If football is going to intrude on the reality of war this week, the NFL can be grateful for a fantasy matchup in its Silver Anniversary Super Bowl.
Conspicuous by its absence is the San Francisco 49ers' dynasty. It has been replaced by the fresh, mustachioed face of miracle man Jeff Hostetler.
Likewise, the fatiguing two-week buildup of hype is post facto. In its place, we have the NFL's latest rage, the no-huddle offense. Not a bad trade-off.
Shed no tears for the 49ers or Los Angeles Raiders today. There is rhyme and reason, if not a certain justice, to the Super Bowl XXV rendezvous between the New York Giants and Buffalo Bills next Sunday in Tampa, Fla.
These two teams shared the same field five weeks ago in the Meadowlands. It looked like the field of shattered dreams.
On Dec. 15, in a game won by the Bills, 17-13, both teams lost starting quarterbacks to mysterious injuries. Buffalo's Jim Kelly tripped over one of his own linemen in the second quarter and sprained his left knee. New York's Phil Simms fell untouched in the third quarter when his right ankle simply gave out.
Kelly, the Bills said in what seemed wishful thinking, would miss three weeks. His replacement, Frank Reich, not only pulled out ++ the game against the Giants, but the big one the following week against Miami as well to win the AFC East title.
The Giants did not seem as fortunate. The loss was their third in four games. Worse yet, Simms was done for the year. And Hostetler, his replacement, had started only two games in seven years with the Giants.
So it was with no small sense of satisfaction that Hostetler helped deny the 49ers' "Three-peat" bid yesterday in the Giants' dramatic 15-13 victory in the NFC championship game at Candlestick Park. Hostetler passed for 187 yards to set up five Matt Bahr field goals.
"Everybody's got their own opinion," Hostetler said about his Super Bowl viability. "They keep telling me I can't . . . and I'm going to the Super Bowl."
As fate would have it, Hostetler has a common bond with Kelly, his Super Bowl counterpart who returned as promised for the playoffs. Both nearly became linebackers under Joe Paterno at Penn State.
Hostetler transferred to West Virginia before he allowed Paterno to move him from quarterback. Just the notion he might become a linebacker chased Kelly all the way to the University of Miami.
The wisdom of Kelly's decision showed through this month when his no-huddle offense ravaged Miami and the Raiders for a combined 995 yards and 95 points. Kelly completed 17 of 23 passes for 300 yards and two touchdowns in a 51-3 rout of the Raiders in yesterday's AFC championship game at Buffalo's Rich Stadium.
The Raiders were ill-prepared for the no-huddle scheme, giving up 387 yards and 41 points in a brutal first half. Afterward, Raiders coach Art Shell gave this advisory on the Bills: "I don't know if they can be stopped."
If they can, the Giants (15-3) might be the team to do it. In their two playoff games, the Giants have allowed a total of 16 points. Against San Francisco, they made Joe Montana look like an aging, 34-year-old quarterback. They committed just one defensive mistake all afternoon, that when Everson Walls went for the ball instead of the receiver, and John Taylor made him pay for the indiscretion with a 61-yard touchdown play.
Even though the NFC has won six straight Super Bowls, and eight of the last nine, the Bills (also 15-3) were quickly installed as five-point favorites. Giants coach Bill Parcells greeted his underdog status with a smile.
"They looked awesome to me," he said of the Bills. "We played them back in December and they gave us a tough time."
Because of several changes since that first meeting in Week 15, you can discount the Bills' win as an accurate barometer. Kelly threw for 115 yards and one touchdown before going out. Thrown in cold, Reich threw for 97 more.
Hostetler completed nine of 16 passes for 97 yards, but more important, ran for 23 to give the Giants' offense its new dimension: the mobile quarterback. That dimension helped on more than one third-down occasion since then. Now Hostetler is 6-0 as a starter and threatening to take Simms' job permanently.
So it seems fairly ironic that these two teams should meet in the Super Bowl, even if it is as a backdrop to war. Over and over yesterday, the Bills voiced a familiar refrain. They are going to the Super Bowl to win it, they said, not just to participate. The Giants, having won Super Bowl XXI just four years ago, know a little about the environment they're about to invade.
For once, the NFL's showcase game could turn out to be something special.