Coach Dick Vermeil's feat — taking the Chiefs to nine wins in a row — should be accepted for what it was: an extraordinary achievement in an era of sweeping parity.

The 1972 Miami Dolphins, the NFL's lone unbeaten team (14-0), had a much, much easier time of it in their year. For one thing, they played a shorter schedule. For another, there was no league concern for parity in those days, when the '72 Dolphins played a lot of stiffs. Most important, the early 1970s were a one-dimension era with little passing.

On the Los Angeles afternoon when the '72 Dolphins won the Super Bowl, they completed only eight (eight!) passes. They attempted but 11 (eleven!). When they won the Super Bowl again a year later, they attempted seven passes, completing six.

You can't win that way now. Since the 1980s when 49er Coach Walsh opened up the game, this has increasingly become a passing league. If you think Lewis has a nothing team in Cincinnati, well, a nothing team today can still throw bombs.

And it was a well-aimed bomb — Jon Kitna's long, long fourth-quarter pass on a 77-yard touchdown play — that brought down the Chiefs, 24-19. Nothing remotely like that happened to the '72 Dolphins. Or could have happened.




Bengals' Lewis Really Has a Nerve

BENGAL POSTSCRIPT: The Cincinnati leader, Lewis, toppled Kansas City with precisely the kind of winning football never seen by the 1972 Dolphins or their peers — attack football. After the Chiefs drew close to him in the fourth quarter, 17-13, Lewis, theoretically, could have retreated into a shell and tried to just hang on to his four-point lead. Instead, Lewis attacked.

Even though, this year, he lacks one of the marquee quarterbacks, who in pro ball are numerous now, Lewis ordered up Kitna's last long touchdown throw to Peter Warrick, one of the nation's many talented wide receivers. This is a season that has shown up several NFL coaches who lack the nerve to do that. The difference in 1972 wasn't lack of nerve. It was lack of talent.




The Return of a Denver Plummer

THE DENVER BRONCOS don't have a great deal to beat next Sunday, some are insisting, when the Chicago Bears come in. Yet with the return of quarterback Jake Plummer from foot-injury problems, Denver has reestablished itself as, I'd say, the best team in football.

It isn't that the Broncos walloped San Diego last Sunday, 37-8, it's the way they did it — with one of the league's most effective two-way threats as represented by Plummer and running back Clinton Portis. The bag of 106 rushing yards by Portis helped set up Plummer's three touchdown passes to tight end Shannon Sharpe.

Plummer has missed so many games that the Broncos, after losing most of them, probably can't catch Kansas City in the race for first in the West. But if they make the playoffs as a wild-card team, watch out.

As for the Chargers, they were unfortunate that the luck of the schedule carried them to Denver at just this time. For, after showing his hand last week when he surprised Minnesota, 42-28, quarterback Doug Flutie couldn't sneak up on Denver. Nor could his teammates make the required pass-protection blocks against the suddenly alerted Broncos. Nor did San Diego really have a chance against a team fired up by Plummer's return.

One San Diego play told it all for Flutie. When at the Denver 20 he was going in for what could have been a difference-making touchdown in the second quarter, Flutie's pass for a first down hit tight end Stephen Alexander in the stomach but was dropped, and not only that, Alexander dropped it into Kelly Herndon's hands for a Bronco interception. This wasn't meant to be a Flutie day.




With Broken Thumb, Favre Fires

THE GREEN BAY PACKERS (5-5) are back in what has become the NFL's weirdest division-title race. They're in it with the Minnesota Vikings (6-4), who, after starting the season 6-0, are 0-4 in their last four. The Vikings can't win — and Green Bay can't pass.

Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre's broken thumb restricted him Sunday when the Packers won, 20-13, by running through the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as if they weren't there.

Nothing heals a broken thumb but rest. And Favre won't rest. And nothing heals a losing streak but winning. And the Vikings can't win, even in Oakland, where the Raiders somehow held on to prevail Sunday, 28-18, though Minnesota, punting only once, piled up 467 total yards.

Were the Packers in a tougher division than the NFC North, where Minnesota, Chicago and Detroit have all experienced years of trouble and turmoil, they would have to do something each week besides sending Favre forth to win while reinjuring his right thumb.

Hardly anything is more important to a right-handed passer than a right thumb. You can't launch good passes without a good right thumb. But Favre does. You surely can't win without one, but Favre does that too.