End of road? After super 6-year reign, NFC looking vulnerable ... Analysis


When the instant replay booths across America finally shut down after a furious run of wreak and review, some basic truths emerged from the NFL's onslaught of wild-card mania:

* The New Orleans Saints proved you really can't win in the playoffs without a quarterback, no matter how tough your defense is.

* One week after the run-and-shoot became the rage, the Houston Oilers showed why it won't soon proliferate in the NFL. Can you imagine a team cooperating more than the Oilers did in their 41-14 blowout loss to Cincinnati?

* The inimitable Buddy Ryan, who may or may not be coaching the Philadelphia Eagles by the end of the week, showed why Chicago's Mike Ditka was ecstatic to be rid of him five years ago. Ryan apparently got caught in a time warp Saturday in Philadelphia, thought he was back with the Bears and summoned raggedy-armed Jim McMahon to play quarterback.

* Joe Gibbs proved again that as long as he's the coach in Washington, you should never count out the Redskins. He answered Buddy's braggarts on the field with a 20-6 triumph.

* Lastly, if the AFC is ever going to end the NFC's domination of the Super Bowl, this is the year it should happen. Six years in a row the NFC has won the big one. But those were with powerhouse teams. The San Francisco 49ers, New York Giants and Bears all were dominant teams when they won. The Redskins may not have been dominant all season in 1987, but they were when it counted.

Now take a look at this season's NFC semifinalists.

The 49ers are 14-2, but haven't shown a running game all season and Joe Montana, their MVP quarterback, is looking human after all with only two touchdown passes in his last four appearances. For all of Gibbs' brainpower, the Redskins lost an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter against Indianapolis, of all teams, two weeks ago. The New York Giants started out afire at 10-0, but staggered through the stretch run in near ashes with Jeff Hostetler at quarterback. The Bears lost four of their last six games, before conveniently being fed the no-offense Saints for a wild-card meal yesterday. Chicago munched carefully, 16-6.

That combustible combination will offer some interesting matchups, but probably no dominant team, in next week's divisional round. The Redskins can stamp themselves a legitimate Super Bowl contender by unseating the 49ers in San Francisco Saturday. On Sunday in the Meadowlands, the Giants and Bears will match backup quarterbacks at 30 paces.

The AFC's semifinals offer a little more stability at quarterback and the hint of a dominant team or two. Saturday's game sends Miami's Dan Marino, clutch in a 17-16 victory over Kansas City, into the teeth of a Buffalo winter. On Sunday, the ailing Cincinnati Bengals will try once again to get a handle on Bo Jackson and the Los Angeles Raiders in the L.A. Coliseum.

In the Bills and Raiders, the AFC would appear to have two teams capable of winning the Super Bowl, assuming that Bills quarterback Jim Kelly can adequately recover from knee surgery three weeks ago.

The Bills are only the third AFC team in the last 12 to win 13 regular-season games. The last time it happened was 1984 when Miami went 14-2 and Denver 13-3. They've got the home-field advantage through the AFC playoffs, but could squander it if Kelly's left knee doesn't respond.

The Raiders are the only AFC representative to have won the Super Bowl in the last decade, and they did it twice, in 1980 and 1983. Their physical style is much more in tune with the NFC. It's hard to imagine the Raiders being routed in a Super Bowl the way Denver has been.

The Raiders have won five in a row, the best streak of anyone in the tournament. Quarterback Jay Schroeder has completed 59 percent of his passes, averaging 9.27 yards per pass, during that stretch. And then there's Bo. Ask the Bengals how much Bo means to the Raiders.

When the two teams met in Los Angeles last Dec. 16, Jackson rushed eight times for 117 yards. With Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason hobbled by a groin injury, the Raiders won handily, 24-7. The one oddity in the game was that Jackson was caught from behind on an 88-yard run. Two years ago, Bo destroyed the Bengals in a 28-7 Raiders win with touchdown runs of 92 and 7 yards.

The Bengals torched the Oilers yesterday, but paid a heavy price in so doing. Their premier running back, James Brooks, went out early with an open dislocation of the left thumb. The thumb was set back in place with a surgical procedure, and although the Bengals are saying Brooks might be able to play, it'll be with a splint on his hand at best.

Also injured yesterday were left guard Bruce Reimers (severely sprained ankle), left tackle Anthony Munoz (shoulder), center Bruce Kozerski (elbow) and backup running back Harold Green (sprained ankle). Neither does it help that the Bengals are 1-10 on the road against the Raiders.

Buffalo's chances against Miami hinge on Kelly's comeback. Bills coach Marv Levy said he thinks Kelly will need a full week of work to be ready. Tomorrow's practice will tell. "It's in the hands of our doctors," Levy said. "They will tell us whether he'll go and certainly Jim's reactions as to how he can go will determine it."

Frank Reich, who couldn't move the Bills across midfield in a half against the Redskins two weeks ago, is the alternative quarterback. Expect Kelly to play.

No quarterback, meanwhile, looked better this weekend than Marino. The eight-year veteran was 9-for-9 in two fourth-quarter touchdown drives that enabled the Dolphins to beat Kansas City in their first playoff test in five years.

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