January 08, 1996

The fajitas were roasting on an open fire outside Jack Murphy
Stadium on Sunday morning, emitting a savory aroma that only a
San Diego tailgate party could produce, and Indianapolis Colt
quarterback Jim Harbaugh was enjoying every whiff of it as the
team bus rolled toward the stadium. Harbaugh and his teammates
were about to face the AFC champion San Diego Chargers in a
first-round playoff matchup that nearly every football expert
from Charger linebacker Junior Seau to ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr.
figured the Colts would lose. That didn't bother Harbaugh; hell,
he was just grateful for the attention. The world's most
self-deprecating starting quarterback was having the ride of his
life, from backup on an expected also-ran to star of a playoff
team, and every bit of atmosphere enhanced the experience.

"I've never had so much fun," Harbaugh said several hours later,
after he had guided Indianapolis to a 35-20 victory. "Good stuff
like this never happens to me. I'm just so lucky to be able to
play football, and I'm enjoying every moment."

Harbaugh is the rare athlete who can revel in his unlikely
success without becoming phony or annoying. His Colts have now
displaced the Chargers as the endearing underdogs of the
football world. "When I was growing up, the Dead End Kids used
to be in the movies," said Ted Marchibroda, Indianapolis's
64-year-old coach, last Saturday. "They were a group of guys who
people didn't cater to, but they were good people from a variety
of backgrounds. Even though it seemed like they were mischievous
and they were going to lose, they'd come out winning. That's who
we are."

But as much fun as last weekend was for Harbaugh and the Colts
(and for three other convincing winners: the Buffalo Bills, the
Philadelphia Eagles and the Green Bay Packers), a hearty dose of
reality looms. Their respective opponents this week--the Kansas
City Chiefs, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Dallas Cowboys and the
San Francisco 49ers--look like the probable semifinalists in
this Super Bowl tournament. But even if the journey of the
opening-round victors dead-ends on the first weekend of 1996,
none of the four will soon forget the fireworks with which they
rang out the old year. Last weekend's games were decided by an
average score of 42-25, and the winners displayed more glee than
a gang of peewee footballers.

Last Saturday, at Buffalo's Rich Stadium, the Bills once again
proved that they have more staying power than The Rocky Horror
Picture Show. Fans who dread one-sided Super Bowls be warned:
Led by those old warhorses, tailback Thurman Thomas and
quarterback Jim Kelly, America's favorite four-time losers made
the Miami Dolphins look like kids who had taken too many rides
on a Tilt-a-Whirl as Buffalo eased to a 37-22 victory. "We
didn't know what was going on today," said Miami defensive end
Marco Coleman, whose team trailed 24-0 at the half. At game's
end the Bills had rushed for 341 yards, the second-highest total
ever for a postseason game (surpassed only by the Chicago Bears'
382 yards in their 73-0 win over the Washington Redskins in the
1940 NFL championship game).

If the Bills versus the Dolphins was a blowout, the following
game, at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, was an outright
slaughter. The exuberant Eagles, who entered the game as
three-point underdogs, took a 51-7 lead and cruised from there
to a 58-37 victory over the Detroit Lions, who had been the
NFL's hottest team in the second half of the season. Detroit
quarterback Scott Mitchell, who had thrown 32 touchdown passes
in '95, looked utterly helpless as he served up four
interceptions before being yanked midway through the third

During the week, Lion tackle Lomas Brown had foolishly provoked
the Eagles. In a move that ultimately insulted the proud
heritage of Muhammad Ali, Joe Namath and Jimmy Johnson, Brown
guaranteed a Detroit victory, saying the game "could be over in
the first quarter." He was off by about 15 minutes; Philadelphia
scored 31 points in the second quarter, the second-highest total
for a single period in a playoff game. From now on Brown should
know that life's only certainties are death, taxes and the
playing of Start Me Up over the loudspeaker at all U.S. sporting

In contrast to the Saturday romps, the two Sunday games offered
some initial suspense, but the outcomes were nonetheless
decisive. The Packers, probably the most complete team among the
first-round winners, rolled to a 37-20 victory over the Atlanta
Falcons at Green Bay's Lambeau Field amid enduring images of
Packer scorers diving into the end zone stands to accept the
congratulatory embraces of fans.

