The Catch II


The NFL playoffs were just what the bowl championship series people needed, another reminder of how much better the games are when all the action occurs on the field.

More than that, they’re what we all needed. With college football wrapping up tonight, college basketball still building up to March Madness, baseball three months away and no NBA for at least a month--and that’s the best-case scenario--something has to fill the void.

We can’t expect every Super Bowl to be as compelling as last season’s Denver Bronco championship, but we can usually count on at least a couple of memorable performances in the preceding weeks.


We got a dose Saturday when the Miami Dolphins narrowly avoided another Doug Flutie miracle against the Buffalo Bills. Then we received a full serving of classic stuff Sunday in San Francisco’s last-play victory over the Green Bay Packers.

That game was the reward for rampant mediocrity in the NFL regular season, a season in which the prevailing theme was horrible officiating.

The ups and downs of the college football season were far more compelling during the fall. But that 49er-Packer game showed why the NFL is better come January. After Terrell Owens hung on to that Steve Young pass for a touchdown with three seconds left in the game, you knew the 49ers had won the right to move on. You didn’t have to wait for the coaches and media to vote their choices.

It’s a little hard to believe that the 49ers will move into the second weekend of the playoffs and neither the Packers nor the Dallas Cowboys will be there with them. For the past few years you could always count on at least two of them making the second round, and one of those three teams represented the NFC in the past six Super Bowls.

You can feel the dominant ‘90s teams and players beginning to fade. Packer Coach Mike Holmgren will move on and Green Bay won’t quite be the same. This will probably be the last time Young, Dan Marino and John Elway will all be around this late in the season. And who would have thought we’d see the day when the 49ers won a playoff game with Jerry Rice not catching a pass until the last drive of the game?

Reggie White says this is it for him, although he’s always liable to change his mind if God calls him. (God must have Reggie’s number on speed dial).

One guy we probably haven’t seen the last of is defensive end Charles Haley. The man hasn’t been heard from in two years, then joins the 49ers about 48 hours before game time and is in Brett Favre’s face all afternoon Sunday. We could have the start of a whole new type of professional athlete here. The 49ers won’t sign him to a contract, they’ll keep him on retainer and call him whenever his services are needed.

The NFL lucked out this weekend. With storms pounding the northern half of the country, the league happened to stage its playoff games in Florida, Texas and California.

Don’t count me among those who think there needs to be snow and wind and frozen tundra for it to count as real football weather. There’s nothing wrong with playing in the sunshine, as the Packers and 49ers showed Sunday. Let the players, not the elements, decide the outcome.

Despite the great weather the 49ers and Packers, the two leading proponents of the West Coast offense, put the slants and curls away and played bruising, running, rumble-ball.

Then, in the final minutes, when the situation called for the quarterbacks to be at their best, Favre and Young responded with long touchdown drives. Favre moved the Packers downfield to take the lead, and Young came right back to take the game.

Continuing the theme of this season, the officials appeared to erroneously rule Rice’s knee was down before he fumbled on the winning drive. This game still had enough great plays to compensate. It won’t be remembered for bad calls.

Whatever teams take over the league as it enters the next decade (and century), it’s obvious they will need great quarterbacks. That’s why you just knew the New England Patriots had no chance to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars with Drew Bledsoe sidelined with an injured finger. Backup Scott Zolak threw 44 passes. Any time someone throws that many, you’d think one of them would be for a touchdown. Uh-uh. No wonder the Patriots lost.

The Donald Hollases and Craig Whelihans that cluttered NFL backfields this season are gone now. Next weekend it’s Marino vs. Elway. Jacksonville’s Mark Brunell vs. Vinny Testaverde and the New York Jets. Arizona’s exciting young Jake Plummer against the revived Randall Cunningham and the awesome Minnesota Viking offense. And it looks like the 49ers-Falcons game will be about running backs Garrison Hearst and Jamal Anderson.

Best of all, there’s no controversy over which teams should be playing.

J.A. Adande can be reached at