Montana may face QB-eaters 49ers-Eagles game possible in playoffs

December 25, 1990|By Vito Stellino

Take the best quarterback of his time -- maybe of any time.

Give him a goal that no quarterback has achieved.

Match him against a barracuda defense that has knocked out six quarterbacks in the past eight weeks.

The way the National Football League playoff picture is shaping up, that is likely to be the challenge for quarterback Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers in their first playoff game, as they attempt to become the first team to win three straight Super Bowls.

It's certain that the Philadelphia Eagles, who specialize in knocking out quarterbacks, will play the Washington Redskins and the Chicago Bears will play either the Dallas Cowboys or the New Orleans Saints in the first round of the National Football Conference playoffs the weekend of Jan. 5-6.

If the Cowboys beat the Atlanta Falcons Sunday or the Saints lose to the Los Angeles Rams Monday night, Dallas would go to Chicago. If the Cowboys lose and the Saints win, the Saints would get the trip to Chicago.

Assuming the two home teams -- Philadelphia and Chicago -- win the first-round games, the Eagles then would go to San Francisco and Chicago would go to the New York Giants for the second round the next week, with the two winners meeting in the NFC title game Jan. 20.

It's not certain, of course, that the Eagles can get by Washington. The Redskins are so erratic that they're always capable of coming up with a good game when it's not expected.

The Eagles, though, would be favored at home, and they will play host to the game if they beat the Phoenix Cardinals on Saturday or if the Redskins lose to the Buffalo Bills Sunday.

An Eagles victory over the Redskins would send them to San Francisco, unless the Bears were upset by New Orleans or Dallas. The Eagles then would go to the New York Giants.

An Eagles-49ers matchup would be intriguing.

The Eagles' ability to get to the quarterback could be the major obstacle on the 49ers' road to the Super Bowl.

Just in case anybody needed reminding, the 49ers proved again Sunday that they're not the same team without Montana.

When he sat out the game against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, the 49ers lost, 13-10, with Steve Young at quarterback.

The Giants, Bears and Buffalo Bills -- among the 49ers' major opposition -- won with backup quarterbacks Sunday.

The 49ers lost with theirs.

Because the 49ers already had clinched the home-field edge throughout the playoffs, it was uncertain whether Montana was injured or whether they just decided to give him a rest. The team announced he had a strained lower abdominal muscle.

The 49ers hadn't put Montana on their injury report last week, he didn't comment after the game and the team doctors said they aren't permitted by the team to comment.

But nobody doubts Montana will be ready for the playoffs.

The question is whether the 49ers believe they can win without Montana.

"I think a lot of the guys were really surprised when they found out Joe wasn't going to suit up. And, honestly, I think there was a little letdown," said defensive lineman Pete Kugler.

Which brings us to the Eagles, who delight in knocking out quarterbacks.

The Eagles' game -- all-out blitzes and single coverage in the secondary -- is risky against Montana.

When the teams played last year, the Eagles sacked Montana eight times and had an 18-10 lead after three quarters, but Montana threw four touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to win, 38-28.

But all it takes is one sack to knock out a quarterback, and the Eagles always are a threat to do that.

Troy Aikman of the Dallas Cowboys, who suffered a separated shoulder Sunday when he was sacked by Philadelphia's Clyde Simmons, said: "They're a very aggressive football team, a very physical football team. They've got a lot of great players over there, and any time they're able to rush the passer, there are going to be quarterbacks that go down."

The Eagles say they don't try to knock out quarterbacks.

"It just happens," said defensive lineman Jerome Brown. "It's not like we're trying crazy stuff. It's not like there's a technique we work on."

The AFC playoff picture isn't nearly as settled as the NFC's is. Although four teams -- the Bills, the Los Angeles Raiders, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Miami Dolphins -- are in, there are four teams fighting for the final two spots.

Regardless of how it ends up, the Bills are the favorites to get to the Super Bowl because an opposing team would have to beat them in Buffalo, N.Y., in January to advance.

Miami couldn't do it in Sunday's mild weather. It's unlikely that any AFC team can do it if it's chilly in January.

The Bills proved Sunday they could win a big game with Frank Reich at quarterback in place of Jim Kelly. Even if Kelly isn't back for the playoffs, Reich would be favored to get them to the Super Bowl.

The Bills have the defense and the running game to complement Reich, who is 4-0 the past two years and has proved he's very steady in relief of Kelly.

As far as the Super Bowl goes, though, the 49ers still are favored to become the first team to win three straight and five overall.

That is, as long as Montana remains healthy.

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