How successfully can football be played in January weather? Well, some athletes can make it look like a romp on a summer afternoon, as two National Football League quarterbacks did Saturday:
--At San Francisco, the Minnesota Vikings' surprise backup sensation, Wade Wilson, became the All-Pro quarterback of the playoffs--at least for the first two weeks--with his second consecutive big game for the wild-card Minnesota Vikings, who upset the 49ers, 36-24.
Wilson's running, passing and, yes, blocking made the difference for the Vikings on a day when they intelligently double-teamed 49er Jerry Rice consistently, taking him out of the game.
At the same time, the 49ers unintelligently spent the entire day trying to single-cover Anthony Carter. They couldn't. Nobody can.
--On a cold afternoon in Ohio, quarterback Bernie Kosar won a 38-21 game for the Cleveland Browns.
It was 19 above when the Cleveland game started, and close to zero at the finish, but there wasn't much wind. That was the key. To a canny, determined football player, a calm winter day is like any day in July, and there isn't a more resourceful quarterback in pro football than Kosar.
The young Cleveland leader took full advantage of this strange, still day on a frozen beach near Lake Erie to complete the 20 passes--3 for touchdowns in a total of 31 attempts--that eliminated the Indianapolis Colts.
Kosar's four turning-point passes were all thrown to 31-year-old tight end Ozzie Newsome on identical angle-out patterns in the third quarter. These plays, comprising the unexpected element in Cleveland's game plan, set up the decisive points after Indianapolis quarterback Jack Trudeau had surprisingly played Kosar to a 14-14 tie at the half.
Later, Cleveland Coach Marty Schottenheimer said the play of the game was a blitz by one of his inside linebackers, Eddie Johnson, who lined up in the Browns' version of the Chicago Bears' 46 defense, then bored in on Trudeau, hitting the quarterback's arm to force a wild pass.
This was intercepted by Cleveland free safety Felix Wright at the Browns' 14-yard line to end a menacing 71-yard drive by the Colts from their own 15 at the start of the second half.
"We never ran that blitz before," said Schottenheimer. "I don't think (the Colts) were ready for it."
They weren't. But that wasn't what beat them. What beat them was the 86-yard Cleveland drive that followed Johnson's big rush.
The Kosar passes. The Newsome catches. Playing gallantly, the Colts were beaten by a 24-year-old quarterback and a 31-year-old tight end.
Eric Dickerson, the Colts' new running back, was probably the best player on the Cleveland field. The Browns had made a pregame decision to take Dickerson out, come what may. And it was this strategy--removing the pressure from Trudeau and his receivers--that made the game even for nearly three quarters.
For on 33 pass plays, as the Browns defensed Dickerson, Trudeau completed 21 for 255 yards and 2 touchdowns. That was more yards passing than Kosar got.
Trudeau has improved, and his wide receivers are pretty good, but they aren't that good. They hadn't played as effectively as this at any other time this season against a defense like Cleveland's.
When he won, finally, it turned out that Schottenheimer had guessed right. Explaining why he gave the Indianapolis pass offense so many opportunities, the Cleveland coach said:
"Every time (the Colts) throw the ball, that's one less time they can give it to Dickerson."
Cleveland cornerback Frank Minnifield said: "Our objective today was to commit 11 guys to . . . Eric Dickerson."
Cleveland's other Pro Bowl cornerback, Hanford Dixon, added: "We said before the game, if (Dickerson) is gonna gain a few yards, let him have to break 11 tackles, and that's what we did."
So Dickerson faced a defense that was stacked against him--with a Cleveland linebacker on each side keying on him on every play--and still netted 50 yards in 15 carries. But most were wasted plays. The Colts, against this particular defense, should have thrown to him more often than they ran him.
With seven catches, Dickerson was the leading receiver on the field, proving, once more, that he is underrated on pass plays.
His touchdown catch demonstrated, in any event, that the Browns had underestimated him as a receiver. In the second quarter, on a first-down play at the Cleveland 19, the Browns doubled both Indianapolis wide receivers and tried to cover Dickerson down the middle with their best linebacker, Clay Matthews.
It was a ho-hum touchdown that the Colts, strangely, didn't try to duplicate again, a failure that cost them.
Most of the way, the Ohio game was beautiful and well-played with one long offensive march after another. This is what you can expect, even on a cold day, when neither side blitzes the passer and when both offensive lines are powerful enough to hold off the rushers in two rather indifferent defensive lines.
The opposing coaches adopted similar defensive game plans out of fear. Schottenheimer was afraid of Dickerson; Indianapolis Coach Ron Meyer was afraid that Kosar, with his quick release, would pick his defense apart if he used his linebackers as blitzers.
And so, mostly on pass plays, both teams marched repeatedly. In the first 2 1/2 quarters, when the game was on the line, the Browns marched 86, 66 and 86 yards to touchdowns and the Colts drove 74 and 60.
Then a running back named Earnest Byner took over for Cleveland. A nice guy who usually spends most of his time blocking, Byner moved from fullback to halfback and replaced one Herman Fontenot, who had replaced Kevin Mack, who was too ill to play.
Byner ran and ran until he had 122 yards, getting most of it in the last 1 1/2 quarters.
Byner didn't win it. Kosar won it. But it was Byner and his blockers who, in the end, killed the Colts.
In a weird NFL year, in which the two wild-card teams are both still alive, it will take Denver's best game to eliminate the talented Houston group today.
At Candlestick Park Saturday, the Vikings escaped elimination for principally these four reasons: Wilson is an unflappable quarterback under pressure; he can make yards carrying the ball; he throws a very straight pass at all the middle distances, and, sometimes, he can hit Carter deep when little Anthony is being single-covered.
The 49ers' foolishness in trying to cover Carter with one man beat them.
Believe it: It was the 49ers' defense, formerly superb, that blew them out of the playoffs. Their gifted young quarterback, Steve Young, was about to bring them back to win an unexpectedly difficult game, but every time he moved the ball, the Vikings moved it, too, majestically, against the 49er defense.
Where have the Vikings been hiding Wilson? He is a rip-roaring Leatherneck winner--a Marines-have-landed, we-have-taken-charge quarterback. He is a Bobby Layne who can throw a straight ball. This was no upset, really. This was just letting a winning quarterback play.