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Pro Football : Wild-Card 49ers Just Beat Up

The disadvantages of entering the playoffs as a wild-card team were well illustrated in New Jersey Sunday when the lame and ailing San Francisco 49ers passed quietly out of the 1985 football picture.

That wasn’t the real San Francisco team out there, being beaten, 17-3. The New York Giants beat a worn-down group that needed, more than anything, the day off.

All three of the 49ers’ battered first-string backs--Joe Montana, Wendell Tyler and Roger Craig--would have spent the afternoon on the sidelines if this had been a meaningless late-season game.

So would have three or four other key 49ers, among them Ronnie Lott.

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Under NFL rules, division champions get a bye during the tournament’s first week, but for the wild-card teams, it’s business as usual.

Thus, basically, the 49er-Giant game wasn’t much more than a study in why it pays to win in August and September, not to mention October and November.

San Francisco, though the better team, was too battered to prove it at the Meadowlands.

The Raiders’ achievement in winning the Super Bowl in 1981 as a wild-card team may have been their greatest.

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The Giants were full of themselves after upsetting San Francisco, and so were their fans, who kept shouting: “Bring on the Bears.”

They would be advised to enjoy themselves this week, while they can. The rest of their season has a distinctly uphill look. The Giants’ big problem in Chicago Sunday may be how to avoid a shutout.

Although Phil Simms is competent at quarterback, halfback Joe Morris probably has the only All-Pro talent among those who handle the ball for this team--and Morris is 5-7.

Neither he nor Simms would have troubled the real 49ers.

Nor did the Giants stop Joe Montana. They thought they had--that’s what they were talking about afterward--but the fact is that Montana had a 296-yard game on an afternoon when he lost at least another 100 yards and a touchdown or two on dropped passes and controversial penalties.

Montana played better football against the Giants than he played in the Super Bowl last winter, when he was voted most valuable player. The wild-card 49ers weren’t killed in New York.

They died of earlier wounds and exhaustion.

If the NFL makes a film reel of the blown calls that would have been corrected by instant-replay cameras this year, it should include wide receiver Jerry Rice’s sideline catch for the 49ers Sunday.

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Rice was interfered with when he pulled in the ball on the most artistic play of the game. Then an opponent shoved him out of bounds before he could get both feet down.

His problem: He’s so gifted that he made a tough play look easy.

On three counts, the 49ers were entitled to keep those yards. The catch was majestic, the interference was flagrant, and the out-of-bounds shove was obvious. Yet no official saw it that way.

This is not to blame the officials. None of them had a good look at the play. The point is that the instant-replay cameras did.

The New York Jets made more progress this season than some of their fans had expected, reaching the wild-card round.

They got no further because the two players they rely on the most, halfback Freeman McNeil and quarterback Ken O’Brien, erred on successive series late in the second quarter.

McNeil fumbled and O’Brien threw an interception, and New York couldn’t come back after New England capitalized on the mistakes.

The Jets will never know what O’Brien would have accomplished in the second half he missed with an injury. But they’re beginning to understand one thing about McNeil, who was also injured, continuing a career in which he has been in and out of the lineup with injuries. McNeil may not be durable enough to play in the NFL.

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Tony Eason of the New England Patriots appears to be the most accurate passer in the playoffs this winter, with the possible exception of Dan Marino.

Eason may be too inexperienced to take the veteran Raiders apart Sunday, but as a passer he’s unusual.

Three times in the last two weeks, he has thrown bombs that his receivers could just get to for over-the-head catches.

One to Irving Fryar set up a field goal Saturday, and another to Stanley Morgan produced the important first touchdown as the Patriots eliminated the Jets, 26-14.

When passing, Eason releases the ball higher than most passers do, and he lets it go with an exaggerated wrist flick, getting much of his power that way.

So he can throw while backing up, as he did on Saturday’s touchdown pass to Morgan.

Eason, Fryar and Morgan were the most talented air force people on view in the wild-card series. They’re a threat to outscore the Raiders, who will be looking at a more balanced attack than they have had to contend with in their division.

No AFC Western team combines such receivers and such a passer with two running backs like New England’s Craig James and Tony Collins.

The Raider edge is playoff experience.

The Patriots line up a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. Under personnel director Dick Steinberg, they have for years recruited some of the league’s better players.

Their results, however, haven’t matched their talent until recently. The turning point seems to have been the appointment of Coach Raymond Berry.

In his first full season as a head coach, Berry, a Hall of Fame receiver, has had New England in the race since last September.

Asked what Berry brings to the New England program, Steinberg said:

“He has created an environment in which there is a total concentration on football every day. For the first time, our team is being mentally prepared for every game. The Raiders and Dolphins have had this kind of environment for a long time, and to a degree, so have the Cowboys. It’s new to us, and I think it explains us.”


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