He doth bestride the narrow world Like a Colossus; and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about....
The Washington Redskins and Buffalo Bills bestride the narrow world of the NFL like colossi, casting huge shadows over the opening of the playoffs, as lesser men peep about, and we are left to wonder, Who can challenge these monsters? Is their meeting in Super Bowl XXVI a foregone conclusion? Are the playoffs themselves mere appetizers before that grand main course in Minneapolis on Jan. 26, or are there genuine contenders out there, foes worthy enough to think of upsetting the 13-3 Bills in freezing, snowy Buffalo or the 14-2 Redskins in noisy, raucous Washington?
Well, yes, of course there are teams out there with the ability to slay these giants, but it'll be difficult for them to do so. In his 11 years as the Redskins' coach, Joe Gibbs has feasted on three of the teams that are potential playoff opponents for Washington. He is 8-0 lifetime against the Detroit Lions, including this year's 45-0 drubbing in the season opener, when the Lions were minus Barry Sanders. Gibbs's teams are 5-1 against the Atlanta Falcons, including a 56-17 walloping on Nov. 10, and 5-0 against the New Orleans Saints, whom they didn't face this season. The Chicago Bears have posed more of a threat—Mike Ditka's Bears had beaten Gibbs's Skins three times in eight meetings—but on Oct. 6 Washington put the Bears away in Chicago 20-7.
Which leaves...let's see now...the Dallas Cowboys. There's the joker in the NFC deck.
"I know the Cowboys can beat them because I saw it myself," says CBS analyst John Madden, who worked the Nov. 24 game at RFK Stadium in which Dallas upset the Redskins 24-21. "Washington tried to establish the run and didn't. They didn't get the ball. Jimmy Johnson did a great job of coaching. He just kept the Skins on their heels. He went for it on fourth down and made it, he onside kicked after a touchdown, he pulled out all the stuff, and it worked for him. He frustrated the Redskins, plus the Cowboys played a near perfect game."
The rivalry has taken strange twists recently. Johnson is 3-3 against Gibbs, with two of those wins coming in Washington. The Cowboys are too young to understand that NFL teams are not supposed to win on the road. In 1989, Johnson's first season in Dallas, the Cowboys' only win of the season was in Washington. They hold the Redskins in little awe. "We realize we can beat them because we've already done it, and that's a big thing," Johnson says. "If you look at the record, you'll notice that we usually play the run well against them, and when you stop the Redskins' running, you've got a shot."
In their last 42 games, counting playoffs, the Redskins have been held to 50 yards or less on the ground only four times. Johnson's Cowboys have accomplished the feat three of those times. The Skins gained only 50 yards against Dallas in this year's loss.
"It's hard to tell why we've been so effective against their running," says Cowboy defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt. "There's confidence that we can do it, but there were times when we just got lucky. I mean situations where Washington had everybody blocked, and a cornerback came in and made a shoestring tackle, stuff like that. I guess it's what you'd call desire."
It sure looks as if Dallas has a chance against the Skins—except for one thing: The Cowboys may never get a shot. While Washington is enjoying its first-round bye when the playoffs start this weekend, Dallas, a wild-card team, will be in the meat grinder. Who knows what kind of shape the Cowboys will be in when, and if, they emerge from the butchery.
Meanwhile the Redskins have put up some terrific numbers as they have climbed to the top of the NFL standings. Once they've reached the opponent's 20-yard line, they've been deadly. In 58 possessions in the so-called red zone, Washington had 32 TDs and 20 field goals, with its six missed opportunities resulting from three turnovers, two missed field goals and one occasion when the game ended. But 52 for 58 is the best in the league, which speaks well for the Redskins' ability to hammer the ball.
The second statistic that jumps out is Washington's long-ball potential; it has gained 25 yards or more on 42 plays from scrimmage. Thirty-five of those plays were passes, with 15 of those going for 40 yards or more. Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien has worked masterfully in the three-wideout set, and his three receivers, Art Monk, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders, have been extraordinary. They operate either from a spread formation or from a bunched set, from which they shoot like arrows. Almost always, someone manages to spring free.
"The key is the offensive line," Washington middle linebacker Matt Millen says, "and the key to that is the play of the two tackles. How many teams have two great tackles these days? Jim Lachey always has been good, and he's gotten the recognition, but people don't know what a really great year Joe Jacoby has had on the other side."
Buffalo, the other colossus, also has ravaged its share of potential playoff foes. The New York Jets have fallen to the Bills four straight times in Buffalo. The Bills beat the Los Angeles Raiders in L.A. this season, and who can forget what they did to the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game in Buffalo last year? Forty-one points in the first half. And now the L.A. defense, which looked good for most of the season, seems to be wearing out again.
As hard as you try, you still can't get rid of the image of the Houston Oilers as a hothouse flower that wilts in the cold winds of the north. The Oilers went into Giants Stadium last Saturday needing a win to secure a first-round bye, and New York chewed them up 24-20 in a game that wasn't as close as the score. The Houston defense, which showed such promise this year and has been the springboard for the effectiveness of the run-and-shoot offense, died. The Giants scored on four long drives, Phil Simms set a club record for passing efficiency (88%), and Rodney Hampton's 140 yards rushing was a career high. Sure, the Oilers played without All-Pro tackle Ray Childress (broken rib), and then strongside linebacker Lamar Lathon left the game with a rib injury, but show any defensive weakness against the Bills—in Buffalo—and you'll get eaten alive.
Houston quarterback Warren Moon had to shorten his receivers' routes in the Giants Stadium wind. His passes fluttered, and there were five dropped balls. Sorry, we just don't favor the Oilers in Buffalo, where the Rich Stadium wind turns passes inside out. Many great names have felt the bite of the Hawk up there: Joe Namath, two for 18; Terry Bradshaw, two for 13, three interceptions; Moon himself, three for 14; Dan Marino, 13 for 28, three interceptions. It's a sad litany.
But Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly has a strong enough arm to deal with the elements, and he's backed up by the high-powered running of Thurman Thomas. So who can beat the Bills up there? Two teams have a shot: the Kansas City Chiefs and the Denver Broncos.
You have to like the Chiefs' chances, based on the 33-6 whipping they gave the Bills in Kansas City on Oct. 7. Their running game, which did such a number on Buffalo, was very effective in a 27-21 win against the Raiders on Sunday, picking up 240 yards. The victory gave the Chiefs the home field advantage against L.A. in their wild-card playoff, and the Chiefs could be the first team to make the trip to Buffalo. But then location would become a factor: Steve DeBerg's medium-range arm is no match for the Hawk, and the crowd noise that helped the Chiefs in K.C. wouldn't be a plus this time. Kansas City put a big rush on Kelly, and Bills center Kent Hull says, "Our tackles were late off the ball. They just couldn't hear anything." The acoustics will be just fine in Buffalo.
Which brings us to the Broncos. Now we're talking. Two years ago Denver rushed for 201 yards and beat the Bills 28-14 in Buffalo. A convincing victory. Last year the Broncos visited Rich Stadium and lost by a point, 29-28, in a game they should have won. A blocked field goal and an interception, both returned for touchdowns by the Bills, plus a Denver fumble on its two cost the Broncos the game. But Denver has just enough of a ground game to bother Buffalo, which is notoriously soft against the run. And John Elway, who knows all about playing in freezing temperatures and high winds, has a strong enough arm to fight the wind.
It's a postseason loaded with ifs, but one that still points to Buffalo and Washington meeting in the Super Bowl. Then you can scratch one colossus.