December 30, 1996

They started out with stolen glances and discreet peeks. But in
the last four minutes of their 20-9 defeat at Buffalo, the
Chiefs began brazenly eyeballing the Rich Stadium scoreboard,
hoping for a Jacksonville loss that would allow them to back
into the postseason. The JumboTron showed replays from the game.
There were shots of Bills fans celebrating their team's imminent
wild-card berth. There was a commercial in which Ronald McDonald
spiked a football. As if to tease the Kansas City bench, no
updates from Florida were forthcoming.

The original plan, of course, was for the Chiefs to make the
playoffs by winning the season finale. But this is how far they
had fallen: After their fourth loss in five weeks, they were
reduced to jogging off the field backward, asking anyone they
passed if they knew a score. It was one of the saddest scenes of
the season, and later in the locker room the gloom deepened when
the Chiefs heard that Jacksonville had held on to win 19-17.
Atlanta kicker Morten Andersen had missed a 30-yard chip shot
with four seconds to play. "This sucks," said linebacker Derrick
Thomas, who was still in uniform with his mouthpiece in, 25
minutes after the game. "Tomorrow will come, and it will suck.
And next week it will suck even more."

But even if the Chiefs had slipped into the playoffs, they might
have been better off declining the bid. K.C. is a shell of the
team billed in SI's 1996 NFL preview as the AFC favorite to face
Green Bay in the Super Bowl. On a cover shared with several
Packers stars stood Chiefs quarterback Steve Bono with running
back Marcus Allen in front of him, a ball tucked under his left
arm. Towering above them was five-time Pro Bowl defensive end
Neil Smith, who had averaged 12 1/2 sacks in the 1990s. An
earring and a Breathe Right nose strip made him seem an
invincible warrior.

On Sunday a feeble Smith made one tackle and ate more turf than
a groundhog to finish 1996 with 4 1/2 sacks, his lowest total
since he was a rookie in '88. Part of Smith's problem is that
his counterpart, right end Vaughn Booker, has been out since
Dec. 9 with a bum right ankle. Booker aggravated the injury when
he rolled out-of-bounds to make a tackle...and was stepped on by
a ball boy. That's a fitting image to sum up the 1996 defense,
which fell in the NFL rankings from second in '95 to 18th and,
against the Bills, gave up two touchdown passes in the fourth

"It's just the damnedest thing," says safety Mark Collins, who
came out of retirement to play another year with the Chiefs.
"Maybe I expected too much. And that hurts more than anything
else. This wasn't just a wake-up call, it was a wake-up call
from a nightmare for this franchise. Because if you are the G.M.
of this team, you have to make changes."

There are rumblings that the first move owner Lamar Hunt will
make is to fire G.M. Carl Peterson. Despite six straight playoff
appearances in the 1990s, he has no AFC championship ring and
remains unsigned for 1997. Whoever is in charge will need to
make a bid for a free-agent quarterback, an Elvis Grbac or a
Jeff George. It's a testament to the rest of the Chiefs, really,
that they won 22 games over the last two seasons with what
amounts to backup talent behind center. Benched in favor of Rich
Gannon in Week 5, Bono was forced back into action after Gannon
injured his hamstring on Dec. 15. The lowest-rated starter in
the AFC, Bono has said that he has not gotten over the demotion,
and he showed it on Sunday when he completed 14 of 28 passes for
138 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions.

Without a passing threat to worry about, the Bills focused on
the run, stopping the Chiefs nine times inside the 10-yard line
in the first half alone. The team that led the league in rushing
in 1995 and boasts Allen, a certain Hall of Famer, then ran for
just 16 yards after intermission. "We came out, like we have all
year, with momentum and confidence," said left tackle John Alt.
"But then, once again, everything just started to cave in on us,
and all those bad feelings and doubts crept back into the huddle."

Alt is 34. And Allen, 36, is several years removed from the days
when he could carry a team. For the second Sunday in a row he
had words with colleagues on the sidelines. In a 24-19 home loss
to the Colts, Allen threw his helmet and argued with coach Marty
Schottenheimer. During the loss to the Bills, he went nose to
nose with Bono and hinted afterward that he was considering
retirement. "Sooner or later," Allen said in a whisper, "I've
got to look at the inevitable."

Many of the Chiefs will be facing changes--sooner rather than

COLOR PHOTO: JOE TRAVER Unthreatened by the pass, Buffalo's D stuffed Greg Hill (27) and the other Kansas City backs. COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Returning punts for the Pack, Howard has regained his old Heisman form. [Desmond Howard] COLOR ILLUSTRATION: MATT ZUMBO [Drawing of bust of Larry Brown]



Minnesota quarterback Brad Johnson gets his playoff baptism
against a Dallas pass defense ranked second in the NFL. Vikings
coach Dennis Green, 0-3 in the postseason, will need clutch
catches from wideouts Cris Carter and Jake Reed, plus a turnover
or two, to upset the champs. The Cowboys have won their last six
playoff games at Texas Stadium.


Indianapolis, which has no ground game to speak of, will need
yet another precocious performance from rookie wideout Marvin
Harrison. Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis, who finished
second in the AFC in rushing (1,431 yards), should further
bruise an already banged-up Colts defense.


