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Original Issue


A few weeks ago it looked like the super matchup of the year:
Niners versus Broncos, owners of the two best records in the
NFL, going at it in the Dec. 15 Monday-nighter. Now you have to
wonder if it's really a high-stakes game for either team.

Oh, sure, pride is involved, playing your best against the best,
beating a team you could possibly play in the Super Bowl, though
the way the Packers and Chiefs are rolling, you have to wonder.
But let's look at this thing logically.

At this point Denver has the unmistakable look of a wild-card
team, a very good one, to be sure, but still a wild card. If the
Chiefs can win their two remaining games--against the Chargers
and the Saints--that's what Denver will become. K.C. will win
the AFC West based on a superior record in division games, even
if Denver beats the Niners. By Monday night the K.C.-San Diego
result will be in, and should the Chiefs squeeze out a win over
the Chargers in San Diego, then it would seem to matter little
to the Broncos what happens at Candlestick. (You don't mind if I
don't say 3Com Park, do you? I just can't handle it.) Win or
lose, they'll still most likely be the best wild-card team,
unless New Orleans is getting ready to unveil a secret weapon
against K.C. the following week.

Too cynical, you say? Mere sportswriters' talk? Maybe, but I'm
not so sure.

The Niners are the NFC West champs, and they'll get home field
throughout the NFC playoffs if they win one of their last two.
It would be more comfortable if they clinch this weekend, rather
than against the Seahawks in Seattle next week, but you can't
really say there's a huge sense of urgency. Maybe, though,
they'll get caught up in the magic of the moment--Jerry Rice's
possible return, Joe Montana's official retirement ceremony.

All of which makes this an intriguing game. The Niners, stung by
the K.C. blowout, were out to prove something against the
Vikings, and the precision of those three consecutive scoring
drives that opened the game reminded you of the Bill Walsh
operation. But the defense was giving up drives of its own, and
toward the end Steve Young just didn't look right to me. Perhaps
it was the rain or the muddy conditions, but he appeared kind of
shrunken, like a guy hunching over against a heavy wind. Is he
hurting and not telling anyone? Probably means nothing, but I
just can't shake this picture.

The John Elway picture was disturbing too. He started hot
against the Steelers, ended up cold. His ball seemed to be
diving, and lots of his passes were dropped. The Denver defense?
Don't even ask. Ray Crockett, the team's best cornerback, was
assigned the strong side, for run support against Jerome Bettis.
So Kordell Stewart killed the Broncos with weakside passes to
Yancey Thigpen, who was covered by Darrien Gordon. The worst was
a 69-yard touchdown on a stop-and-go. Gordon stopped, Thigpen

Who is going to win the Niners-Broncos game? That depends on who
wants it more--and who can generate a heavier pass rush. I
didn't see much pressure from Denver last week. I saw plenty
from San Francisco. The Niners are the pick.

Tampa Bay will rebound hard against the Jets in the Meadowlands,
even if Trent Dilfer's sprained ankle keeps him out. Which is
worse: to lose your quarterback and have to play a guy like
Steve Walsh, who might not be a star but at least is veteran
enough to know how to work a game, or to lose both offensive
tackles? I say the latter. I say that offensive tackle is the
most critical skill position in the NFL. When you're shorthanded
at both spots and you're lining up a green player at guard, then
you're in big trouble. As the Jets were against the Colts.

I'll give you only one thing to think about before moving on.
Jets sacks against a notoriously weak line: zero. Colts sacks:
eight, the most since the days of Fred Cook and Mike Barnes in
the '70s.

The Giants will wrap up the NFC East with a win over the
Redskins in those same Meadowlands. How can both the Jets and
the Giants be playing in the same place, you ask? Easy, the
Giants play on Saturday. Washington couldn't run with Terry
Allen in the 7-7 tie last month, and now that Allen's out with a
sprained ankle, the Skins will have even more trouble against
New York. Jeff Hostetler won't be as bad as he was in the last
meeting, but he's overmatched by a defense that's into its
December-nasty phase.

I like New England over Pittsburgh in Foxboro, only because the
Steelers have yet to show me they can beat a prestige team on
the road. The Patriots' win in Jacksonville was kind of a
landmark game for Drew Bledsoe, who was allowed to take command
and call his own plays near the end of the first half. He
responded with a 63-second, 78-yard touchdown drive.

Playing the Bengals in Cincinnati won't be as easy for the
Cowboys as it might seem. Dallas is working on a short week
after the Monday-nighter; the Bengals, on a long one after
playing last Thursday. Dare I pick a shocking upset? Yes, I
dare. Cincinnati in an upset.


COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO The Jets won't beat Tampa Bay if they can't protect Neil O'Donnell. [Neil O'Donnell and opposing player in game]