When New Orleans beat Tampa Bay Sunday, 44-34, the accent was on the Saints, who, after 21 years of trying, finally assured themselves of a playoff berth.
But, long term, the more important story might have been the successful emergence of a new quarterback, Vinny Testaverde.
In his first real chance in pro football, Testaverde, the Heisman Trophy-winning rookie from the University of Miami, outplayed the Saints most of the way.
"The deep balls he threw to me were perfect," Buccaneer wide receiver Mark Carrier said this week after catching eight of Testaverde's passes for a team-record 212 yards.
"Vinny brought us a lot of mobility and a lot of excellence."
He brought it belatedly. The new Tampa Bay coach, Ray Perkins, waited until the 12th game of the season--when the Buccaneers were already 4-7 and out of the playoffs--to move the year's No. 1 draft choice into the lineup.
In Florida in recent weeks, Perkins' procrastinating has provoked increasing criticism.
Buccaneer fans haven't been able to fathom the coach's preference for a journeyman short passer, Steve DeBerg, when the alternative is a famous bomber.
In any case, after losing 14 points on fumbles in the first 6 minutes 9 seconds Sunday, Testaverde outperformed the Saint offense, 34-30, in the last 3 1/2 quarters, completing 22 of 47 passes for 369 yards, with 2 scoring throws and 2 interceptions.
"Not bad," Carrier said.
Said Testaverde: "Not good enough."
It was a romp against the lowly Green Bay Packers, 23-12, but San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana didn't discount it.
"This was a big win for us because we want the home-field advantage in the playoffs," Montana said.
And so the stage has been set for the first of the two games that will probably determine the Super Bowl winner next month.
The league's only two 10-2 teams, the 49ers and Chicago Bears, will be matched both times--starting at Candlestick Park Monday night.
Next, they probably will meet in the playoffs to choose the team that will face the AFC team in Super Bowl XXII.
The only other organization that seems to have a Super Bowl championship chance this time, the Washington Redskins, has played less impressively than either San Francisco or Chicago.
This is the 49ers' fifth straight year in the playoffs under Coach Bill Walsh. But they match up so closely with the Bears that, as Montana implied, the home-field disadvantage may be too much for either to overcome.
Thus Monday night's game is, in a sense, the real Super Bowl.
The 49er quarterback is planning to show. "If I wasn't looking forward to it, I wouldn't be here," Montana said.
It is the strike that gave Montana and the other 49er strikebreakers the edge they hold now in the NFC West.
The 49ers won them all in the replacement season. By contrast, the Saints were 2-1, and they are one game behind San Francisco now.
The strike is also responsible for the fact that Chicago is only tied with San Francisco at this point--instead of one game up and feeling less pressure this week in preparations for Candlestick Park.
Here are the non-strike records of the NFC's five best teams--which are probably the league's five best this season--Chicago 8-1, New Orleans, San Francisco and Minnesota 7-2, Washington 6-3.
New Orleans outplayed San Francisco at Candlestick last month in the NFC West's biggest game of the year.
As is the case on most clubs these days, the Bears and 49ers are both led by injury-prone quarterbacks.
Jim McMahon went out of the Bear game with a pulled hamstring Sunday night. Montana had a back operation last year.
McMahon is doubtful for Monday night's game, Chicago Coach Mike Ditka said. That still leaves one question: How can a quarterback pull a hamstring?
Both backups are above average. The 49ers' Steve Young is a runner rivaling the younger John Elway or Randall Cunningham.
The Bears' Mike Tomczak beat the Minnesota Vikings in the last minute Sunday after McMahon, for the second time this year, took himself out in the fourth quarter.
The Vikings inexplicably elected to play macho football with the Bear defense in the last five minutes Sunday, and it cost them. It probably cost them the division title, too, since the rest of their December schedule is much easier than Chicago's.
"They tried to come down the middle," scoffed Chicago's middle linebacker, Mike Singletary. "Can you imagine that?"
Perhaps the brightest linebacker in football, and arguably the toughest, Singletary led Chicago in a defensive attack that turned back the Vikings on four successive runs inside the Bear two-yard line with 5 minutes left and Minnesota leading, 24-23.
A touchdown would have made it 31-23, in which case it's maybe all over for the Bears--for the year.
The Vikings took their last three shots from 18 inches as Singletary and the Bears' front four mounted perhaps the most meaningful stand of the season.
Strategically, the four-play series was an offensive blunder by the Vikings, who should have opened up the Bear defense with at least one pass.