The NFC held its Central Division Holiday Classic last weekend. It was a chummy tournament played in the upper Midwest that excited no one but did decide which warmup games the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys will play before they square off in the most compelling conference title game in years.
San Francisco will play football's Little Engine That Could, the Chicago Bears, who stunned everyone but themselves by beating the division-champion Vikings 35-18 in Minnesota on Sunday afternoon. The essence of this no-name, no-Pro Bowler Bear bunch was expressed in a newspaper clipping tacked to the bulletin board of Chicago's offensive line coach, Tony Wise. "The Bears obviously are doing something right," wrote Bud Lea of the Milwaukee Sentinel. "I'm just darned if I can figure out what it is."
What Dave Wannstedt ad his staff do is coach the living daylights out of a team of egoless football marginalia.
While Wannstedt was busy writing the book on teamwork, the Vikings were reduced to relying on prayer. A month ago wide receiver Cris Carter and one of the team's chaplains laid their hands on the sore wrist of quarterback Warren Moon and prayed over it. Two weeks ago, after Moon stretched ligaments in his left knee, Carter got some anointing oil and he, Moon and the chaplain prayed over the knee. "It helped me, at least mentally," Moon said.
Carter would have done better anointing the noggins of some of his teammates. After the Vikings battled back to a 21-12 deficit late in the third quarter, their defense was called for two bonehead penalties that set up the Bears for a 21-yard touchdown pass from Steve Walsh to Jeff Graham.
Meanwhile, the Greeen Bay Packers earned a date with the Cowboys with a 16-12 win over the Detroit Lions. The Packers' remarkable snuffing of NFL rushing champion Barry Sanders (13 rushes, minus-one yard) was more than enough to compensate for the absence of wideout Sterling Sharpe, who may never play another down. Last week Sharpe was told that he would need surgery to fuse two vertebrae in his upper neck.
Green Bay could give Dallas a struggle, but only if the Pack does to running back Emmitt Smith what it did to Sanders, and if quarterback Brett Favre is as good as he has been in the last nine games, in which he has thrown for 23 touchdowns with seven interceptions, turning around what would have been his second straight mediocre season.
What accounts for the about-face? After Green Bay lost to the Vikings on Oct. 20 to fall to 3-4, coach Mike Holmgren gave his team three days off, and Favre headed home to Mississippi. At an airport bar in Chicago he had an epiphany. Says Favre, "The problem was, I was thinking, Maybe I don't want to throw this, because if it's intercepted, everyone will be saying, Here he goes again. I told myself I wasn't going to be like that anymore. Since then, I've approached every game saying, They can't stop me."
A boast that will be put to the test in Dallas.
Linebacker Bryce Paup (95) and his Packer mates left Sanders with nowhere to run.