The Fajitas were roasting on an open fire outside Jack Murphy Stadium on Sunday morning, emitting a savory aroma that only a San Diego tailgate party could produce, and Indianapolis Colt quarterback Jim Harbaugh was enjoying every whiff of it as the team bus rolled toward the stadium. Harbaugh and his teammates were about to face the AFC champion San Diego Chargers in a first-round playoff matchup that nearly every football expert from Charger linebacker Junior Seau to ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. figured the Colts would lose. That didn't bother Harbaugh; hell, he was just grateful for the attention. The world's most self-deprecating starting quarterback was having the ride of his life, from backup on an expected also-ran to star of a playoff team, and every bit of atmosphere enhanced the experience.
"I've never had so much fun," Harbaugh said several hours later, after he had guided Indianapolis to a 35-20 victory. "Good stuff like this never happens to me. I'm just so lucky to be able to play football, and I'm enjoying every moment."
Harbaugh is the rare athlete who can revel in his unlikely success without becoming phony or annoying. His Colts have now displaced the Chargers as the endearing underdogs of the football world. "When I was growing up, the Dead End Kids used to be in the movies," said Ted Marchibroda, Indianapolis's 64-year-old coach, last Saturday. "They were a group of guys who people didn't cater to, but they were good people from a variety of backgrounds. Even though it seemed like they were mischievous and they were going to lose, they'd come out winning. That's who we are."
But as much fun as last weekend was for Harbaugh and the Colts (and for three other convincing winners: the Buffalo Bills, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Green Bay Packers), a hearty dose of reality looms. Their respective opponents this week—the Kansas City Chiefs, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers—look like the probable semifinalists in this Super Bowl tournament. But even if the journey of the opening-round victors dead-ends on the first weekend of 1996, none of the four will soon forget the fireworks with which they rang out the old year. Last weekend's games were decided by an average score of 42-25, and the winners displayed more glee than a gang of peewee footballers.
Last Saturday, at Buffalo's Rich Stadium, the Bills once again proved that they have more staying power than The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Fans who dread one-sided Super Bowls be warned: Led by those old warhorses, tailback Thurman Thomas and quarterback Jim Kelly, America's favorite four-time losers made the Miami Dolphins look like kids who had taken too many rides on a Tilt-a-Whirl as Buffalo eased to a 37-22 victory. "We didn't know what was going on today," said Miami defensive end Marco Coleman, whose team trailed 24-0 at the half. At game's end the Bills had rushed for 341 yards, the second-highest total ever for a postseason game (surpassed only by the Chicago Bears' 382 yards in their 73-0 win over the Washington Redskins in the 1940 NFL championship game).
If the Bills versus the Dolphins was a blowout, the following game, at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, was an outright slaughter. The exuberant Eagles, who entered the game as three-point underdogs, took a 51-7 lead and cruised from there to a 58-37 victory over the Detroit Lions, who had been the NFL's hottest team in the second half of the season. Detroit quarterback Scott Mitchell, who had thrown 32 touchdown passes in '95, looked utterly helpless as he served up four interceptions before being yanked midway through the third quarter.
During the week, Lion tackle Lomas Brown had foolishly provoked the Eagles. In a move that ultimately insulted the proud heritage of Muhammad Ali, Joe Namath and Jimmy Johnson, Brown guaranteed a Detroit victory, saying the game "could be over in the first quarter." He was off by about 15 minutes; Philadelphia scored 31 points in the second quarter, the second-highest total for a single period in a playoff game. From now on Brown should know that life's only certainties are death, taxes and the playing of Start Me Up over the loudspeaker at all U.S. sporting events.
In contrast to the Saturday romps, the two Sunday games offered some initial suspense, but the outcomes were nonetheless decisive. The Packers, probably the most complete team among the first-round winners, rolled to a 37-20 victory over the Atlanta Falcons at Green Bay's Lambeau Field amid enduring images of Packer scorers diving into the end zone stands to accept the congratulatory embraces of fans.
Completing the weekend of excess was lightly regarded Indianapolis, a team whose inglorious legacy had included zero playoff victories since 1971. The Chargers had rebounded from a 4-7 start to win five consecutive games, including a 27-24 victory over the Colts in Indianapolis on Dec. 17, and San Diego's advancement into a second-round game at Kansas City seemed a foregone conclusion. Yet, like any young, impressionable team, the Colts derived motivation from the tide of skepticism that engulfed them, assuming an air of no-one-respects-us defiance that brought to mind Indianapolis vice president Bill Tobin's trading verbal barbs on TV with Kiper in April 1994. "We said we were going to gain some respect, and that's what we did," linebacker Quentin Coryatt said after Sunday's game. "We showed we're alive and real."
Regardless of what happens this weekend, four points have been hammered home: The aging Bills defied the collapse that most observers believed was their lot; the Eagles proved that their mediocre talent is buoyed by a championship attitude, engendered primarily by their rookie coach, Ray Rhodes (box, page 28); the Packers confirmed that the will of quarterback Brett Favre was enough to turn the loss of star receiver Sterling Sharpe, who retired during the off-season after neck surgery, into a positive; and the Colts reminded us that you don't have to be noticed to be good.