They lost to Green Bay and Dallas in overtime, which is nothing to be ashamed of, but then the San Francisco 49ers were party to the greatest surprise/embarrassment in the NFL this season--losing to Carolina, not once, but twice.
So instead of drawing a bye as the NFL playoffs begin this weekend, the 49ers are a wild-card team--the first time since 1985, and when was the last time anyone regarded San Francisco as playoff fodder?
"We're definitely the underdog," said Carmen Policy, 49er president. "I think our team is viewing the playoffs now as a period of redemption, not only for the losses this year, but for the playoff loss to Green Bay last year.
"It's such a different situation. This team is going in with a purpose, and yet without the daunting drubbing pressure of an expectation that we must do it--that we're supposed to do it--and if we don't, we're dismal failures."
The 49ers are almost always favorites to win the Super Bowl. They have been a lock to win the NFC West title for more than a decade, but the Panthers have now defeated San Francisco in three of four meetings and they are the NFC West champions.
Fortunately for the 49ers, who are favored to defeat the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, they will play the Packers at Lambeau Field if Dallas tops Minnesota today--putting off a rematch with the Panthers yet another week.
"It's such an awkward position to be in," Policy said. "One game turns around and we're hosting the entire playoff scenario; instead, we're a wild card. I'd rather look ahead because every time you look back over your shoulder, it drives you absolutely to distraction with the thought of what could have been."
With expectations having been dashed, are the 49ers psychological wrecks ready to be gunned down by the Eagles?
"It's all about turning negatives into positives," Policy said. "The '96 team has the chance to be different from any other Super Bowl team in San Francisco."
In Green Bay, Coach Mike Holmgren won't even let his players mutter the words "Super Bowl," but in San Francisco the team president makes it clear from Day 1 in training camp, the season is lost if it does not end with owner Eddie DeBartolo holding the Lombardi Trophy.
"That is what this organization is all about," Policy said.
The 49ers have won five Super Bowls, but always with the home-field advantage. On four of those occasions they had it throughout the playoffs. In 1988, they had the home-field advantage in the first round and then won in Chicago before going on to win the Super Bowl. They have never had to play three games on the road to get there.
"If we don't win this game against Philadelphia, the season becomes an embarrassment," Policy said. "But if we win this game, in a strange and weird sort of way, the season takes on a flavor and excitement that the predictable seasons of the past never took on. I'm getting the feeling from the players that they are more into these playoffs, at least more so than last year."
Philadelphia running back Ricky Watters probably deserves some credit for keeping San Francisco's attention. Watters, who played for the 49ers from 1991 to 1994, has been taking some shots at the team. He said the 49ers made no attempt to keep him, and he has reminded everyone recently that San Francisco's running game hasn't been the same without him.
"We talked with him, but keeping him would have meant he would have run the offense and not the coaching staff," Policy said. "He wanted to be the featured star on offense to the point that he has become in Philadelphia.
"The character, personality and method of an operation that has run smoothly decade after decade can no longer operate efficiently with individuals who feel compelled to take it in a different direction. Losing Charles Haley was very difficult for us. That may have been even a greater loss than Ricky Watters. A person's desire to have themselves highlighted and have it their way . . . in the long run you're better off maintaining your organization's personality and character."
But it hasn't been the loss of a whining Watters that has left the 49ers a wild-card team. There has been endless controversy regarding offensive coordinator Marc Trestman, offensive consultant Bill Walsh and San Francisco's troubled offense, and even though Trestman may very well lose his job after the season, the only thing bothersome to the 49ers' offense has been battered quarterback Steve Young.
"When Steve Young is healthy, we all look like geniuses," Policy said. "If Steve Young is healthy, Trestman looks like a new Mike Shanahan."
Young is sound at the moment, and only Denver and Green Bay had a better record than the 49ers' 12-4 mark. But only one wild-card team has ever won the Super Bowl.
"The key is playing a solid, balanced game and looking good this weekend," Policy said. "I like what I hear coming out of that locker room, and if we can keep the momentum going, I think we might have a little bit of a shot."
