned the ball over nine times along the way. Now, unless they right themselves quickly, the Chiefs could face a wild-card game on the road or even elimination from the playoffs altogether.
The End Zone
Cornerback J.B. Brown, the 315th pick in the 1989 draft, and safety Bobby Harden, the 315th selection in '90, both started for the Dolphins against the Bears.
Lion linebacker Chris Spielman knows that playing football involves risks that no player likes to talk about. But there was no ducking the following conversation with his shaken wife, Stefanie, last week, two nights after Detroit guard Mike Utley had been left paralyzed from the chest down as a result of a freak accident in the Lions' Nov. 17 game with the Rams.
He said, "I don't want you to be afraid when I'm playing. So many things happen that are out of our control. Just try to relax."
She said, "I'll try. But you can't guarantee me nothing will ever happen to you."
He said, "I can't. That's football."
The players know that on any play they could suffer an injury that would leave them paralyzed, but they accept that when they put on the pads. Utley was merely pass-blocking Los Angeles defensive tackle David Rocker in the fourth quarter when he got hurt. As Rocker leapt to try to block the throw, he pushed off on Utley's shoulders. Utley, who was lunging to finish his block, fell forward and struck his head on the artificial turf. He fractured a vertebra in his neck and damaged his spinal cord. He is not expected to walk again.
Just hours after Utley was injured, in the Browns-Oilers game televised on ESPN, a terrifying helmet-to-helmet collision between Cleveland wide receiver Danny Peebles and Houston safety Bubba McDowell left Peebles in a heap and with numbness in his extremities. Peebles, who spent two days in the hospital, apparently has no neurological damage, but he will spend the rest of the season on injured reserve.
Utley is paralyzed. Peebles walks. It's football fate, as if Utley fell in the shower and didn't get up and Peebles were in a head-on car crash and walked away.
With 22 players on the field and approximately 140 plays in an NFL game, there are theoretically 3,080 chances for players to suffer an injury that causes paralysis. Yet in the 1980s, which provided nearly seven million instances for NFL players to suffer such an injury, none did.
The last NFL player to suffer extensive paralysis as a result of contact related to football was Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley, who on Aug. 12, 1978, was hit head-on by Raider safety Jack Tatum and became a quadriplegic. In fact, the last three NFL players to have suffered paralyzing injuries—Cardinals kicker Steve Little, Redskins defensive back Steve Streater and Steeler defensive lineman Gabe Rivera—were crippled in automobile accidents.
All of this, of course, shouldn't minimize the dangers associated with playing pro football. Every week players are sidelined with shredded knees, shattered bones and concussions. But paralysis? There's little the NFL—or any of us—can do to eliminate it from the game. Let's just hope for the best for Mike Utley.