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ANALYSIS : Rice and Means Will Generate Excitement for 49ers, Chargers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the San Francisco 49ers opened that quick 21-0 lead on the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC championship game at Candlestick Park on Jan. 15 and expanded it to 31-14 before the half, it could have been even larger but for a sub-par performance by Jerry Rice.

The 49ers’ all-time receiver dropped three early passes, one in the end zone, after getting too close to Dallas free safety James Washington.

If the drops seemed out of character, it’s because Washington, one of the NFL’s most intimidating players, customarily keeps Rice in his sights whenever the Cowboys play the 49ers and Rice ventures into the center of the field.

There was a frightening collision last year when Washington knocked Rice flat, and then, in a memorable photo, stood over him, arms upraised, like a victorious boxer.

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They both remember that.

It isn’t that Rice is afraid of Washington, or anybody else. He simply reacts out of caution and prudence. He knows better than to risk his future by mixing it up with an intimidator as notorious as the Cowboy free safety.

Rice did catch a 28-yard touchdown pass just before halftime to give San Francisco its big lead in the real Super Bowl that day, as Dallas fell, 38-28. Rice survived to play in Super Bowl XXIX Sunday--when he will be ready. He is always ready. In his 10 seasons with the 49ers--justifying his caution and prudence in dealings with angry opponents--Rice has never missed a game.

And this time, against the San Diego Chargers, he again will be seen frequently in his favorite part of the field--the central part, between the safeties. There, he specializes in taking short passes from the NFL’s most valuable player, quarterback Steve Young, and tacking on first-down yardage--or more--except against Dallas.

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With Washington, the Cowboys neutralize Rice in the middle, but most teams can’t do that--and if the Chargers can’t, the whole field will be open to the 49er offense.

For Rice is the 49er key. To overload defensively against him is to invite disaster from the four other 49er threats, receiver John Taylor, tight end Brent Jones, halfback Ricky Watters and the NFC’s best fullback, William Floyd.

It will be a moral victory for the Chargers if they hold that group to 30 points--in the first half.

Whatever the San Diego coaches try to do to slow the 49ers, they are unlikely to be as successful as they were in Pittsburgh Jan. 15, when defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger, with the most intelligent game plan of the weekend, took the Steelers out of the playoffs in a 17-13 upset.

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Arnsparger gambled on next to a sure thing. Although he was pretty certain that he couldn’t lose to the Steelers’ quarterback, Neil O’Donnell, he was absolutely certain that their good running backs would beat him if he let them run.

His solution was to control Pittsburgh’s ground game with 7-4 and 8-3 defenses, making O’Donnell throw. That made O’Donnell seem like a champion with 349 yards passing, mostly between the 20s. But his runners were overwhelmed, averaging under 2.5 yards and netting only 66. And O’Donnell could reap only one touchdown.

The Chargers aren’t as good as they looked that day and some say they aren’t the AFC’s best team. If that’s true, everyone will know it soon after Sunday’s kickoff.

For, in the 49er game plan, Coach George Seifert has one principal objective: to take an early lead and get Natrone Means out of the Charger offense.

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Means, a swift, punishing, 245-pound running back, is the only 49er-class athlete San Diego has in a ballhandling position. He often controls the clock in close games, but like any runner he vanishes when his team has to play catch-up.

The 49ers want Means out of the way, in which case it will all be up to Stan Humphries, San Diego’s inconsistent, big-play quarterback, who made only three good plays in Pittsburgh--the three winning plays--all in the second half.

In a catch-up mode, Humphries succeeds repeatedly--but he is a notoriously slow starter whose 49er opponent, Young, leads one of the fastest-starting teams of all time.

The contrast has been startling.

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Humphries, moreover, will be opposed by a San Francisco secondary that ranks with the great ones of recent years.

The 49ers have all-conference class at free safety with converted cornerback Merton Hanks and at strong safety with Tim McDonald. There is competence on one corner with Eric Davis. And at the other, Deion Sanders, as a pass-coverage back, is up there with the finest ever.

Against San Diego, accordingly, the 49ers will continue to use the season’s most novel pass-defense scheme. They have been putting Sanders man to man on one receiver on every play and playing zone defense with their other players.

That scheme beat Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman, who has finally developed a long-pass touch that makes him the NFL’s ablest passer.

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The 49ers began by studying Aikman’s tendencies in the tapes. Then they confused him by assigning Sanders to one Cowboy receiver when he expected another. And, before Aikman adjusted, the 49ers had a long lead they never lost.

Not that the 49ers were the better team.

The truth is that Super Bowl XXIX would have matched Pittsburgh against Dallas if it weren’t for Charger assistant Arnsparger and Dallas owner Jerry Jones.

The 1992-93 Cowboys were supreme under Jones’ former lieutenant, Jimmy Johnson, who led the league in the attributes that identify a great coach. And when Jones divorced Johnson a year ago, he lost the only chance that any NFL owner will ever have--almost certainly--to win three straight Super Bowls. That isn’t absolutely certain--but in the free-agency era, how can anyone do it?

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