A little bit?
"Well, maybe more than that," acknowledged Policy, no longer feeling like an underdog.
PLAYING FOR BIG BUCKS
Mike Patrick, the ESPN announcer for Sunday night's game between Denver and San Diego, spent much of the evening canonizing Charger linebacker Junior Seau. Patrick talked about Seau's courage for limping through play after play, and then repeatedly pointed out, "He's only playing for pride."
Pride, of course, but what about the $1.2-million signing bonus he already received, $250,000 a game?
Why are athletes applauded for performing a solid day's work when they have to really put out only 16 days a year? Aren't most of the people watching required to put out more than 200 days a year for considerably less than Seau is earning?
It's a good thing Patrick wasn't broadcasting the Thanksgiving Day game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins. No doubt he would have gushed all over Cowboy defensive lineman Leon Lett for giving it his all, and playing as if it was his last game. Which it turned out to be, because he was suspended the following week for substance abuse.
Patrick's constant reminder that Seau was playing only for pride was obviously a means of keeping interest in an otherwise meaningless game. But the wrong message was being sent to youngsters, who are already dealing with the Michael Irvins of the world. Just because a guy can make great catches doesn't make him a great neighbor.
Seau practices harder than most players and the Chargers get their money's worth from him. He deserves credit for playing through injuries, although some of his teammates would point out that it was a nationally televised game, and no one would know that better than Seau, one of the league's all-time self-promoters.
"If Junior Seau is not the best defensive player in the National Football League, then I don't know who is," San Diego Coach Bobby Ross said earlier this season.
But in a revealing look inside the Charger locker room this week, Seau's teammates voted safety Rodney Harrison the team's most valuable defensive player. And when it came time to select the most inspirational player, they selected safety Kevin Ross.
WAITING FOR A CALL
When most everyone last saw Jim Mora, former coach of the New Orleans Saints, he was angry and talking about how his team "sucked," and couldn't do "diddly-pooh."
"I said that?" Mora said. "My God, I just saw it all on ESPN and it was embarrassing. I lost it a little bit that day."
Mora quit the next day, the impression being that he had become burned out. But Mora says that is not true, and although he will not discuss details of his situation in the Saints' organization, he would like to make one thing quite clear.
"I want to coach again," he said. "I was not burned out. It was just time for me to go."
Mora said he has no interest in coaching in college or becoming an NFL offensive or defensive coordinator. But if he does get a job as an NFL head coach again, he wants to join an organization that has a solid general manager. He didn't have the title but served as his own general manager the last several years.
"My personal opinion is, you need a general manager," said Mora, who worked for the highly regarded Jim Finks before Finks died a few years ago. "With free agency and the salary cap, there's so much more to know. I don't think a head coach can stay on top of that."
CINDERELLA'S A BULLY
How dominant have the Carolina Panthers been?
Five times the Panther defense has shut out the opposition in the second half in Ericsson Stadium. In going 8-0 at home, the Panthers have given up only 13 second-half points. Carolina finished the season first in the NFL in sacks with 60, second in scoring defense with 218 points given up, fifth in takeaways with 38, and 10th in total defense.
Carolina and Green Bay became two of 15 teams since 1978 to hold opponents to fewer than 14 points a game. The Packers gave up an average of 13.1 points and the upstart Panthers 13.6.
Of the previous 13 teams to accomplish that feat, four went on to win the Super Bowl ('78 Steelers, '85 Bears, '90 Giants, '91 Redskins), and two more reached the Super Bowl and lost ('78 Cowboys and '80 Eagles).
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TODAY'S PLAYOFF GAMES
JACKSONVILLE (9-7) at BUFFALO (10-6)
MINNESOTA (9-7) at DALLAS (10-6)
SUNDAY'S PLAYOFF GAMES
INDIANAPOLIS (9-7) at PITTSBURGH (10-6)
PHILADELPHIA (10-6) at SAN FRANCISCO (12-4)