Giants-49ers clash only slightly less super after losses

December 01, 1990|By Vito Stellino

Just a week ago, it was being touted as Super Bowl XXIV 1/2 , the first meeting between two 11-0 teams.

Since the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants were upset Sunday and will bring 10-1 records into their Monday night game, it has been downgraded a bit.

Maybe it's now just Super Bowl XXIV 1/4 .

It's only the second game in the history of the National Football League pitting two 10-1 teams.

If not the game of the half-century, it's the game of the past 42 years.

The only other time it happened was in 1948, when the defending champion Chicago Cardinals beat the Chicago Bears, 24-21, to finish the season with an 11-1 mark and win the division championship. The Cardinals failed in their bid to repeat when they lost the title game to the Philadelphia Eagles, 7-0.

The Cardinals -- now in Phoenix -- have changed cities twice, but haven't won a playoff game since.

If nothing else, there will be life for the 49ers and Giants after this game.

Each will have four regular-season games left, and the teams are likely to meet again in the playoffs.

But it's still the NFL's biggest regular-season game since the Miami Dolphins spoiled the Chicago Bears' bid for a perfect season in 1985 in the highest-rated Monday night game.

This game isn't likely to top the record 29.6 rating (percentage of TV sets tuned in) of that game because network viewing is down since the proliferation of cable television.

It still could be the top-rated prime-time television show of the week. "60 Minutes" was No. 1 last week with a 22.5 rating, and the game between the Los Angeles Raiders and the Miami Dolphins was No. 3 with an 18.2 rating.

Once you get behind all of the buildup, this game should tell a lot about two powerhouses of the 1980s -- the 49ers' offense and Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor.

Joe Montana and the 49ers' offense led the team to four Super Bowl titles. Taylor, meanwhile, may have been the best defensive player ever to step onto a field.

They seem to have slipped a bit. How much and what effect that will have will tell a lot about Monday night's game.

The Giants still may win without Taylor at the top of his game. The 49ers, though, probably can't win if their offense isn't clicking.

For the better part of a decade, the 49ers have been winning big games like this one. If they can't still do it, it may be time to bring down the curtain on one of the game's greatest dynasties.

The team's major problem is its lack of a running game. Roger Craig is 30 and has been slowed by a knee injury. He's gained only 313 yards this year. The 49ers are averaging only 88.6 yards a game rushing, compared with 127 last year.

Craig says he hasn't been at his best this year but that he'll be closer to top form by Monday night. "Criticize me when I'm healthy," he said. "Don't criticize me when I'm hurt."

If he's not ready to go full speed, the question is whether the 49ers can win on Montana's arm without a running game.

Wide receiver Jerry Rice said he thinks they can. "This is the '90s," he said. "Everybody passes. In the '70s and '80s, everybody needed a running game. But now everybody can stop that. In the '90s, you can pass every play."

But the lack of a running game may be taking its toll. On their first five possessions against the Los Angeles Rams, the 49ers had the ball at their 47, 48, 44, midfield and 31, but failed to get a first down. They committed turnovers on three of those five possessions.

The lack of a running game may be affecting Montana, too. He's been intercepted a career-high 14 times (13 is his previous high), including three times in the Rams game.

Montana brushes off that game. "We just have to move on. It's not like we haven't lost games before," he said.

The Giants' defense will test Montana and the 49ers' offense. But San Francisco may not have to worry about Taylor the way it once did. He has only six sacks this year and was shut out in seven of the past eight games.

In last year's game against the 49ers, Taylor was injured on a block by tight end Wesley Walls. "You can say it was cheap . . . unnecessary," Taylor said this week.

Speaking of himself in the third person, Taylor said, "Lawrence wasn't a factor in the play whatsoever, and he got Lawrence on the back of the legs."

Taylor would like to have a big game against the 49ers, but he complained publicly at a luncheon this week that he's not pleased that since Carl Banks has been injured, the Giants aren't letting him free-lance and rush the passer the way he once did.

"With Carl out right now, I'm used basically as a down lineman," he said. "I'm getting my butt kicked."

Coach Bill Parcells was less than thrilled with Taylor's complaints the week of a big game.

"I've spoken to him, and I have no comment," Parcells said.

There's some speculation the Giants aren't letting him free-lance because they don't think he can do it the way he once did.

Banks hopes to play this game, and he showed in an unusual way that his injured wrist is better. He was arrested this week for breaking the front door of his million-dollar home in New Jersey in a domestic dispute with his wife.

So, this is the battle of the past 42 years. One team is explaining why its offense is sputtering, and the other team's star linebacker is complaining the team isn't using him the right way.

For 10-1 teams, they seem to have a lot of problems. The loser will have even more problems.

As Rice said, "The Giants are desperate, and we are desperate. At this point, we can't afford to lose another game. That's why I love it."

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