Playoff picture colored black and blue Injuries play big part in slowing contenders such as Colts, Vikings

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On Sept. 8, the Indianapolis Colts caught a glimpse of the star-crossed path their 1996 season would follow.

In a messy Week 2 victory over the New York Jets, they were hit by everything but lightning. And they were spared that only because game officials wisely interrupted play with 11 minutes left when a nasty thunderstorm descended on the Meadowlands.

When it was over, the Colts were licking their wounds. Running back Marshall Faulk had a sprained big toe. Defensive end Tony Bennett had a sprained left knee. Tackle Kipp Vickers had a sprained right knee.

"We almost needed a M*A*S*H unit to get us back to Indy," general manager Bill Tobin said in reflection this week.

The Colts lost seven starters to injury that day, the beginning of a frightful trend. In a season of diminishing returns, they've had three different players each start at right cornerback, left linebacker and right linebacker. They've had four right defensive ends. They've had 12 starters miss a total of 36 games.

The rash of injuries, coupled with a recent run of turnovers, sent the Colts tumbling to a three-game losing streak. They have gone from 4-0 and leading the AFC East to 5-4 and scuffling to make the playoffs.

They're in the eye of the playoff storm, and not the only team

getting drenched. The Miami Dolphins, who face Indianapolis on Sunday, have lost three in a row and five of six to fall virtually out of contention.

The Minnesota Vikings have lost three in a row. Ditto the Detroit Lions. The Houston Oilers have lost two in a row. The San Diego Chargers have lost three of four. The Carolina Panthers are 2-4 in their last six.

These are all contending teams, playing their way out of the postseason. The common denominator appears to be injuries.

Minnesota lost its best running back for the year and its quarterback on two occasions. The Lions, Dolphins, Oilers, Chargers and Panthers all have lost quarterbacks, among others, to injury.

There are always injuries, of course. But in the era of the salary cap and free agency, there suddenly are few adequate replacements and virtually no depth.

"It has affected depth immensely in the league," said New York Giants general manager George Young. "At the trial [over free agency], I said we'd have a South American society: haves and have-nots and no middle class. I don't like it. We're the ultimate team sport, a sport more affected by injury."

When the NFL accommodated TV in 1990 by expanding the playoffs to 12 teams with six wild cards, it allowed more teams to compete for postseason berths. But look at today's standings and you'll see most spots already are accounted for.

In the NFC, the Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins are virtual locks. That leaves a field of six wannabes, headed by the defending Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys, fighting over two spots.

In the AFC, the Denver Broncos, Pittsburgh Steelers, Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots and Kansas Chiefs are as good as in. That leaves six teams scrambling for one spot.

In Indianapolis, Tobin declines to blame the Colts' collapse solely on injuries.

"We're not getting it done right now," he said. "We can't overcome turnovers. We can't overcome obvious calls going against us. We've got to play hard and hope for the best. Our stance is, all things will even out."

These are the teams on the playoff periphery:

NFC

Cowboys (5-4): Faced with the most difficult remaining schedule of any contender, five of their last seven are against the 49ers (away), Packers, Redskins (twice) and Patriots. If they win three of those games, they're in at 10-6. Even at 9-7, they're in good shape because they have only one division loss. The two games against the Redskins, who swept last year's series, may prove decisive.

Vikings (5-4): Since beating Green Bay on Sept. 22, they've lost four of five. The offense faltered badly during that stretch, scoring just 11.2 points per game. The decline started before the Vikings lost running back Robert Smith to a season-ending knee injury, but in the two games since, they've rushed for a total of 59 yards. This week, they signed Ravens castoff Leroy Hoard in an attempt to revive the running game.

Panthers (5-4): They get the Giants this week at home, where they're 4-0. Their toughest games are at Houston and San Francisco, followed by a Week 17 home date with the Steelers. They'll need to win on the road if they are to overtake the Vikings, who beat them in Week 6 to gain the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Lions (4-5): Another furious finish would vault the Lions into the postseason for the fourth straight season. Last year they won their final seven games. They qualified in 1994 after winning four of the last five and in 1993 after winning three of the last four. In 1991, they won their last six and made it. The question is: Can the Lions, who've lost three in a row, catch fire against the NFC's second-hardest finishing schedule?

