WEST / If Rice Is Sound, so Is His New Deal

Don't you wish the 49ers were your bosses? Jerry Rice is coming off two knee operations, hasn't played in the exhibition season and the team has raised his pay, giving him $2.25 million this year, $6.454 million next season. "I feel I have done everything possible to get back on the field," said Rice, and you would too, for that money. "I feel I'm more explosive than when I came into the league in '85."

Check out the attendance. The Rams play at home in the Trans World Dome noon Sunday, while the Cardinals will be in Busch Stadium for a 1 p.m. game. Mark McGwire or Tony Banks? The Rams have a string of 24 consecutive sellouts, and are close again, but check out the no-show count.

The Panthers lost starting center Frank Garcia for the season with a knee injury, then his backup Bucky Greeley for a few weeks with a kidney injury, and now are down to an undrafted rookie who was just hoping to make the practice squad, Paul Janus.

That's why the 49ers have it so easy in this division. Janus was a tackle at Northwestern and never played center until this exhibition season. He will start at the position for the first time Sunday against Atlanta.

CENTRAL / Maybe He's Making Game Too Complicated

How can a team with Barry Sanders lose so often? Start each play with the ball in the hands of Scott Mitchell.

"When I first got here, I wanted everybody to like me," Mitchell said. "I wanted to please everybody and do everything. I rather quickly found out, 'I'm not going to be able to do this and I can't try to do it.' "

Just try to complete some passes.

Mitchell needs all the help he can get, especially playing the Packers, but prime receiver Herman Moore is bothered by a groin-muscle tear. Moore had 15 receptions for the Lions as they split with the Packers last season. "I really believe it'll go up to game day," said Moore, who has played in 71 consecutive regular-season games. "I'm very concerned."

As for the Packers, General Manager Ron Wolf said his team remains king of the hill.

"Everybody is talking all the time about all these great players that we lost," Wolf said. "Well, we are very comfortable with our football team. We are a talented football team that just doesn't have all-pros backing everybody up."

The Packers had six new starters in 1996, five this year.

"I will say this about the Green Bay Packers," Wolf said. "We are the NFC champions. I think people need to remember that."

EAST / Cowboys Shouldn't Talk About 'Exposed'

The Cowboys had everyone laughing a year ago, and the yucks just keep on coming with new Coach Chan Gailey trying to shape up a team that cannot stay out of trouble. But does it really have a chance to be any better than the 6-10 team it was a year ago?

"I think this year we get exposed," quarterback Troy Aikman said. "I think this year is going to tell how good or how bad we are."

Why wait for a report card after 16 games: They are not as good as they think they are.

File this one away: Former San Francisco coach Bill Walsh is predicting that Arizona quarterback Jake Plummer, whom he has likened to Joe Montana, will be this year's most valuable player. "He will need some help from his teammates, but if the Cardinals turn it around in '98--and that's not as farfetched as it seems--I wouldn't be surprised if Plummer is the league's MVP." To dream the impossible dream . . .

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