The thing that makes 1990 different in the National Football League is that for the first time in years, the dominant team of the era is positioned to win a third consecutive Super Bowl.
And that's not all. With another season like last year's, the San Francisco 49ers could win their fifth Super Bowl in 10 years.
With the regular season starting this weekend, San Francisco's quarterback, Joe Montana, shares a remarkable NFL record with Terry Bradshaw, who led the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers to four championships.
As Montana reached the heights in the playoffs, the 49ers routed three of the best teams in football last winter in winning their fourth championship of the '80s.
They eliminated the Minnesota Vikings, 41-13; then the Rams, 30-3; and, in a Super Bowl anticlimax, the Denver Broncos, 55-10. And in so doing, they made believers of nearly everyone who plays or coaches football.
And Montana is still on the team.
So is Jerry Rice. So is Roger Craig. So is Ronnie Lott, the defensive star of all four of San Francisco's Super Bowl championships.
So is George Seifert, who succeeded Bill Walsh as the 49ers' coach last season. And so is Eddie DeBartolo, the inventor of checkbook football, the club owner whose costly commitment to winning keeps paying off.
Counting regular-season and postseason games, the 49ers since late 1988 are 24-3 (.889). That's one of the hottest streaks in NFL history--considering the quality of the teams they're beating in a league widely known for parity. It's reminiscent of 1984, when the Detroit Tigers started 20-4 in the American League.
And it's keeping the 49ers on course to join the 1929-31 Green Bay Packers and the 1965-67 Packers as teams winning three consecutive NFL championships.
Can anyone stop these people?
In the league's dominant conference, five or six of their 1990 rivals have some kind of chance. Three of them are Eastern teams: the Washington Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants.
The others are the Rams and possibly two from the NFC Central: the Vikings and Detroit Lions.
Compared to the 49ers, all are severely flawed, although the Redskins may come closer to the 49er ideal--all-around balance and depth, with an accent on productive passing--than any other club.
It could well have been a Redskin year if the NFL hadn't just made a major procedural change.
The league has decided to admit six wild-card teams to the playoffs this winter--three from each conference--along with the six division winners.
And that gives the 49ers a bonus chance at the championship--a chance that no other title defender in 70 years ever had.
It's hard to believe that six NFC teams could be better than the 49ers. Even if they lose the division title to the Rams, they will almost surely advance as a wild card.
And if they finish fast in December--if they have the momentum going into the January schedule, regardless of any earlier injuries or other kinds of early trouble--the 49ers will be the team to beat in the playoffs. Again.
In one-through-10 order, here are their principal challengers, the principal NFC teams that are most likely to succeed if the 49ers misfire:
1) WASHINGTON REDSKINS
Quarterback: Mark Rypien
Coach: Joe Gibbs (102-48-0)
In turf language, the Redskins, under Gibbs, are usually either there or thereabouts, finishing close when they don't finish first. And such a team is always a threat, even when it isn't among the favorites. This isn't a very flashy team, even in its three-receiver formations when Rypien is dealing to Art Monk, Ricky Sanders and Gary Clark, but it is a tough, solid competitor. And Gibbs employs highly respected assistants.
Quarterback: Jim Everett
Coach: John Robinson (71-50-0)
This team's early-season schedule, with a September off-week, isn't as alarming as its injuries, and down the road, other teams will be hurt, too. If Robinson can hold on until defensive back Jerry Gray returns, the Rams will still contend. Much depends on the quality of Ram depth. For a while last year, depth carried the 49ers and Redskins--and the Rams appear to have it at least at wide receiver. Their strength is Everett and one of the NFL's great pass offenses.
3) DETROIT LIONS
Quarterback: Rodney Peete
Coach: Wayne Fontes (9-12)
Few if any Detroit starters would make the first team at Minnesota. The Lions aren't an NFL power. But late last season, they learned how to win with their new run-and-shoot offense, and there could be a carry-over this season because their opponents haven't learned how to stop it. And eventually, they expect Andre Ware to be their quarterback. The Lions have come up with a secret weapon under Fontes, a defense that ranks behind only Minnesota's in their division.
4) MINNESOTA VIKINGS
Quarterback: Wade Wilson
Coach: Jerry Burns (41-28-0)