DENVER -- Today's AFC playoff between the Denver Broncos and the Houston Oilers doesn't lack for a certain kind of star quality, not with John Elway and Warren Moon at quarterback.
But the outcome might be determined, in part, by others. Like, for instance, Doug Widell, Keith Kartz, William Fuller and Ray Childress.
In the trenches, the Broncos (12-4) will try to build a wall of protection for Elway. But for much of the season, they have struggled at that task and broken down. If that occurs today, the Oilers (12-5), who beat the Jets last week in a wild-card game, will likely move on to the conference championship game next Sunday.
"If we don't protect John, it's going to be a long day," Widell, the Broncos' right guard, said yesterday. "If we frustrate them so that they can't get to him, it will be an advantage. But if they do, it will snowball and make our job that much harder."
The concern is legitimate. In Week 6 of the regular season, Houston sacked Elway six times in a 42-14 victory. Fuller, the Oilers' defensive end, had three sacks in that game and finished the season with a conference-leading 15. He earned a spot in the Pro Bowl, as did three defensive teammates: linebacker Al Smith, cornerback Cris Dishman and Childress, a tackle.
The Oilers, though, are certain to be hurt by the loss of defensive tackle Doug Smith, who suffered two broken ribs in the Jets game and is through for the season. Lee Williams will start in his place and linebacker Rick Graf was activated yesterday to take Smith's place on the roster.
By the end of the regular season, the Broncos had given up 47 sacks, more than every team except New England (63), Indianapolis (57) and Tampa Bay (56).
But playing at home might make a difference. The Broncos permitted just 11 sacks at Mile High Stadium, where they won seven of eight games.
"I don't know the reason for that," said Kartz, the team's center, "but Houston, Kansas City and Seattle are loud places, and that has a lot to do with it. The defenses are making switches, John is calling audibles and the linemen are looking to see when the ball is snapped. But I don't see us having problems like we've had in the past."
"Playing at home will be the biggest difference," Widell said. "The tackles will be able to hear the snap, which they couldn't do in Houston."