Completing the weekend of excess was lightly regarded
Indianapolis, a team whose inglorious legacy had included zero
playoff victories since 1971. The Chargers had rebounded from a
4-7 start to win five consecutive games, including a 27-24
victory over the Colts in Indianapolis on Dec. 17, and San
Diego's advancement into a second-round game at Kansas City
seemed a foregone conclusion. Yet, like any young,
impressionable team, the Colts derived motivation from the tide
of skepticism that engulfed them, assuming an air of
no-one-respects-us defiance that brought to mind Indianapolis
vice president Bill Tobin's trading verbal barbs on TV with
Kiper in April 1994. "We said we were going to gain some
respect, and that's what we did," linebacker Quentin Coryatt
said after Sunday's game. "We showed we're alive and real."

Regardless of what happens this weekend, four points have been
hammered home: The aging Bills defied the collapse that most
observers believed was their lot; the Eagles proved that their
mediocre talent is buoyed by a championship attitude, engendered
primarily by their rookie coach, Ray Rhodes (box, page 28); the
Packers confirmed that the will of quarterback Brett Favre was
enough to turn the loss of star receiver Sterling Sharpe, who
retired during the off-season after neck surgery, into a
positive; and the Colts reminded us that you don't have to be
noticed to be good.

Of course, the 49ers, the Cowboys, the Chiefs and the Steelers
have loftier objectives. For San Francisco, which has won a
record five Super Bowls, the first obstacle on the road to No. 6
is a near mirror-image of itself. The Packers and the 49ers
feature offenses so similar that many of their audible calls
will be identical. The game also pits a pair of San Francisco
natives in a battle of wits: Niner coach George Seifert versus
his former offensive coordinator, Mike Holmgren. "I want to play
the 49ers so badly," says Holmgren, a onetime Bay Area high
school history teacher, now in his fourth year as the Green Bay
coach. "Half the policemen in Candlestick I either taught in
school or went to school with."

Will Holmgren's homecoming be a happy one? Favre, who easily
beat out Niner receiver Jerry Rice in the balloting for the
league's MVP award, is the Pack's best reason for optimism.
Since Nov. 5 he has thrown 24 touchdown passes against only four
interceptions, and he finished the season as the NFC's top-rated
quarterback, with a league-best 38 touchdown passes and 4,413
yards. In the first half of Sunday's game he completed 16 passes
to nine different receivers, illustrating the team-oriented
approach he has instilled in the offense in the wake of Sharpe's
departure. But running back Edgar Bennett, who had 108 yards
rushing against the Falcons--a Packer postseason record--will
have trouble breaking free against the 49er defense, and that
will place an even heavier burden on Favre. "Brett needs to be
really discipline--no winging it, no wild plays," says Falcon
backup quarterback Bobby Hebert, who, subbing for injured
starter Jeff George, led Atlanta to a 28-27 win over the 49ers
in the final week of the regular season. "I'd be really
surprised if the 49ers lose to those guys."

The other team standing between a fourth consecutive Dallas-San
Francisco NFC title game is Philadelphia. Rhodes, yet another
former Seifert assistant, said two weeks ago, "We're not Dallas
or San Francisco. We're just a bunch of piss-boys trying to play
hard." The Eagles split a pair of games with the Cowboys this
season--a 34-12 loss at Texas Stadium and a 20-17 win at home
that will forever be remembered for Dallas coach Barry Switzer's
late fourth-quarter decision to go for the first down on
fourth-and-a-foot at the Cowboys' 29-yard line. The Philly
defense stopped tailback Emmitt Smith for no gain, and four
plays later Eagle kicker Gary Anderson won the game with a
42-yard field goal.

