From a distance Kansas City, with a 9-5 record and in good position to win the AFC West for the first time since 1971, appears to be a very good team having a very good year. Up close, though, K.C. isn't all that it seems. Its strongest asset was supposed to be its ground game, and now the Chiefs are trying to win in spite of it. Quarterback Dave Krieg, a Plan B pickup, was supposed to be a complementary player, but he has become the backbone of the offense.
Take Sunday's game. Kansas City struggled to beat New England 27-20 at Arrowhead Stadium. The sky was an open faucet and the footing was poor, but good running teams move the ball in just such conditions. K.C. wound up with only 85 rushing yards on 31 carries. Barry Word, the team's leading ground-gainer this season, never touched the ball; he had been playing on a sprained knee, but K.C. didn't want to risk aggravating the injury on the wet field. Outside threat Harvey Williams had one carry. Coach Marty Schottenheimer, who likes to choose the back who best fits a game situation and stick with him, figured it would be better to run 260-pound Christian Okoye against the Patriots. Okoye, who had had only eight carries the previous three weeks, ran 27 times for 86 yards. So the Chiefs once again had to rely on Krieg to bail them out of a tough spot—this time down 13-3—and he was good enough in the rain, completing five of eight passes for 129 yards and one touchdown in the second half, to do it.
Part of the problem is a banged-up offensive line. Things got so bad last week that center Mike Baab, who retired after last season and now has a radio show in Cleveland, was brought in to start in place of Tim Grunhard (sprained foot). But as Word said after Sunday's game, "This season has shown again that experimenting with three backs doesn't work. Marty likes us all. He loves Harvey's speed. He loves how I can pick the right hole. He loves the power Christian has. But one guy is best. You've got to pick one and let him run."
The Chiefs are running out of time to straighten out their running attack, which will have to be sharp for them to go anywhere in the playoffs. One thing is working in their favor, though: With the possible exception of San Diego (page 28), the rest of the AFC contenders are also struggling with some aspect of their game. That's not a good sign for a conference whose champion has lost the last eight Super Bowls.
"I don't think the AFC's best can beat the NFC's second-best," says Cleveland director of pro personnel Mike Lombardi, whose 7-7 Browns still have an outside shot at making the playoffs. "A lot of it is the style of play. Why can't anyone in our conference stop the Pittsburgh running game? Because we're more of a finesse conference. Every team we've sent to the Super Bowl recently has had a good offense but not a good defense. Denver had a terrible defense. Buffalo can't stop anybody. Who else in the AFC since the 1983 Raiders had a good defensive team in the Super Bowl? If New Orleans were over here, it might be the best team in our conference."
The Steelers and the Bills, both of whom are 10-4, have the inside track in the fight for home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. Neither team, however, has looked good recently.
It has been so long since Buffalo, winner of the last two conference crowns, has had to push to stay ahead of the competition that it has lost its edge. Last week the Bills, after losing to Indianapolis and the New York Jets in succession, called their first players-only meeting since 1989. Buffalo then went out and held off Denver 27-17. The loss of offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda, who became the Colts' coach last January, has taken the spontaneity out of the Bills' attack, which is slower and less explosive this year. And quarterback Jim Kelly is not playing anywhere near his '90 and '91 form.
As for Pittsburgh, it has a one-dimensional offense—NFL rushing leader Barry Foster—that has been less effective since Bubby Brister took over at quarterback for the injured Neil O'Donnell two weeks ago. Chicago shut down the Steelers on Sunday by zeroing in on Foster. The Bears held him to a season-low 25 yards, and the result was a 30-6 Chicago rout. A week earlier Pittsburgh had had to rally late in the game to beat lowly Seattle. As Steeler cornerback Rod Woodson says, "We've been playing very ugly."
STATS OF THE WEEK
•How is it that the Eagles can outgain the Seahawks 466 yards to 87, and yet it takes Philadelphia 75 minutes to beat Seattle 20-17? If Roger Ruzek had missed the 44-yard field goal that won the game as time expired, the NFL would have had its first tie in the 1990s.
•Entering Sunday's game against the Cardinals, the Colts' wide receivers will have gone 77 days without a TD catch.
•The league's only teams unbeaten at home reside in Pennsylvania, where the Eagles and Steelers are both 6-0.
•The Cardinals, who beat the Giants 19-0, are 3-2 against the three teams who have won the last six Super Bowls (49ers, Redskins and Giants) and 1-8 against the rest of the league.
Do the 49ers have a bottomless pool of talent? Sure seems that way. Lose Joe Montana, plug in Steve Young. Lose John Taylor, plug in Mike Sherrard. Lose Ricky Watters, plug in Anthonia Wayne Lee. That's Amp Lee, for short. In fact, it's the league's shortest name. But Lee was long on ability in a 20-17 win at Minnesota, rushing 23 times for 134 yards and scoring twice. The 49ers drafted Watters and Lee in the second round of the 1991 and '92 drafts, respectively, in the hope that one of them would develop into a long-term replacement for departed multipurpose back Roger Craig. Both might fill the bill.
Watters looked like a franchise back for the first three months of the season, but then he suffered a deep shoulder bruise against the Eagles on Nov. 29. In stepped Lee. "Several times this year I completely forgot to pick up my paycheck because I didn't feel like I had done anything," says Lee. "It was like Wednesday or Thursday before I went to get it." Players are paid after games on Sunday, and last week Lee picked up his check on time. No back in the league had a better day than he did.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
From Buccaneer coach Sam Wyche, whose feud with Falcon coach Jerry Glanville continued during a 35-7 loss to Atlanta. In a slap at Wyche, Glanville allowed linebacker Jesse Solomon, who had been cut by the Bucs in August during a holdout, to run the ball twice for a total of 12 yards late in the game. Said Wyche afterward, "I think they thought it was pretty cute, so I guess they did a cute thing, and it probably made them feel pretty good. And it made Jesse feel pretty cute."
