From a distance Kansas City, with a 9-5 record and in good position to win the AFC West for the first time since 1971, appears to be a very good team having a very good year. Up close, though, K.C. isn't all that it seems. Its strongest asset was supposed to be its ground game, and now the Chiefs are trying to win in spite of it. Quarterback Dave Krieg, a Plan B pickup, was supposed to be a complementary player, but he has become the backbone of the offense.
Take Sunday's game. Kansas City struggled to beat New England 27-20 at Arrowhead Stadium. The sky was an open faucet and the footing was poor, but good running teams move the ball in just such conditions. K.C. wound up with only 85 rushing yards on 31 carries. Barry Word, the team's leading ground-gainer this season, never touched the ball; he had been playing on a sprained knee, but K.C. didn't want to risk aggravating the injury on the wet field. Outside threat Harvey Williams had one carry. Coach Marty Schottenheimer, who likes to choose the back who best fits a game situation and stick with him, figured it would be better to run 260-pound Christian Okoye against the Patriots. Okoye, who had had only eight carries the previous three weeks, ran 27 times for 86 yards. So the Chiefs once again had to rely on Krieg to bail them out of a tough spot—this time down 13-3—and he was good enough in the rain, completing five of eight passes for 129 yards and one touchdown in the second half, to do it.
Part of the problem is a banged-up offensive line. Things got so bad last week that center Mike Baab, who retired after last season and now has a radio show in Cleveland, was brought in to start in place of Tim Grunhard (sprained foot). But as Word said after Sunday's game, "This season has shown again that experimenting with three backs doesn't work. Marty likes us all. He loves Harvey's speed. He loves how I can pick the right hole. He loves the power Christian has. But one guy is best. You've got to pick one and let him run."
The Chiefs are running out of time to straighten out their running attack, which will have to be sharp for them to go anywhere in the playoffs. One thing is working in their favor, though: With the possible exception of San Diego (page 28), the rest of the AFC contenders are also struggling with some aspect of their game. That's not a good sign for a conference whose champion has lost the last eight Super Bowls.
"I don't think the AFC's best can beat the NFC's second-best," says Cleveland director of pro personnel Mike Lombardi, whose 7-7 Browns still have an outside shot at making the playoffs. "A lot of it is the style of play. Why can't anyone in our conference stop the Pittsburgh running game? Because we're more of a finesse conference. Every team we've sent to the Super Bowl recently has had a good offense but not a good defense. Denver had a terrible defense. Buffalo can't stop anybody. Who else in the AFC since the 1983 Raiders had a good defensive team in the Super Bowl? If New Orleans were over here, it might be the best team in our conference."
The Steelers and the Bills, both of whom are 10-4, have the inside track in the fight for home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. Neither team, however, has looked good recently.
It has been so long since Buffalo, winner of the last two conference crowns, has had to push to stay ahead of the competition that it has lost its edge. Last week the Bills, after losing to Indianapolis and the New York Jets in succession, called their first players-only meeting since 1989. Buffalo then went out and held off Denver 27-17. The loss of offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda, who became the Colts' coach last January, has taken the spontaneity out of the Bills' attack, which is slower and less explosive this year. And quarterback Jim Kelly is not playing anywhere near his '90 and '91 form.
As for Pittsburgh, it has a one-dimensional offense—NFL rushing leader Barry Foster—that has been less effective since Bubby Brister took over at quarterback for the injured Neil O'Donnell two weeks ago. Chicago shut down the Steelers on Sunday by zeroing in on Foster. The Bears held him to a season-low 25 yards, and the result was a 30-6 Chicago rout. A week earlier Pittsburgh had had to rally late in the game to beat lowly Seattle. As Steeler cornerback Rod Woodson says, "We've been playing very ugly."
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