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NFC PREVIEW : Redskins Have Fewer Problems, Better Chance to Win the Title


For most of Joe Gibbs' coaching career, the Washington Redskins have been either on the pace with the leaders or not far off.

Seldom dominant, they have usually been in position to get a nose in front if the favorites founder, as they did in 1983 and 1988 when the Redskins won Super Bowls XVII and XXII.

And 1991 has the look of another of those years.

Gibbs' 11th Redskin team seems less than overpowering, to be sure. And it has some weaknesses passing and playing defense.

But most of its rivals have more problems.

There's a good chance that quarterback Mark Rypien of Washington State, Gibbs' sixth-round draft choice in 1986, will accompany--if not lead--the Redskins to the NFC championship this time.

If not Rypien, it will be their third-year backup, Stan Humphries.

"You have to remember that (Rypien) hasn't done it yet," Gibbs said the other day. "Neither of them has--and until you do it, there's always a question if you can."

Sure, but there are other questions about prominent NFC teams. Are the San Francisco 49ers declining? Can the New York Giants win again with a new coach, a new defensive coordinator and their aging stars?

Although the 49ers and Giants are the co-favorites this season, the Redskins, on the whole, seem better off. And if they beat the AFC winner, as some expect, they will continue a long trend: NFC champions have won seven consecutive Super Bowl games and nine of the last 10.

Here are some more true stories:

--Since 1970, eight NFL teams have won all 20 Super Bowls--and five of those are NFC teams: San Francisco, Washington, the Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears and the Giants.

--In the past 20 years, only the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Miami Dolphins and the Raiders have brought the Super Bowl championship to the AFC.

--In the past 11 winters, only the Raiders have won for the AFC.

Last season, however, as the AFC again held its own in interconference competition, the NFC had but five winning teams: Chicago, San Francisco and three in the NFC East: Washington, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Super Bowl champion Giants.

Clearly, as a conference, the NFC doesn't dominate. But in the end, one way or another, it usually wins.

As of the first weekend of the NFL's 72nd regular season, these could be the NFC's top 10 teams: 1. WASHINGTON REDSKINS Quarterback: Mark Rypien. Coach: Joe Gibbs (113-55). Last season: 10-6 (third, East).

At 6 feet 4 and 234 pounds, Rypien has the size of a proper NFL quarterback. And after three pro years of ups and downs--after two years of work with Gibbs on injured reserve--Rypien should be approaching maturity. In their one-back system, the Redskins hope to pound away with Earnest Byner, Gerald Riggs or John Settle, then pass to Art Monk or one of their other good veterans or rookie third-down back Ricky Ervins. Linebacker Matt Millen should help a sound defense. 2. NEW YORK GIANTS Quarterback: Jeff Hostetler. Coach: Ray Handley (0-0). Last season: 13-3 (first, East).

Although Handley is a promising coach, the champions have lost not only their two-time Super Bowl winner, Bill Parcells, but also their defensive coach, Bill Belichick. Moreover, linebacker Lawrence Taylor, quarterback Phil Simms and others are on the far side of 30. What's more, the NFL's most conservative team needs the edge in such categories as fumbles and missed kicks, which it got last year but can't count on. As the NFC's best-balanced team, the Giants run, they defend and they have those two quarterbacks. 3. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS Quarterback: Steve Young. Coach: George Seifert (32-5). Last season: 14-2 (first, West).

With Joe Montana at quarterback, the greatest passing team of all time has lost the ability to run. That puts too much of a load on the quarterback--physically and strategically. Now, Montana has developed elbow trouble and has been placed on the injured reserved list. He had gotten more predictable the more he threw. The 49ers still have their extraordinary defensive line--which is helping to break in a new secondary--and a coach they believe in, Seifert, who is batting a hard-to-believe .865. And their predictability may be jolted by Montana's replacement, their best runner, Steve Young. 4. GREEN BAY PACKERS Quarterback: Don Majkowski. Coach: Lindy Infante (20-28). Last season: 6-10 (fourth, Central).

In the 1989 heyday of the 49ers, Infante took Majkowski and a few other young Packers into Candlestick Park and won, 21-17. This year, although hobbled by too many journeymen, they could finish in the NFC's top four. On offense, they line up one of the NFL's great batteries--Majkowski to Sterling Sharpe. On defense, there are Pro Bowl strengths--linebacker Tim Harris and safety Mark Murphy. Two negatives: There's not much depth or experience. 5. CHICAGO BEARS Quarterback: Jim Harbaugh. Coach: Mike Ditka (96-51). Last season: 11-5 (first, Central).

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