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There’s No Interfering With Moss’ Rise to Top

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As the NFL playoffs start this week, wide receiver Randy Moss gives the Minnesota Vikings the kind of weapon that none of the other Super Bowl contenders have. It’s hard to see how the Vikings, after a first-round bye, can lose provided they remember to throw long toward their unique rookie four or five times a week.

Based on 1998 performance, Moss, no matter how well covered, will either catch at least one of every four long passes thrown his way, or, as he speeds along, will attract pass interference at least once.

He was again the NFL’s most impressive performer the final weekend of the regular season. On Minnesota’s winning plays, when Tennessee still led in the third quarter, 13-8, Moss made successive catches for a touchdown and a two-point conversion after putting the Vikings in scoring position with a long pass-interference play. He has made pass interference a virtual Viking game-plan play.

His height (6 feet, 4 inches) and great jumping ability (42 inches, they say) give Moss two advantages. His speed is a third. He and Deion Sanders are the NFL’s fastest players. But the crucial Moss advantage is the way he gets to a long pass, deceiving the defensive backs as to where the ball is until the last instant, or luring them into interference, or both. No other receiver has Moss’ knack for moving in or up to the ball at the right time. He’s uncanny.

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Century’s best: The San Francisco 49ers have reached the postseason again with another 12-4 regular season. In the Green Bay game today, the 49ers will be making their 32nd playoff appearance in 18 years. No other football team has been seen in such a run of postseason consistency against top-flight competition--18 years of Super Bowl wins (five), division championships (14), playoff seasons (16) and playoff wins (21).

Their record of consistency for such a long period makes the 49ers the team of the 20th century. What’s more, their quarterback, Steve Young, is clearly the passer of the century. Although his predecessor, Joe Montana, won four Super Bowls, Montana never had to outscore the West Coast offense--the Bill Walsh creation that has in recent years swept the league.

Montana in the 1980s was the only West Coast quarterback. In the 1990s, Young has opposed the pass-heavy West Coast in almost every big game, and, naturally enough, has won some and lost some.

This year for Young, the road to another Super Bowl seems particularly rough. If he outscores West Coast quarterback Brett Favre today--and that seems unlikely--he will eventually have to outscore West Coast quarterback Randall Cunningham of Minnesota and probably West Coast quarterback John Elway of Denver, and all that would be too much for Montana too.

It was Walsh who brought both Montana and Young to San Francisco. And when he introduced the West Coast 18 years ago, a compelling feature was the way Montana’s receivers made their way into the open. At least one receiver was always open. That, however, was against 1980s defenses. A definitive thing about Young’s receivers, now that the defensive coaches have had 18 years to diagnose the West Coast, is that they’re seldom open. He hits them anyway.

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Elway’s edge: The Denver Broncos, in the last weekend of the regular season, again appeared to be no more than the NFL’s second-best team. But their defense is better than San Francisco’s, and about as good as Minnesota’s, and their quarterback, Elway, will have one edge over the Minnesota quarterback, Cunningham, if they reach the Super Bowl together.

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Elway can throw more accurately while backing up under a heavy rush than Cunningham can, or than anyone else except Favre.

In a 28-21 victory over Seattle, Elway’s second of four touchdown passes was the one that made the difference. Backing up against an all-out Seattle blitz, he got the ball down the middle to tight end Shannon Sharpe.

Otherwise, in Denver’s last five difficult games, Elway’s problem has been similar to Young’s, namely, the NFL’s defensive coaches have made some strides in the science of defending West Coast receivers. That’s why Minnesota’s Moss seems so potentially significant this winter. Moss gives the West Coast still another dimension.


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