The National Football Conference will spend 3 1/2 hours starting at 12:30 today at RFK Stadium testing out a new Darwinian football concept: survival of the offensive fittest.
When Minnesota's Anthony Carter and Wade Wilson and Washington's Gary Clark and Doug Williams are done, one of their teams will be on its way to San Diego for Super Bowl XXII, and the other will go home, put up its feet and call it a year.
In this crazy season, the NFC title game offers the conference's two craziest teams: the 12-4 Washington Redskins and 10-7 Minnesota Vikings. Neither was expected to get this far. Both are playing better than they were three weeks ago, when they last saw each other. Both have quarterbacks who made the Pro Bowl a year ago. Problem is, neither team is using them as starters: Tommy Kramer and Jay Schroeder are on the bench right now. The last two times the teams played, they needed overtime to decide a winner. Both times, it was Washington.
Once again, Washington Coach Joe Gibbs is predicting a long, exhiliarating afternoon of football.
"I think it will go into overtime again," he said. He won't predict a score, but odds are it will be high.
Of all the game-breaking talent in this game, the man who has received the most attention this week has been Redskins cornerback Darrell Green, who sprained rib cartilage last week at Chicago, but is expected to start this afternoon.
"I think I can play the whole game," Green said yesterday at Redskin Park after the team's Saturday walk-through. "I think I can return punts too. If the coaches say I can do it, I can do it."
And the coaches are saying he can do it, at least the defensive part. Whether he will cover Carter is another matter. You can be sure if Green is on Carter early, Wilson will throw to him, to see just how good that rib cartilage feels.
To add depth in the defensive backfield, the Redskins yesterday activated little-used cornerback Tim Morrison to the 45-man roster and deactivated veteran linebacker Rich Milot, placing him on the five-man inactive list.
Milot, a starter for most of his nine-year career and a veteran of 12 playoff games, has been used sparingly since the early-season strike. The team's starting right linebacker for several seasons, Milot was moved to middle linebacker to replace injured Neal Olkewicz in preseason, but sprained an ankle in a game at Buffalo and lost his job to Olkewicz. His role has steadily declined to the point that he is the sixth linebacker behind Olkewicz, Monte Coleman, Mel Kaufman, Kurt Gouveia and Ravin Caldwell, who is an important special teams player.
"Darrell's situation made it real tough on us," Gibbs said. "We couldn't go any thinner than what we already are on offense. I didn't want to put Rich down, but we had no choice, and I told him that. He's meant so much to us here. If we go to the Super Bowl, he certainly could return. We just had to do this for this game."
Milot could not be reached for comment.
There is one school of thought in this game that the Vikings simply cannot be stopped. They are on a roll, this theory goes, and playing so well they are destined for the organization's first Super Bowl appearance in 11 years, fifth overall. (The Vikings are 0-4 in the Super Bowl.)
Another theory is that the Vikings juggernaut is about to come to a screeching halt. This idea says the Redskins are too good at home, where they have won 26 of their last 31 games. Yes, Minnesota has been superb in its two playoff upsets at New Orleans and San Francisco, but the Redskins played perhaps their best game of the season at Chicago. And this is a playoff-tested team that usually wins when it is expected to.
Williams was asked if the Redskins, 3 1/2-point favorites over the Vikings, would overlook them. "I don't think anyone can look past the Minnesota Vikings after the last two weeks," he said.
Nor can the Redskins forget the panic the Vikings have caused the past two times they have played.
At RFK on Nov. 2, 1986, the Redskins fell behind, 38-26, with 6:53 to play, only to score two touchdowns in the final five minutes 14 seconds, but miss both Max Zendejas extra points. So into overtime they went, Washington won the coin toss, and Clark soon dashed 38 yards with a pass reception for a touchdown and a 44-38 victory. There were 11 touchdowns scored and 1,013 yards of total offense.
In their final regular season game of 1987, the Redskins came from 10 points behind in the final 9 1/2 minutes to tie, won the coin toss and maneuvered to Ali Haji-Sheikh's 26-yard field goal and a 27-24 win.
"I'm more interested in that coin toss in overtime than I am at the beginning of the game," said Vikings Coach Jerry Burns, a longtime assistant who has brought the Vikings back to glory.
The Vikings never have beaten the Redskins in four tries in the Gibbs era. "We know they're coming into RFK with a mad on," said defensive end Charles Mann.
But are they coming into RFK with their passing game on? Carter has been magical in the playoffs, catching 16 for 306 yards. Whoever covers Carter today -- Green, rookie Brian Davis, Barry Wilburn, or a combination -- must do better than the Saints and 49ers did. In the December game, Carter caught only two passes for 47 yards. Four others intended for him were incomplete. The Vikings are looking to Carter much more now than they were even three weeks ago, so it's unreasonable to assume the Redskins could keep him under wraps again. Washington hardly ever plays a zone defense, but Carter could force a defensive coordinator to do almost anything.
The player who bothered the Redskins most the last game was Wilson, who ran for 75 yards on 10 carries. The Redskins do not plan to sacrifice their pass rush to contain Wilson, but have told their linemen to be much more aware of his scrambling ability.
On offense, the Redskins would like to not fall behind late in this game and would dearly love prodigal running back George Rogers to return to his old self -- and soon. Rogers, who carried only six times for 13 yards in the Redskins' 21-17 victory at Chicago, is predicting better things for this game.
"I'm going to have a good game," he said. "I know it."
The Redskins desperately need a running game to set the Minnesota defensive line on its heels. Williams has been sacked just eight times in 172 passing attempts, and successfully eluded right end Chris Doleman and right tackle Keith Millard the last time they played. But, like almost all the Vikings, their performance then may bear little resemblance to what it will now. Tackle Joe Jacoby and guard Raleigh McKenzie, who man the left side of Washington's offensive line, will have their hands full keeping Doleman and Millard off Williams, who is less mobile than Schroeder, the Vikings know.
Williams is in his second NFC title game. He led Tampa Bay to the championship game in 1979, the Buccaneers losing to the Los Angeles Rams, 9-0. If he wins today, he will become the first black starting quarterback in a Super Bowl.
"Let's win first, then talk about that stuff," Williams said the other day. "I'm just excited to play in this game. This should be a pretty good one, too. We're two teams who are pretty much alike."
Although defensive lineman Markus Koch missed practice all week with flu, the Redskins activated him and Gibbs thinks he will be able to play . . . Since the 1983 NFC title game, the team that lost went on to win the conference title the following year. In 1983, San Francisco lost to the Redskins, then beat Chicago in 1984. In 1985, the Bears beat New York. In 1986, the Giants beat the Redskins . . .
Redskins offensive line coach Joe Bugel is reported a candidate for Green Bay Packers head coach, which opened when Forrest Gregg went to Southern Methodist, but he is not the only one. Packers Vice President Tom Braatz says he has a base list of 12 candidates -- six college head coaches and six NFL assistants. Bears offensive backfield coach Johnny Roland, Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Tony Dungy, Packers defensive coordinator Dick Modzelewski and Cleveland offensive coordinator Lindy Infante are reported by the Associated Press to be on the list. Braatz said he didn't expect to decide for at least two weeks . . .
In marked contrast to the chill the Redskins encountered a week ago in Chicago, the National Weather Service forecasts temperatures to climb into the mid- to upper 40s under partly sunny skies by game time. Winds are expected to gust at 10-15 mph.