SI Vault
Peter King
December 25, 1989
After a weekend that settled almost nothing, but generated fierce physical and verbal combat in Ohio, an NFL-record 17 teams push into the final week of the regular season with a chance to land a spot in the playoffs
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December 25, 1989

Fight To The Finish

After a weekend that settled almost nothing, but generated fierce physical and verbal combat in Ohio, an NFL-record 17 teams push into the final week of the regular season with a chance to land a spot in the playoffs

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In the Northeast corner of Ohio on Sunday night, a man with a new life was sipping wine in his living room and watching football on TV. "We're alive," said Cleveland executive vice-president Ernie Accorsi in the wake of the Browns' 23-17 overtime win against the Minnesota Vikings at Cleveland Stadium. "It's incredible, but we're alive. With all the things that have gone wrong this season, we're alive and playing for the division championship in the 16th week."

At the same time, 260 miles to the southwest, Cincinnati quarterback Boomer Esiason was watching Sunday night football, too, without the wine. The Bengals had beaten Houston at Riverfront Stadium, shamelessly running up a 61-7 score because Bengal coach Sam Wyche hates his Oiler counterpart, Jerry Glanville. But unlike Cleveland, Cincinnati has only an outside chance to play in the postseason.

"You figure it out," said Esiason. "We go 5-1 in our division, maybe the toughest one in football. If you had told me we would do that before the season, I'd have said we'd be 13-2 going into the last game. But we're 8-7. It's just weird."

As is the NFL's 70th season. Here's how weird. Eleven AFC teams entered last weekend's games with a chance to make the playoffs, and 11 teams exited them with a chance to make the playoffs. Going into the final weekend of the regular season, 17 of 28 NFL teams are still alive. That's a record.

The NFC East title will be decided 95 miles apart just off 1-95, when the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles each play at home, against the L.A. Raiders and Phoenix Cardinals, respectively. The Vikings, winners of 12 games in a row under their Teflon dome, can take the NFC Central with a home victory over the Bengals or a Green Bay Packer loss to the 1-14 Cowboys in Dallas. As for the NFC West, the only question remaining for the champion 49ers is how ouchy Joe Montana's ribs will be for San Francisco's first playoff game.

The AFC East has a three-way 8-7 tie among the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts. Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly and his team are in trouble. Kelly has sniped at some teammates and his quarterback rating has dropped from 96.9 in Week 12 to 85.0 after Sunday's 21-10 loss in San Francisco, where he threw three interceptions. Buffalo has lost three straight games down the stretch. Coach Marv Levy has but one explanation: "I think this team is drowning in analysis."

The four AFC Central teams are separated by one game, from the 9-6 Oilers to the 8-7 Pittsburgh Steelers. Houston can win the division by defeating Cleveland in the Astrodome. The Denver Broncos clinched the AFC West title a month ago, but three other teams in the division—the Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks—still have wild-card hopes. "This is what the league wants, right?" said Esiason. "Full stadiums, everybody in it to the end. Well, the league has got it now."

On Sunday the fighting was fiercest in Ohio. Great drama in Cleveland and great hatred in Cincinnati. Last Thursday, with the Cleveland area in a panic over the uncertain condition of quarterback Bernie Kosar's right elbow, and with the Browns in serious danger of falling out of the playoffs, TV station WEWS asked the question: "Who should start for the Browns at quarterback Sunday—Bernie Kosar or Mike Pagel?" Over the next 11 hours, viewers phoned in 29,850 toll-free votes, a record for a WEWS poll. Kosar rallied from an afternoon deficit to edge Pagel 51% to 49%. But the message was clear. "It showed the Superman aura surrounding Kosar is a thing of the past," said Nev Chandler, the Browns' radio voice.

Kosar hadn't thrown a touchdown pass in 4� games, the Browns were 0-3-1 since mid-November, and he would be facing the sack-happy Vikes on a windy 10� day. But Kosar kept Cleveland in the game. Minnesota led 3-0 at the half, and Kosar threw to tight end Ron Middleton for a 7-3 lead early in the third quarter. Twenty-five seconds after the Vikings pulled ahead 10-7 late in the quarter, Kosar found Reggie Langhorne for 62 yards to put Cleveland on top 14-10. Minnesota went back ahead, 17-14, in the fourth, before Matt Bahr forced overtime with a last-minute field goal.

Kosar needed to do something, because the Browns' ground game (29 carries, 64 yards) was doing nothing. Nine minutes into OT, he had positioned Cleveland for a 31-yard Bahr field goal on third down. When Pagel, the holder, saw 11 Vikings preparing to rush the kicker, he called for a fake field goal. Van Waiters, a linebacker lined up at end, broke free and caught a wobbly 14-yard touchdown pass for the winning score.

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