LOSSES ADDED UP TO NFC TITLE GAME.
When the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys meet today in the NFC title game, they'll be there despite the loss of some key players from last season.
For the Packers, the loss to injury of Sterling Sharpe and defection to Buffalo of Bryce Paup may be addition by subtraction.
Dallas' losses hurt a little more, particularly in depth.
Start with Sharpe, whose neck injury forced the Packers to release him. That's led indirectly to Brett Favre's MVP season at quarterback.
When Sharpe played, he was the focal point of the offense. He'd catch 10 to 12 passes a game and the next-leading receiver would grab two or three.
This year, Robert Brooks has replaced him and had 102 catches during the regular season. Mark Chmura blossomed into a Pro Bowl tight end; Edgar Bennett became the Packers' first 1,000-yard rusher since 1978, and Anthony Morgan and Mark Ingram made contributions at wide receiver.
In last week's upset over San Francisco, Favre had 21 completions to seven different receivers. Brooks and alternate tight end Keith Jackson led the way with four each.
"I would never say anything negative about Sterling because he's a friend of mine and was a great player," Favre says. "But without him, our offense has become more diversified. It's not automatically 'look for Sterling' and then scramble."
Paup went to Buffalo as a free agent, led the NFL with 17-1/2 sacks, and was voted Defensive Player of the Year. But his replacement was Wayne Simmons, the Packers' top draft pick in 1993, who has become a solid starter after sitting out most of his first two seasons with injuries.
"Bryce was a great pass rusher and we wanted to keep him, but it was a salary cap situation," coach Mike Holmgren says. "We were lucky to have Wayne behind him and he's stepped right in."
The Cowboys, on the other hand, have lost much of the depth they had on their 1992 and 1993 Super Bowl teams, largely because they had so much talent they couldn't fit it in under the cap.
This season, they lost Pro Bowl center Mark Stepnoski to Houston, wide receiver Alvin Harper to Tampa Bay, safety James Washington to Washington and 34-year-old pass rushing specialist Jim Jeffcoat to Buffalo. Then Clayton Holmes, the nickel back, was suspended for substance abuse.
They signed 37-year-old Ray Donaldson to replace Stepnoski, but Donaldson broke his ankle and has been replaced by journeyman Derek Kennard. Kevin Williams replaced Harper and has 20 catches in his last three games after getting only 24 in the first 14. Jeffcoat has left a gap in the outside pass rush, particularly after Charles Haley had back surgery.
THE NFL PLAYOFFS TODAY'S GAMES
AFC championship game: Indianapolis Colts (11-7) at Pittsburgh Steelers (12-5)
On the air: 9:30 a.m., Channel 4
NFC championship game: Green Bay Packers (13-5) at Dallas Cowboys (13-4) On the air: 1 p.m., Channel 11
Box The NFL Playoffs (see text)