Tight end Gregg McCrary has three broken bones along his spine, was on crutches today and probably will not play next Sunday for the San Diego Chargers in their American Football Conference championship game against the Oakland Raiders.

Big deal, right?

McCrary is the eighth-leading pass receiver on a team with John Jefferson, Kellen Winslow and Charlie Joiner. Those three fellows caught 242 passes for 3,762 yards and 26 touchdowns this season. McCrary caught 11 for 106 yards and two touchdowns.

"There is only a very, very slight possibility Gregg could play," said Don Coryell, the San Diego coach. "He has three broken transverse processes -- those little points off each side of the vertebra -- and while he is a whole lot better today than yesterday, he won't be able to practice all week. So we would not count on him."

This is a big deal because without McCrary, San Diego is a different team from the one that in the last five weeks has beaten Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Buffalo.

"His absence will change us very, very drastically," Coryell said.

When the team lost running backs John Cappelletti and Clarence Williams to injury in midseason, the Chargers were forced into using a one-back offense as their primary set. Many teams line up with a single back in obvious passing situations, but will start 80 percent of their plays with two backs.

Afraid of injuries to their only remaining backs, Mike Thomas and Chuck Muncie, the Chargers decided to alternate them in a one-back system as insurance against losing all their runners.

To take up the slack this figured to cause in the running game, the Chargers moved Winslow out of tight end. A 6-foot-5 1/2, 250-pound sprinter, Winslow always was a wide receiver trapped in a tight end's job. To take advantage of Winslow's extraordinary skills, Coryell relieved him of the tight end's blocking duties and moved him all over the field.

McCrary then became the starting tight end.

"With Gregg in there and only one back, we had been doing very well moving the ball," Coryell said. "Strangely, we ran the ball better with one back than with two. Gregg enabled us to move our people around much better. We are able to maneuver Kellen Winslow to so many positions where we could get open and catch the ball.

"But now without Gregg, we can't be playing Kellen at flanker and split end and in the slot and at wide receiver and in motion out. At least 80 percent of our offense will have to be changed. "We'll have to go back to our old offense."

No tears for the Chargers, please. A lot of coaches would sell their first-born for San Diego's old offense. But if the Chargers are to defeat the Raiders, signs are that they need be a better team than they were in the first two meetings of these AFC West Division cochampions. After splitting two games early in the season, the teams finished 11-5, but San Diego went the champion's home-field route in the playoffs by virtue of outscoring the Raiders overall.

San Diego won at home, defeating the Raiders, 30-24 in overtime, in the season's second game. Four games later, Oakland scored twice in the fourth quarter to win 38-24.

"Us meeting again says something really, really good about our division," Coryell said. "And now we get to decide on the field who the real champion is."

Several San Diego players had indicated a desire to play Cleveland, not Oakland. The Oakland games were bruisers. Besides, Cleveland's pass defense is terrible while Oakland's secondary has been sensational of late. McCrary's injury is the most important, but two others also make the Chargers vulnerable -- especially against Oakland.

Defensive left end Charles DeJurnett, starting in place of Fred Dean, broke his leg on the third play of Saturday's victory over Buffalo. Dean, hobbled with a pulled groin muscle, was forced to play and "is very sore today," Coryell said.

The Chargers' linebacker on Dean's side is Woodrow Lowe, who worked on a bad knee.

The Bills directed much of their running attack at the Dean-Lowe stack, and with Mark van Eeghen running powerfully, Oakland likely will take advantage of the cripples, too.

Coryell watched today's Oakland-Cleveland game at home. "With my field goal kicker, I'd have kicked the field goal Oakland didn't try there at the end," he said of one second-guessing opportunity, adding of the other, "Cleveland couldn't have been confident of kicking the field goal, the way they'd been kicking. It wasn't a safe pass, but that's because there are no safe passes."

And what did Coryell think of Oakland?

"You hear all that talk about them being in a rebuilding year. I don't believe that. The Minnesotas, the Dallases, the Oaklands -- these are good organizations that don't have to 'rebuild.'

"When you say they're having rebuilding years, all they're doing is getting rid of some players and getting better ones in their places. Oakland's defense is very tough. Jim Plunkett has had a great season. The Raiders are a good team -- as good as they've ever been."