Cody Carlson has a chance to become this week's Frank Reich.
Carlson is the backup quarterback for the Houston Oilers who has been thrust into the starting role in his team's biggest game of the season the way Reich was last week.
Reich, who had started only three games before Jim Kelly suffered a knee injury two weeks ago, guided the Buffalo Bills to a 24-14 victory over the Miami Dolphins that nailed down a division title for the Bills.
Carlson, who has only started five games for the Oilers, will start tonight against the Pittsburgh Steelers because Warren Moon dislocated a thumb last week.
If the Oilers win, they'll get at least a wild-card spot.
In a way, though, Carlson has even a tougher job than Reich did. Reich had Thurman Thomas' running to back his arm.
Carlson has to operate the run-and-shoot offense.
"A lot of times when the starting quarterback goes down, there's a tendency for coaches to kind of crawl into a shell and try to protect the ball and things like that. We're not going to go to two tight ends [and run the ball] because we don't even have one tight end on our team," Carlson said.
Carlson has a lot of self-confidence, though. "I don't have to look too far for confidence. My ego is swollen. That's my personality," he said.
Meanwhile, the injury was a bitter disappointment to Moon, who is 34. He also lost a chance to break Dan Marino's records of 624 attempts, 378 completions and 5,084 passing yards in a season. He finished at 584, 362 and 4,689.
Moon was hurt with 1 minute, 47 seconds left in a 40-20 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals when he hit his thumb on James Francis' helmet, but he wouldn't criticize coach Jack Pardee for leaving him in and said he never thought about coming out.
"Cody was standing on the sidelines cold and stiff. I don't like to come out because it looks like you're giving up," he said.
Another backup quarterback, Babe Laufenberg of the Dallas Cowboys, who was a folk hero in Washington for his exhibition-game heroics, gets a chance to lead his team into the playoffs when he starts against the Atlanta Falcons today.
When Troy Aikman got hurt last week, Laufenberg completed only 13 of 36 passes for 140 yards. Four of his passes were intercepted.
Laufenberg wasn't as witty as he usually is last week. He knows how serious this is.
"Certainly it's big for me in terms of being around and being in the league. I view it as a great opportunity," he said.
Coach Jimmy Johnson used to say that having Laufenberg around was like having another coach. But if he flops today, Johnson could question whether he wants him around.
The new expanded, watered-down playoffs aren't exactly getting off to a great start.
In the National Football Conference, the final wild-card team won't have a winning record. Dallas and New Orleans go into the final weekend with 7-8 records. If they both lose, Dallas makes it with a 7-9 record, although one of them could make it at 8-8 with a victory.
As expected, commissioner Paul Tagliabue isn't about to admit that he made a mistake by expanding the playoffs.
"We anticipated added competition and excitement, and we have it," Tagliabue said.
The new system also cheapens the division championship because the Chicago Bears and the American Football Conference Central champion will have to play a wild-card game.
But Tagliabue said that's a plus. "The division leaders can't relax now," he said.
The new system also is creating another problem. When the two new wild-card games were added to increase the total to four, ABC-TV was given two games. But the contract didn't specify which two games ABC would get.
The networks spent last week squabbling over the games. ABC and CBS want the Bears because they have the biggest market.
Tagliabue decided to delay a decision and won't tell the teams whether they'll play Saturday or Sunday until tomorrow.
Meanwhile, the teams will be scrambling to play last-minute reservations. The Kansas City Chiefs, for example, figure they'll play at Miami and want to practice at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla. They think they'll play at 4 p.m. Saturday, but until the league makes it official, they can't finalize plans.
Another problem is that it's likely the three other home sites will be cold-weather cities -- Chicago, Philadelphia and probably Pittsburgh or Cincinnati.
That means one of them will have to play a late afternoon game in chilly weather.
The old wild-card system worked so well that the league ignored an old axiom: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
NFL club executives will meet in Atlanta on Jan. 8 to discuss the new World League and implementation of Plan B. Anti-tampering rules also are on the agenda. Tagliabue seems to be obsessed with clubs tampering with players and executives of other teams even though there's not much evidence it's a problem.