ONE OF A KIND
Last Saturday night the Bears' coaches showed their players a Mike Singletary highlight film. Singletary gave Chicago its pregame locker room speech at Soldier Field on Sunday. When he appeared on the field before facing the Steelers, the affection of the fans cascaded onto him. Then, in a pregame ceremony marking his last game in Chicago, Singletary, who's retiring after 12 seasons in the NFL, all of them with the Bears, got misty.
"We all decided we were going to play like Mike plays," said defensive tackle Chris Zorich. " 'Be like Mike' is what we were saying. We played the game as a tribute to a man who deserves everything."
Chicago broke a six-game losing streak by crushing the Steelers. "This game I will remember for a lifetime, and for all the right reasons," said Singletary. "You fight and fight, and good things happen."
With so many stars at the skill positions, the 49er offensive line doesn't get the credit it deserves. In seven games against sack artists Chris Doleman of the Vikings, Kevin Greene of the Rams, Bruce Smith of the Bills, Clyde Simmons and Reggie White of the Eagles and Pat Swilling, Rickey Jackson and Wayne Martin of the Saints, San Francisco's linemen allowed a combined total of only 4½ sacks to those players....
Minnesota is desperate for a quarterback. Rich Gannon completed only nine of 21 throws for 102 yards against San Francisco's 28th-ranked pass defense, and he was sacked three times for losses totaling 31 yards. "The defense was built; the offense will be built," said Viking coach Dennis Green after the game. "We just have to do the best we can with what we have."
GAME OF THE WEEK
Tampa Bay at San Francisco, Saturday. What symmetry: With a 35-7 loss to the Falcons on Sunday, the Bucs became the first team to endure 10 straight seasons with at least 10 defeats. Three weeks ago the 49ers became the first team to win 10 games 10 years in a row. More important, this game starts what could be a terrific home run trot for San Francisco, which could win the Super Bowl without having to leave California. The Niners finish the regular season with two home games. Should they win them both, they would have the home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Should they win those games, they would advance to the Super Bowl in Pasadena. That's five games in seven weeks, and were the Niners to win them all, they would give new meaning to the term Golden State.
THE END ZONE
Oiler receivers coach Chris Palmer was pressed into the role of offensive coordinator last week because Kevin Gilbride had surgery to remove a cancerous right kidney. The last time Palmer called plays in the pros was in 1985, when he was with the USFL's New Jersey Generals. Doug Flutie was the Generals' quarterback, Herschel Walker was their running back, and the despotic Donald Trump was their owner. "One lime Trump called me and said, 'I want you to make sure Doug throws for 400 yards and Herschel runs for 200,' " recalls Palmer, "I told him, 'Call them and tell them yourself.' "
A NEW SAINT SACKER
What's the difference between this year's Saints, who were 11-3 after Sunday's 37-14 win over the Rams, and last year's, who went 11-5 and lost in the first round of the playoffs? For the most part New Orleans still gets by with a sputtering, ultraconservative offense. And its defense, led by superb bookend outside linebackers Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling, has maintained its No. 2 ranking in the league.
In fact, the only difference might be the play of defensive end Wayne Martin, the least-appreciated pass rusher west of Philadelphia's Clyde Simmons, who leads the NFL with 16.5 sacks. Martin, 27, who had four sacks against the Falcons on Dec. 3, is third in the NFC, with 14. The Saints' first-round draft choice in 1989, Martin storms over guards and tackles the way defensive tackle Keith Millard did a few years ago when he was busting up pockets for the Vikings. Martin also is a threat from the outside when he circles around end on line stunts with Jackson. "I'm playing well, but half my sacks come from line games Rickey and I play," says Martin.
A team can adjust for one great pass rusher by sliding its offensive line. Two outstanding pass rushers give a team fits. But three of them, which is what New Orleans has in Jackson, Martin and Swilling? About all you can do is call 911.
The 6'5", 275-pound Martin's gaudy sack total was unexpected. He had only 3.5 sacks last year, and the Saints haven't overhauled their defensive scheme to feature him. "It's a combination of his maturation as a player and the ability of the people he plays with," says New Orleans's defensive line coach, John Pease. "Pretty boring story, really. He doesn't have the 4.6 speed of a Bruce Smith or the quickness and the strength of some other guys. But he's very intelligent. He has a great work ethic, and he studies his opponent as much as anybody. He has a lot of veteran savvy for a young player."
Martin was an outside rusher at Arkansas, where as a senior he amassed 13 sacks and 18 tackles for losses. "I had to learn a new game, almost from the ground up, when I came to the Saints," says Martin. "I had to learn the pro game and the inside game." But he has now shown that he has enough strength to take on guards and tackles and enough quickness to elude them. Equally important, he has Jackson and Swilling to attract much of the opposing offense's attention.
Martin doesn't mind that he has received little recognition for his play this season. He grew up in Cherry Valley, Ark. (pop. 659), and he recently bought 80 acres of land just outside of town, where he and his wife, Gladys, plan to settle, raise a family, hunt in their woods and fish on their man-made lake. "I live a simple life," says Martin. "I never wanted a fleet of cars or houses all over the place. We have stars on our team, but I don't need the fame. Five years after football, nobody but my family will remember me."