The last time these teams met, in San Francisco two years ago,
Philadelphia won 40-8. That day the 49ers' D was coordinated by
Ray Rhodes, who is now the Eagles' coach. He'll be hoping that
Philly can stuff quarterback Steve Young again and that Eagles
quarterback Ty Detmer holds up well in his first playoff start.


Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell, who has not been
intercepted in his last 119 passes, must avoid 1) errant throws
and 2) Buffalo defensive end Bruce Smith. If running back
Thurman Thomas (344 yards rushing in his last two home playoff
games) is feeling frisky, the Jaguars are doomed. The Bills are
9-0 in the postseason at Rich Stadium.



Hell hath no fury like a return man scorned. On Dec. 15, three
days after Michael Bates of Carolina was chosen as the NFC's Pro
Bowl kick returner, Green Bay's Desmond Howard brought back a
punt 92 yards for a touchdown at Detroit, then punctuated his
score by striking a Heisman Trophy pose in the end zone. "I
thought I was going to make the Pro Bowl," Howard says. "I was
kind of upset about that."

Howard last struck that pose as a senior wideout and kick
returner at Michigan, on his way to winning the 1991 Heisman.
After trading up to take him fourth in the '92 draft, the
Redskins signed Howard to a $5.9 million deal with a $2.8
million signing bonus--the most that they had ever spent on a
rookie. But in three years at Washington he had only 66 catches
and one punt return for a TD, while questions were raised about
his work ethic and toughness. In 1995 the Jaguars took Howard in
the expansion draft, but they released him after one season.

The Packers signed him to a one-year, $300,000 contract in July,
and they've used him almost exclusively on special teams. Howard
flourished in the role: He returned a team-record three punts
for TDs and, with 875 punt-return yards, obliterated the NFL
mark of 692 set by Fulton Walker in 1985. "The guys have such
faith in Desmond, they hold their blocks longer," says Green Bay
special teams coach Nolan Cromwell. "They know he can break one
at any time." --WILLIAM F. REED


Here are 10 free agents who not only didn't make Dr. Z's All-Pro
team but also figure to be far down on the Christmas lists of
the NFL teams who wasted precious money under the salary cap to
sign them. --Richard Deutsch

The Bottom of the 1996 Free-agent Class:

1. CB Larry Brown, Raiders (four years, $12 million) Super Bowl
XXX MVP never grasped Oakland's defense. One interception in '96.

2. DE Marco Coleman, Chargers (three years, $9.6 million) Had
only four sacks. What was general manager Bobby Beathard thinking?

3. OT Jumbo Elliott/David Williams, Jets (10 years, $27 million)
Consider them a package deal and, due to injuries and
inconsistency, a package blunder.

4. LB Michael Brooks, Lions (two years, $3.6 million) Supposed
to ease the loss of Chris Spielman to Buffalo. Cut after four

5. QB Neil O'Donnell, Jets (five years, $25 million) Ineffective
even when healthy, with seven interceptions and only four TDs in
six games.

6. DE Leslie O'Neal, Rams (three years, $9.5 million) With a
meager seven sacks, hyped pass rusher did little for pathetic
St. Louis defense.

7. LB Cornelius Bennett, Falcons (four years, $13.6 million)
Highest-paid Falcon in history never emerged as a leader on D.

8. CB Mark McMillian, Saints (three years, $5.1 million) Took 15
games to get first interception.

9. QB Steve Walsh, Rams (two years, $2 million) Quickly went
from rookie Tony Banks's mentor to rookie Tony Banks's backup.

10. DE Darren Mickell, Saints (three years, $5.1 million)
Suspended for four games for violating NFL's substance-abuse


Despite his carping about not getting enough carries, Eagles
running back Ricky Watters touched the ball 404 times this
season (353 rushes, 51 catches), the most in the NFL....In their
final four games the Jaguars threw no interceptions and were
penalized just 10 times; Jacksonville won all four games. The
Jaguars have the AFC's longest winning streak (five), while
their second-year brethren, the Panthers, have the NFC's longest
(seven)....Carolina and Denver, two of the three teams to go
unbeaten at home this year (Green Bay was the other), preserved
those unblemished records by turning away opponents who had
first-and-goal at the one-yard line in the final two minutes of
regulation. The Broncos held off the Bears in Week 11 to win
17-12, and the Panthers stopped the Steelers on Sunday, winning
18-14....The Redskins' Henry Ellard is the first wide receiver
to achieve consecutive 1,000-yard seasons after his 34th
birthday....In the Eagles' 29-19 win, second-year defensive end
Mike Mamula sacked Arizona quarterback Kent Graham on the game's
second play, scooped up Graham's fumble and ran four yards for a
touchdown. Philly is 9-0 when Mamula has a sack....The Packers
became the first team since the '72 Dolphins to lead the NFL in
both points scored (456) and fewest points allowed (210); Green
Bay gave up 19 TDs this season, the fewest since the schedule
was expanded to 16 games in 1978....The Redskins reported zero
no-shows for their final game at RFK Stadium. Washington won
37-10, tying its largest margin of victory over the rival
Cowboys....After Atlanta's Morten Andersen botched a 30-yard
field goal try, allowing the Jaguars to make the playoffs,
Jacksonville defensive tackle Don Davey said, "He gave us a real
nice Christmas present." He did indeed. Andersen's first miss
from 30 yards or closer in 59 tries will put at least $7,500
(the loser's share from a wild-card round) in the stocking of
each Jaguar. --JOHN WALTERS

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