In a rare matchup of 10-1 NFL teams, the Super Bowl’s next champion could well emerge from tonight’s game at San Francisco for these two reasons:
--The NFC again seems stronger at the top than the AFC, and, based on performance so far, the San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants are the NFC’s strongest two teams.
--Tonight’s winner will move a giant stride closer to the goal that both organizations have had in mind since opening day: the home-field edge on Jan. 20 in the NFC title game.
If it’s San Francisco against the Giants that mid-winter afternoon in East Rutherford, N.J., the Giants will expect to win both the conference championship and, a week thereafter, the Super Bowl.
They were explicitly built to succeed in the East’s bad weather on runs by Ottis Anderson, Rodney Hampton and David Meggett setting up quarterback Phil Simms’ play-action passes.
The 49ers, who clinched the NFC West championship Sunday when New Orleans lost to Dallas, are a much more sophisticated offensive team. With Joe Montana at quarterback, they expect to win with their famous pass offense tonight and again Jan. 20 at Candlestick Park, where the dirt field isn’t ideal for wide receivers Jerry Rice and John Taylor--but where the milder California weather provides a clear advantage.
“The hardest part of the season is ahead of us now,” Giant Coach Bill Parcells said the other day in San Francisco, contemplating last week’s losses, which took both his team and the 49ers off the unbeaten list.
Said 49er Coach George Seifert: “Those (defeats) increase the pressure. You don’t want to be the team that loses two in a row.”
The Simms question is whether the Giants have enough pass offense to catch up if they fall behind in the second half.
The Montana question is whether he can win with his arm if the 49ers, again, have trouble running the ball with their comparatively ineffective backs, including Roger Craig, who has been injured.
“When you aren’t running, it definitely puts more pressure on the passing game,” Montana said. “You have to force the ball more.”
Thus, Montana has been throwing more interceptions this season, 14, along with 24 touchdowns.
In the Giant play-action scheme, in which Simms has been passing primarily on running downs, he has thrown only four interceptions and 15 touchdowns.
Both defensive clubs match up well with their opponents. The 49ers have led the league all year in rushing defense. The Giants have what it takes to pester Montana: two wily linebackers, Lawrence Taylor and, if he’s physically sound, Carl Banks, who also excels against running plays.
The game isn’t, as it has been called, the real Super Bowl--not with Buffalo and Chicago, among others, out there. But in terms of next month’s home-field advantages, it’s the NFC game of the year.