Assuming that Switzer won't make the same sort of dumb mistake
twice, Philadelphia can win only by playing its usual fervent
defense and by relying on running backs Ricky Watters and
Charlie Garner to get past the front wall of Dallas defenders.
Just two starting quarterbacks in the NFC were rated lower than
Philadelphia's Rodney Peete this season, but he had a career
game against the Lions, completing 17 of 25 passes for 270
yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Then there are the Bills, who three years ago in a divisional
playoff crushed the Steelers 24-3. Now, with Thomas (25 carries,
158 yards and a touchdown against the Dolphins) and wide
receiver Andre Reed finally healthy and with Kelly in pre-Super
Bowl form, the Bills should not be taken lightly. Even
seldom-used fullback Tim (Rin Tin) Tindale--two-time winner of
the Hec Crighton Trophy, the Canadian equivalent of the
Heisman--rumbled for 68 yards on just four carries against
Miami. But moving the ball won't be nearly as easy against the
taut Pittsburgh defense, and if the Steeler offense stays hot
(165 points in their last six games), Buffalo's inspired return
to prominence is likely to end.

The team facing the longest odds remains Indianapolis. Beating
Kansas City will be a formidable task--the Chiefs had a 13-3
record, the best in the NFL, and were undefeated at home--but
the Dead End Kids aren't likely to be fazed. They could easily
have panicked in San Diego on Sunday when their star running
back, Marshall Faulk, after dashing 16 yards on the game's first
play from scrimmage, aggravated a bruised left knee and
retreated to the sideline for good. But the Colts stuck with the
running game, unleashing hitherto unknown backup fullback Zack
Crockett. A rookie from Florida State, Crockett had spent the
season as Roosevelt Potts's understudy until Potts went down
with a knee injury in the Dec. 17 loss to San Diego. Crockett
had one carry for zero yards in the regular season; on Sunday he
rushed 13 times for 147 yards, including touchdown runs of 33
and 66 yards.

Indy confounded the Chargers by spreading out its offense,
running draw plays and throwing play-action passes out of the I
formation. The Colts neutralized Seau with those spread-out
offensive sets, which required him to spend much of the day
dropping back into pass coverage (Seau hauled in one magnificent
interception on the San Diego one-yard line in the first
quarter), and when he did blitz, the Colts came up with big
plays, including a 42-yard touchdown pass from Harbaugh to Sean
Dawkins late in the third quarter that gave Indianapolis a 21-17

Both Seau and Harbaugh are chess enthusiasts and the champions
of their respective locker rooms. Harbaugh won $200 from Colt
defensive tackle Tony Siragusa on the flight to San Diego
Saturday; the quarterback scored the football equivalent of a
checkmate against Seau the next day.

Life figures to get much tougher for Harbaugh in Kansas City,
but he is having too much fun to worry. He was the last Colt to
leave the locker room, and if a team official hadn't hustled him
out, Harbaugh might have stayed at his stall until the New
Year's ball descended in Times Square. As he removed his sweaty
socks, he paused to savor the moment, and then he actually said,
"It's a wonderful life." Socks, fajitas, whatever--Harbaugh is
enjoying the sweet smell of success. He knows it probably won't
last forever.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER TAKE A SEAT That's what Dan Marino and the rest of the Dolphins did in the NFL playoffs after being knocked on their keisters by the Bills. [Dan Marino--T of C] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH The Colts spread the Charger defense, freeing Dawkins for this tumbling 42-yard touchdown catch. [Sean Dawkins] COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Crockett (32), a rookie, had 147 yards rushing, while Thomas, a veteran, led the Bills with 158. [Zack Crockett] COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER [See caption above--Thurman Thomas] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Dorsey Levens soared for the last of Favre's three TD passes, an 18-yarder that put the Pack up 34-17. [Dorsey Levens catching pass] COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN With three TD passes, including this bull's-eye to Fred Barnett, Peete stilled his critics for another week. [Fred Barnett catching pass]