As New York lost to San Francisco last week, the play that symbolized three combative hours in Candlestick Park was probably the hit of the year.
It was the hit that Giant tight end Mark Bavaro absorbed from 49er free safety Ronnie Lott.
It didn’t save the game, a low-scoring affair that ended 7-3. The save came later--when Lott made his other big play of a defensive night, a diving, one-handed deflection in the end zone.
But it did raise a good question: How can this guy hit football players seemingly harder than anyone else does?
He isn’t the biggest 49er. Standing an even 6 feet, Lott, a former USC All-American, weighs an even 200 pounds. He is a lightweight next to the man he clobbered.
A six-year NFL veteran from Notre Dame, Bavaro goes 6-4 and 245.
Yet Lott, timing the hit perfectly, knocked him groggy.
Lott’s key is that he is a student of the mechanics of hitting. Muhammad Ali would be proud of him. So would any clean liver.
Lott never goes for the knees. And unlike football’s other heavy hitters, he doesn’t attack shoulder-first.
He is a body-to-body hitter. In a classic NFL moment, Giant quarterback Phil Simms, hurried by the 49er pass rush, had overthrown the target--forcing Bavaro to stretch far out for the ball--when Lott smashed him with the entire front of his body from the forehead down.
It was an exotic piece of offensive defense.
One unusual thing about pro football is that it seems to attract a good many casual fans.
The TV crowd for any big NFL game obviously includes many thousands of passive, indifferent, or slightly interested fans--those who doubt that football is a particularly great sport, though they will watch it, idly, on occasion.
That is the only way to explain the audience-survey numbers.
For the Giant-49er game last week, the Nielsen rating was 27. By comparison, the World Series last fall averaged 20.8. The NBA finals last spring averaged 12.4.
The strange truth is that the Neilsen rating for the Super Bowl’s pregame show is larger than the numbers for championship games in other sports.
In college basketball last spring, the title game hit 20.
Leading into the Super Bowl last winter, the pregame show hit 21.6.
The point is that many football spectators--specifically, many of those who watched the 49ers and Giants last week--are comparatively undiscerning fans.
They are basketball fans or rock fans or, possibly, fast-car fans who, for a night, were drawn to an NFL event because it seemed to be the nation’s biggest sports event since the Super Bowl.
And that accounts for the dichotomy of the national reaction.
Most football fans called it a good defensive game.
Most casual fans called it boring.
Casual fans criticized the 49er defensive team because it never sacked Simms.
Football fans realized that Lott’s big hit, for example, was set up by the 49er rush on Simms. They realized that for better or worse, football is offense and defense.
In one of linebacker Lawrence Taylor’s big years, the Giant defense will get another chance against another brilliant offensive team Saturday when quarterback Jim Kelly arrives at the Meadowlands with the Buffalo Bills.
Buffalo and New York are each 11-2, a tick behind the 49ers. And as the AFC’s only 11-2 club, the Bills, in the opinion of many, are Super Bowl-bound.
The Giants and other NFC clubs have won six consecutive Super Bowl games and eight of the last nine. Do the Bills really want to get there?
Won’t the AFC’s 1990 champion become its seventh consecutive Super Bowl casualty?
“It isn’t the NFC that’s been beating the AFC,” Buffalo General Manager Bill Polian said. “As the regular-season results have told us for years, the conferences are about even.
“What’s important to understand is that the Super Bowl is a game of matchups. And it just happens that most of the teams that won AFC championships in the 1980s didn’t match up well with NFC champions.
“Secondly, the 49ers were a super Super Bowl team in the ‘80s. They’ve won four of the last nine. They’d have beaten anybody. The reason they win so often is that their big-play guys are more consistent than anyone else’s.”
How would the Bills match up with the 49ers or Giants in Super Bowl XXV?
“We have the defense and the quarterback,” Polian said. “Defense gets you into the playoffs, and quarterbacking takes you the rest of the way.”
Of the AFC champions of recent years, only the Cincinnati Bengals have made a game of it against the NFC, losing Super Bowl XXIII to the 49ers in the last minute, 20-16.
In a rematch Sunday, the 49ers caught the Bengals again, 20-17, in overtime.
“Cincinnati is the only AFC team that has matched up well with an (NFC champion) lately,” the Buffalo executive said. “As you saw again (Sunday), they have what it takes to battle Montana all the way--a big offensive line, good play-action passing, an active defense and speed in the secondary.
“Denver is an example of a team that could win AFC (titles) but didn’t match up with NFC (champion). They’re agile and well conditioned, but built to excel in Denver’s rarefied air, and sometimes they’ve been too small.”
Will Buffalo beat the Giants Saturday?
“Our quarterback can do more things on his own than their quarterback,” Polian said. “But everything depends on how we handle their power.”
Bernie Kosar, Cleveland quarterback commenting on one aspect of the Browns’ slump: “ (Coach) Jim Shofner is the fifth play-caller I’ve had in six years.”
Herb Adderley, Green Bay’s Hall of Fame cornerback, on Hall of Famer Dick (Night Train) Lane, as quoted by Rick Korch in Pro Football Weekly: “Night Train was the best defensive back to ever play the game. I tried to pattern my game after him. I’ve never seen a defensive back hit the way he hit--I mean, take them down, whether it be Jim Taylor or Jim Brown.”
Chris Doleman, Minnesota defensive lineman: “I don’t like these bye weeks. I like getting right back in there and playing.”