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NFC PLAYOFF ANALYSIS : Pro Football : 49ers Seem to Be the Best, and Healthiest, at Just Right Time

January 06, 1988|Bob Oates

Gary Fencik of the Chicago Bears, the Yale man who has lasted in the National Football League for more than a decade, was talking the other day about the reality of the 1980s.

"To win the Super Bowl, you have to be on a roll going into the playoffs," Fencik said. "That gets you the home-field advantage."

Most conspicuously, the last three Super Bowl champions--the San Francisco 49ers, Bears and New York Giants--each had a long roll, dominating the league in the regular season, sweeping through the playoffs before friendly crowds, and winning the title handily.

In all, six straight teams have breezed into the Super Bowl after playing every playoff game at home--five National Conference teams and the Raiders.

This time it's the 49ers who, again, seem unbeatable. Of all NFC contenders, they alone have what seem to be the two necessities, an injury-free lineup and their home field to play on.

The NFC's three other tournament teams all suffer from unsettled quarterbacking, major injuries, and, at best, the prospect of a tour of Candlestick Park. And of those, injuries are probably the most influential.

San Francisco was beaten up just a year ago, when the 49ers were blown out of the playoffs by the Giants, 49-3, in the Meadowlands.

This year, the 49ers are largely uninjured and have regained the advantage of playing at home. If they stay uninjured, they'll be hard to handle.

Of the 14 NFC members, these four are still on the road to Super Bowl XXII in San Diego Jan 31:

SAN FRANCISCO

At 1 p.m. Saturday, the 49ers will be at home against a team they didn't really want to play, the deeply talented but erratic Minnesota Vikings.

The 49ers have the NFL's No. 1 offense this season, as well as the No. 1 defense and the No. 1 passer, Joe Montana, who threw for 31 touchdowns, 22 of them to wide receiver Jerry Rice.

Despite their two aces, though, the 49ers are basically a defensive team, as they were in 1981 and 1984, when Bill Walsh coached them to their first two Super Bowls. If his 1987 entry gets there, it will continue a Walsh tradition: a Super Bowl every three years.

San Francisco's defensive players have been unscored upon in their last three starts, won by a composite 124-7.

The 49ers are physically tougher this season with their all-Nebraska backfield, fullback Tom Rathman and halfback Roger Craig. And they have a secret weapon, depth, with such bench stars as defensive back Carlton Williamson and their quarterback of the future, Steve Young.

MINNESOTA

Whenever Jim McMahon can't play for the Bears, Minnesota becomes the league's second-best team--at least on the days when the Vikings are able to play well, as they did in New Orleans Sunday.

In 15 games this season, many of them bitterly disappointing to their defensive players, the Vikings nonetheless had 41 sacks and 26 interceptions.

"The pass rush is obviously the key to their defense," Walsh said in San Francisco. "They rush four people and really penetrate."

Three of the four are first-round draft choices, Keith Millard, Chris Doleman and Doug Martin, who damaged every offense they saw in 1987--a fact often obscured by the more journalistically interesting goofs of their kickers, passers and punters.

In the secondary, the Vikings rally around strong safety Joey Browner.

Offensively, this is a big-play team with three undersized big-play people, 5-foot 9-inch Darrin Nelson, 5-8 Leo Lewis, and 5-11 Anthony Carter, who weighs only 174 pounds.

At quarterback, the Vikings make it a point to start Tommy Kramer whenever the nerve injury in his neck permits.

Backup Wade Wilson, a scrambler who is most effective coming off the bench, is usually an accurate passer at intermediate ranges.

CHICAGO

Sunday at Chicago's Soldier Field, against Washington, the Bears will try again to regain the form that made them the winners of Super Bowl XX two years ago. Their troubles since have been concentrated at quarterback, whenever McMahon has been absent injured, and on defense.

The Bears have been more or less openly critical of their new defensive coordinator, Vince Tobin.

When Buddy Ryan left after the Super Bowl to take over the Philadelphia Eagles, Coach Mike Ditka hired Tobin, so Ditka has taken the knocks personally, criticizing the players instead of the coaching.

"There hasn't been any madness about our (defensive play)," he said one day recently.

Still Bear opponents describe Mike Singletary, Richard Dent, Wilber Marshall, William Perry, Dave Duerson and the others on Chicago's defensive team as some of the best at their positions in the league.

Defensively, the Bears match up well enough with the Redskins. The problem is at quarterback. where McMahon has missed three games with a hamstring pull.

McMahon said he'll start, and Ditka doesn't really have any other choice. The whole team plays well with McMahon, and not so well with replacement Mike Tomczak.

WASHINGTON

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