WASHINGTON — Today's National Football Conference title game shapes up nicely for followers of long-lost quarterbacks and longer-lost causes.
Washington vs. Minnesota perhaps best represents the virtues of perseverance and self-confidence.
When no one believed in Viking quarterback Wade Wilson, who started 10 games in six seasons before 1987, Wilson must have believed.
When no one believed in Redskin quarterback Doug Williams, who attempted one pass in 1986, Williams believed.
When for 20 years no one believed in picking up a phone to call Jerry Burns and ask him to be a head coach, Burns believed.
When no one believed in Joe Gibbs after he lost his first five games as Washington's coach in 1981, Gibbs believed.
The wild-card Vikings believed in the Redskins, the Redskins in the Vikings.
"It's not just Anthony Carter," Washington defensive end Charles Mann said of the Vikings' star wide receiver. "They deserve to be where they are. It's no fluke."
When no one believed in the United States Football League and all the talent it proclaimed to have, the NFL, after litigation, believed.
The USFL, in fact, dreamed of a national showcase for its talent, an event that people actually would stand in line to see.
Well, here it is. Nice joke. Welcome to RFK Stadium, the site of one league's title game and another's post-mortem.
The list of former USFL players in today's game seems a cruel vindication for a league's existence.
It's not a list to be ignored, if only considered for game impact alone. These are prime-time players.
For Washington, its four key parts on offense in Williams, tailback Kelvin Bryant and receivers Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders.
For Minnesota, it's playoff stars Anthony Carter and defensive tackle Keith Millard, plus starters David Huffman, David Howard, and Gary Zimmerman.
Both teams ride into town on a double-edge, it seems, out to prove something to somebody.
The Vikings? Well, they simply ran away from home this week to practice in Tampa, Fla., telling nonbelievers in so many words to go jump in 10,000 lakes.
"We still have something to prove to people," quarterback Wilson said. "We're still underdogs this weekend."
And it might have been easier to extract teeth than answers from the Redskins. A tense group. You'd think Washington was making its first NFC title game appearance of the decade, not its fourth.
But, after all, wasn't this supposed to be San Francisco vs. Chicago?
"I'm sure most of you here had already written San Francisco into San Diego," Williams said this week. "But you still have to play the football game, no matter who's got the genius, or who's the best coach, or who's the best player. You still have an hour of football to play to determine the outcome."
And what was determined justly through the playoffs was the Vikings backing into the New Orleans Saints and running them over, 44-10, then doing much the same last week to the 49ers, 36-24.
The Redskins, in the meantime, were led to believe that the Chicago Bears would be too much with the return Jim McMahon and freezing winds to Soldier Field.
But Williams said he learned that Bears freeze just as quickly as Redskins.
"I've seen Eskimos with overcoats on, so nobody gets used to the cold," Williams said. "You've got to deal with it."
Yes, there's been so much to prove.
Wilson, who despite his success in recent weeks still plays quarterback looking over his shoulder, gets the start today again over Tommy Kramer.
Will Wilson get his vote of confidence from Burns?
"He's playing very well," Burns said of Wilson. "But we change our quarterbacks back and forth. I don't want to be recognized as a mad scientist, moving guys around like musical chairs. But you know Tommy was the No. 1-rated quarterback in football last year. He was the guy we were going to build around. Then, you know he had some problems."
Of course, this is also a big moment for Burns, who's trying to get into his seventh Super Bowl, his first as a soloist. Burns was an assistant coach in six others, two under Vince Lombardi at Green Bay and four with Bud Grant in Minnesota.
Burns turns 61 on Jan. 24. He was 58 when he got the job.
And the Vikings have rallied around him.
"I'm the oldest coach around," he said. "Maybe we are survivors. We feel like we got a second chance. Our feeling is let's go rip it up."
If Gibbs makes it to his third Super Bowl of the decade, maybe he'll relax enough to remove the cot he keeps at Redskins' Park and go home a few times during a football season.
He still might not recognize Lt. Col. Oliver North on the street, which is better than last summer, when Gibbs swore the name didn't ring a bell.
This week, Gibbs has been understandably removed. For never has a game so big relied so heavily on the condition of one man's rib cage.
That man, of course, is Redskin All-Pro cornerback Darrell Green, who separated cartilage returning a punt for touchdown last week.