The Detroit Lions will beat the Washington Redskins someday, but not Sunday.
They may even get to the Super Bowl some year, but not this year.
Not unless something bizarre happens at RFK Stadium. Not unless quarterback Mark Rypien stumbles coming out of the tunnel, hurts himself and can't play. Not unless defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon takes the day off and goes fishing because he thinks so little of the run-and-shoot offense. Not unless owner Jack Kent Cooke orders a dome built over RFK overnight.
The Lions are this year's success story in the NFL. But they have never won a game in Washington, and they haven't beaten the Redskins at all in their last 14 tries. Now, in the NFC championship game, they've got all the wrong matchups to keep this giddy Super Bowl dream alive.
It would take a similar miracle for the Denver Broncos to knock off the Buffalo Bills in the AFC championship game at Rich Stadium, and quarterback John Elway is fresh out of miracles.
Elway orchestrated that miraculous 87-yard field-goal drive that beat Houston last weekend, 26-24. And he will certainly strafe the Bills' defense for some big gains this Sunday. But he won't be able to keep pace with Jim "Machine Gun" Kelly, who has thrown 36 touchdown passes to Elway's 14 this season.
Unless miracles fall from the sky Sunday, it will be the Redskins drilling the Lions by something like 38-14, and the Bills will beat the Broncos by 34-13. These are not so much predictions as they are TV warnings. Entertainment may not necessarily be the order of the day. Here's why:
Lions (13-4) vs. Redskins (15-2)
Sunday, 4 p.m., RFK Stadium
Channels 11, 9
The matchups, for Detroit, are horrendous. The Hogs against the Lions' no-sack pass rush? Detroit quarterback Erik Kramer against Petitbon's defensive schemes? The Redskins' Posse against the Lions' secondary? Ricky Ervins against the 17th best rush defense in the league?
In every case, the Redskins have a decisive advantage. The Lions can argue that Barry Sanders didn't play in a season-opening 45-0 shellacking in Washington. But Detroit got only a small dose of Ervins, the Redskins' 5-foot-7 running back, that night. Ervins rushed six times for 54 yards, averaging 9 a carry.
He will be a bigger pill this time around. The Redskins have been slow to take the wraps off their rookie prodigy. But in last week's 24-7 triumph over Atlanta in the slop of RFK, Ervins rushed for 104 yards on 23 carries with a 17-yard touchdown run on a draw play.
Running behind the Redskins' huge offensive line, Ervins is hard pick out and harder yet to tackle. Earnest Byner is still a productive NFL running back, but next to Ervins it looks like he's ready for retirement. Byner's starting job is a courtesy only.
Meanwhile, the Hogs may keep Rypien's jersey clean this week, whether it rains or not. The Lions, without their best down lineman (Jerry Ball) or their best pass-rushing linebacker (Mike Cofer), notched 30 sacks this season. That's fewer than two a game. The Hogs allowed fewer than one a game this season. And if the Lions commit the defense to getting Rypien, the Posse will have a field day in the passing game.
The Redskins hold a big defensive edge as well. Petitbon has voiced his disdain of the run-and-shoot attack. The Lions modified their "Stretch offense" by reducing plays and by adding two tight ends to the roster, but theirs is still a sprint-out offense. Detroit's biggest problem figures to be recognition -- namely, Kramer recognizing Washington's defensive schemes. Petitbon's defense devours young quarterbacks. And Kramer's background -- CFL, replacement games in the NFL -- has hardly prepared him for what he'll see Sunday.
Redskins place-kicker Chip Lohmiller is going to the Pro Bowl this year, while Detroit's Eddie Murray is moving closer to the end of his career. Murray has yet to live down missing a field goal that kept the Lions from advancing the last time they made the playoffs.
Only in kick returns do the Lions have the advantage with Mel Gray, who led the league in both punt and kickoff runbacks.
The Lions have won seven games in a row, and they are unbeaten in domes this year. But all four losses have come outdoors, by an average of 24 points. Make that five.
Broncos (13-4) vs. Bills (14-3)
Sunday, 12:30 p.m., Rich Stadium
Channels 2, 4
As an organization, the Broncos deserve better than the abuse they've taken over losing four Super Bowls, three with Elway at quarterback. Under coach Dan Reeves, they've maximized their potential in a mediocre conference. With Elway, they're never out of any game, unless it's the Super Bowl.
But Elway is not at full strength this year. He has had shoulder problems most of the season, starting in training camp with tendinitis. His statistics are down: 3,253 yards, 13 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a passer efficiency rating of 75.4 in the regular season.