Giants (4-5): They are 4-2 since their 0-3 start, and a big part of the turnaround is defense. The Giants stonewalled Arizona on four third-and-one plays last week. They also won with rookie quarterback Danny Kanell after Dave Brown had back spasms. Sunday at Carolina is critical.

Bears (4-5): After losing quarterback Erik Kramer to injury, they've now lost linebacker Bryan Cox for the year. Doesn't matter. Road games in Denver, Kansas City and Green Bay will eliminate the Bears.

AFC

Colts (5-4): They've lost four of the last five. Now they head into the teeth of their schedule with four straight division games, then finish against the Eagles, Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals. One pass away from the Super Bowl last season, the Colts will be fortunate just to make the playoffs.

Oilers (5-4): They snatched defeat from the jaws of victory last Sunday against Seattle, a loss that could haunt them. They also have endured one-point losses to Kansas City and San Francisco. But the Oilers have the most favorable finishing schedule of any team -- facing New Orleans, Miami, Carolina, the New York Jets, Jacksonville, Cincinnati and the Ravens. It's their playoff ticket if the Colts continue to stumble.

Chargers (5-4): They have lost three of four and in the wake of an injury to Stan Humphries, and had to start Sean Salisbury the last two games. They haven't had a running back gain as many as 65 yards in a game yet, and the defense is poor.

Raiders (4-5): The Monday night loss to Denver was damaging. They have four games left in the NFL's toughest division, the AFC West. A year ago, the Raiders lost their last six to plummet out of contention.

Seahawks (4-5): The quarterback switch from Rick Mirer to John Friesz worked wonders. They're 3-1 under Friesz, who is passing for 267 yards per start.

Dolphins (4-5): They are 1-5 since starting 3-0 under Jimmy Johnson. The culprit has been defense. In the last five games, they have been torched for 13 touchdown passes, four of more than 50 yards. In the last three weeks, they've surrendered 35.3 points per game. They are at least a year away.

AFC breakdown

Team (W-L), Remaining opp. record, Win. teams left, Skinny

Locks

Broncos (8-1), 36-27, .571, 4, John Elway no longer has to do it all

Steelers (7-2), 30-33, .476, 3, Mike Tomczak in the Super Bowl?

Chiefs (6-3), 36-27, .571, 4, Overcoming Steve Bono is the challenge

Bills (6-3), 30-33, .476, 3, Primed for one last stand

Patriots (6-3), 29-34, .460, 4, Drew Bledsoe arrives, again

On the bubble

Colts (5-4), 33-30, .524, 4, Injuries ravaged their chances

Oilers (5-4), 21-42, .333, 1, Soft schedule could be their ticket

Chargers (5-4), 36-27, .571, 4, No defense, no running game

Outside chance

Raiders (4-5), 32-31, .508, 3, Monday night's loss was killer

Dolphins (4-5), 32-31, .508, 4, Dan Marino lost ground in Super Bowl quest

Seahawks (4-5), 34-29, .540, 3, They've won 3 of 4 with Friesz at QB

NFC breakdown

Team (W-L), Remaining opp. record, Win. teams left, Skinny

Locks

Packers (8-1), 34-29, .540, 4, Playoffs pass through frigid Green Bay

49ers (7-2), 32-31, .508, 4, Elvis Grbac or Steve Young, it's all the same

Eagles (7-2), 29-34, .460, 3, Sitting pretty with Giants, Jets, Cards

(twice) left

Redskins (7-2), 31-32, .492, 4, Four of last 6 games are on the road

On the bubble

Cowboys (5-4), 42-21, .667, 5, Toughest remaining schedule by far

Vikings (5-4), 32-31, .508, 2, Haven't scored over 14 points since Week 4

Panthers (5-4), 29-34, .460, 3, Beaten only Rams and Saints in

last 6 games

Lions (4-5), 39-24, .619, 5, Counting on another fast finish

Outside chance

Bears (4-5), 34-29, .540, 4, One of season's major busts

Giants (4-5), 32-31, .508, 4, The future is now with Danny Kanell

Pub Date: 11/08/96

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