Lions' inspiring story may end at RFK Numbers, history favor Redskins in title game NFC CHAMPIONSHIP -- LIONS at REDSKINS


WASHINGTON -- In reel life, this season's NFC title game would be titled "Thumbs Up."

Every Hollywood screenwriter would love to write it: the emotional story of how an underdog band of Detroit Lions won a Super Bowl trip for their fallen teammate, Mike Utley, who gave them a thumbs-up sign when he left the field paralyzed in November.

In real life, though, the Washington Redskins figure to turn thumbs down on the Lions at RFK Stadium today and win a trip to Super Bowl XXVI.

Not that Utley isn't rooting for the Lions.

"I'm for the guys all the way," Utley said Friday in his first public comments on his injury during a conference call to Detroit from his hospital in Denver.

Utley's determination and grace under pressure transcend football. He's not bitter. He said he'd play football again if he had the chance, and he even said, "I just know that one day something good will come out of all of this."

This leaves the Redskins in the position of spoiling the most heartwarming story of the season.

The Lions have won seven straight since Utley went down on Nov. 17 in a freak accident while blocking on a pass play against the Los Angeles Rams. But they're a two-touchdown underdog against a Redskins team that has every number imaginable going for it.

The Redskins beat the Lions in the opener, 45-0. They've beaten them 14 straight home and away and never have lost to the Lions in Washington in 15 games. The Redskins are 10-1 in playoff games at RFK Stadium, 8-1 under coach Joe Gibbs. It's their fifth NFC title game in the past decade, compared with the Lions' first since 1957, when it was the NFL title game.

Then there's the outdoors factor. The Lions are 2-4 outdoors, and, in one of those victories, the regular-season finale, the Buffalo Bills held Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas out of the game.

Get the idea of how the odds are stacked against the Lions?

About the only thing the Lions have going for them is the thought that the Redskins might overlook them. Maybe they would if this were a regular-season game. But the Redskins know how rare the opportunities are to go to a Super Bowl.

Gibbs is shooting for his fourth Super Bowl trip, but he's not jaded.

"I know it sounds crazy, [but] it seems to me right now that I want this more than I wanted the others," Gibbs said. "I really do. It's funny that you feel that way. I don't know what it is. When you get this close, you get so nervous, you can hardly rest or sleep. You're kind of agitated. You're wanting to work and think. It's kind of hard to concentrate on things."

The Redskins also remember the frustration of 7-9 in 1988 as defending champions. They remember missing the playoffs in 1989 with a 10-6 record. They remember last season's playoff loss in San Francisco, when they got inside the 49ers 20-yard line three times in the second half and came away with no points.

Wide receiver Gary Clark makes it obvious how much the Redskins want this one.

"I think it brings out the best in every player," he said. "You'll be a little nervous, but that makes the adrenalin flow a little more and you're a lot quicker and a lot faster. It comes to a point where you basically think you're invincible. By the time we get out of that locker room, we'll feel like we can run through a brick wall. To tell you the truth, you're almost willing to try it because you're so up for that game. We know what the Super Bowl is about. We know what that feeling is.

"To have a chance to play for that feeling once again makes me excited. There's no consolation prize in losing the championship game. . . . What all football players dream about doing from the time they're a kid [is] . . . to play for the gold [so] for one year ## you have bragging rights. You're the best. What more can you ask for? I'll be so psyched up," Clark said.

Gibbs said: "We have to make up our mind that they go or we We have to earn it."

Along the way, they'll probably show the difference between real life and reel life.

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