In what could be the most significant game of still another two-day, four-game pro football weekend, the Washington Redskins will get the first chance to chase the defending champion San Francisco 49ers out of the NFL playoffs Saturday at Candlestick Park.
The first--but perhaps not the best--chance.
It would appear that San Francisco has Washington outgunned with Joe Montana against the young Redskin quarterback, Mark Rypien, who has a slow, labored passing motion though his accuracy often surprises. Consider:
--The Redskins are not a dominating team defensively. Montana will have time to look for wide receivers Jerry Rice and John Taylor. And after a dozen years in the same offense, he knows where to look.
--When Washington has possession, the matchup will be somewhat different, pitting Coach Joe Gibbs’ creative Redskin offense against Coach George Seifert’s smothering 49er defense. And in football, creativity can be canceled by opponents who are ready for everything.
Entering the second of the NFL’s four playoff rounds this winter, the Redskins, accordingly, will be at a disadvantage.
For a preview of one typical 49er advantage, think of the races that will pair Rice, who stands 6-feet-2, and Darrell Green, the 5-8 Redskin cornerback who is so fast he’s usually assigned to the opponent’s most dangerous receiver--and who often shuts him out.
But Rice lives on guile and smoothness. And if necessary, height and reach. Not speed.
Here are some reasons why an upset is nevertheless possible:
--Under Gibbs, the Redskins have peaked at the right time.
--They’re no longer a one-man team on pass defense now that they’re combining Green with cornerback Martin Mayhew.
--Two of San Francisco’s four most valuable players, free safety Ronnie Lott and halfback Roger Craig, will be playing hurt.
Washington’s best 1990 runner, Earnest Byner, will also play hurt. The game may ride on which team can control the ball, when necessary, with nicked or backup ballcarriers.
TOO MANY BILLS
The Buffalo Bills will surprise a lot of football fans if they lose to the Miami Dolphins in the other Saturday game.
For Upstate New York’s January weather cancels the one weapon that could make it closer in football weather--the arm of Miami quarterback Dan Marino.
The Bills have beaten 23 of their last 25 opponents in Buffalo. On their frozen stage last month, they even beat Marino with backup quarterback Frank Reich, 24-14.
With either Reich or Jim Kelly, the Bills have too much balance for Miami. Needing ball control last month to hold off the Dolphins in the fourth quarter, they got it from Thurman Thomas, one of the NFL’s best ballcarriers.
Needing a big man to slow down Miami halfback Sammie Smith, the Bills will fire another Smith at him Saturday--Bruce Smith, the NFL’s top defensive player.
Under Coach Marv Levy, the Bills have become the league’s only complete team. They were as conservative last year as the New York Giants, but Levy has used a superb new tight end, Keith McKeller, among many others, to modernize the offense with no-huddle plays and 49er-style passing.
A former 49er cornerback, however, has also brought a bit of San Francisco to Miami. He is Tim McKyer, who is still entertaining the media with wild quotes, but who has helped Coach Don Shula show the Dolphins how to win.
“The difference between the 49ers (and others) is that they take every damn little detail seriously,” McKyer told his new teammates.
Thus when the Dolphins fell behind Buffalo, 14-0, they didn’t quit in the December cold. Concentrating on the little details, they scored once, and then again, to make it a contest to the wire.
Even in a blizzard, you can move the ball with Marino if, as McKyer suggests, you work at it.
With such a passer, the Dolphins haven’t quite been frozen out--yet.
DUEL OF BACKUPS
The New York Giants expect to run the Chicago Bears out of New Jersey in the first Sunday game.
“We’re not great on AstroTurf,” Chicago Coach Mike Ditka said, perhaps prophetically, contemplating a day that will feature two backup quarterbacks--Mike Tomczak of Chicago and Jeff Hostetler of New York.
There is a rumor that Giant Coach Bill Parcells has ordered Hostetler to throw the ball once in every quarter. “Just to keep the Bears honest,” he reportedly said.
Now 4-0 as a Giant starter, 2-0 last month, Hostetler ran for 113 yards and passed for only 313 in the last two weeks of the regular season, when Parcells ran him in for injured Phil Simms.
He joins Ottis Anderson and Rodney Hampton to add overwhelming strength to Parcells’ running dimension.
After a 10-0 start this season, the Giants are 3-3 in their last six games, defeating 5-11 Phoenix, 24-21, and 1-15 New England, 13-10.
The Bears are also a running team with Neal Anderson and Brad Muster. But it’s asking too much of them to run against the Giants, whose defense is No. 1 in the NFL.
The question is whether in 60 minutes they’ll see one hole in the Giant defense.
Chicago’s chance for an upset may depend on, of all people, Tomczak, a notoriously streaky passer who possibly started a hot streak last week when he completed two good ones to blow away New Orleans, 16-6.
“I’ve never been around a better long passer than Tomczak,” Bear receiver Ron Morris said.
Not long ago, Tomczak took psychiatric treatment “to help me understand Ditka,” he said.
If it can be done, he promised, he’ll let the rest of the world in on it.
The Raiders will climax the Sunday program with what they trust will be a Coliseum replay of their 24-7 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals a month ago.
But there are some tricky things about the playoffs this year. No one knows, for instance, how the four second-round home teams will be affected by their first-round byes last week--when all four of this weekend’s traveling teams were gaining victories, confidence and momentum.
Most football players would rather play every Sunday than take a week off. In the Raiders’ instance, though, they learned a lesson--in the view of fullback Steve Smith--when they slumped this season after their October bye.
“We’d been winning easily (in the first two months),” Smith said. “We learned the hard way (about letting down).”
If, however, the Bengals had taken last week off, they wouldn’t be roaring in with a fresh memory of their 41-14 rout of the Houston Oilers.
At this moment, quarterback Boomer Esiason and Coach Sam Wyche’s other players are as confident as they’ve ever been since the day they almost edged San Francisco in Super Bowl XXIII.
Their problem is that their most valuable teammate, halfback James Brooks, dislocated a thumb last week. He will be badly handicapped. Nor has fullback Ickey Woods come back very far. The only thing that saves their running game is that they drafted a good one last spring, Harold Green.
One Raider edge is that Coach Art Shell, guided by his years as an All-Pro and a sure instinct, has been individually motivating his many celebrities with great success: quarterback Jay Schroeder, runners Marcus Allen and Bo Jackson, defensive linemen Howie Long and Greg Townsend, and the others.
And so, on one play last month, Jackson kept going for nearly 150 yards, putting out all the way--left, right and forward. A Bengal cornerback who caught him at the one-yard line, Rod Jones, has been taking bows ever since--after a run of about 50 yards.
In a 150-yard race, who would you take--Rod Jones with a 100-yard handicap or Jackson? You’d probably take Jones, but it might be close. It was close.