Playoffs taking cues from the '80s Four survivors all have been there

'91 NFC

January 08, 1991|By Vito Stellino

History is going to repeat itself in the National Football Conference playoffs this year.

The only question is which page from the 1980s is going to be copied this year.

The four surviving NFC teams -- the San Francisco 49ers, the New York Giants, the Chicago Bears and the Washington Redskins -- are the teams that have represented the conference in the Super Bowl the past nine years.

In this weekend's matchups, the Redskins play the 49ers on Saturday and the Bears play the Giants on Sunday.

The die was cast for these matchups in the eighth weekend of the year when the Giants beat the Redskins for the second time, leaving the Redskins the best wild-card team at 4-3, while the Giants and 49ers were 7-0 and the Bears were 6-1 as division leaders.

In effect, the NFC could have called off the season at that point and gone straight to the playoffs.

The question is which of these is poised to repeat a scenario it followed in the previous decade. Here are those four scenarios:

* San Francisco survives the first game: If the 49ers are to win for the fifth time since 1981, their key obstacle is the Redskins. The 49ers have lost their first playoff game three times in the past decade. But four of the five times the 49ers won their first game, they went all the way.

* The Giants relive 1986. That was the season that the NFC title game was supposed to match the defending champion Bears and the Giants, the same way a 49ers-Giants matchup is the likely one in the NFC title game this year. But in 1986, Washington went to Chicago, knocked the Bears out and then lost to the Giants, who won the Super Bowl. The Redskins can do the Giants a favor again this year by knocking off the 49ers in San Francisco.

* A fluke year for Washington: The Redskins never seem to be a dominant team but are dangerous in wide-open fluke years, winning the Super Bowl in the strike seasons of 1982 and 1987. With so many quarterbacks hurt and with the 49ers struggling to find a running game, this could be a year the Redskins fill the vacuum in a topsy-turvy season.

* Chicago does it on defense. The Bears are a long shot with Mike Tomczak at quarterback, but they won on defense in 1985, shutting out the Giants and the Los Angeles Rams in the playoffs to get to the Super Bowl. The Bears' defense isn't as formidable this season, but it might carry them.

Of the four teams, the only one that could be called a mild surprise to get this far is Washington. When the Redskins were blown out by the Eagles on Nov. 12 and then lost at Dallas and Indianapolis, there were questions whether they were a formidable team, and they were underdogs in Philadelphia last week.

In retrospect, it seems that the problem was the Redskins didn't have anything to play for the second half of the season. They knew they couldn't beat out the Giants for the division title once they had lost to them twice, and they knew it was almost impossible for them to blow a wild-card spot. The New Orleans Saints got the last one with a 8-8 record.

But the flak they took when they were struggling may have given them more incentive.

"We have a group of 10-year vets on this team. At one point, people were saying they were old and couldn't play anymore, so we've got a lot to prove," defensive lineman Charles Mann said.

Whether they're good enough to beat the 49ers is another matter.

As expected, coach Joe Gibbs almost broke his arm patting the 49ers on the back yesterday at Redskin Park.

"I don't think they have any weaknesses," he said, overlooking that their running game has been shaky all season.

Gibbs decided to follow the same formula that worked last week against the Eagles. He won't hold practice until tomorrow, even though the Redskins play on Saturday. He brought the players in for film work yesterday. When the players did go outside, they mostly threw snowballs at each other.

The offensive players will have today off, while the defensive players will study ways of stopping quarterback Joe Montana before they pull on the pads tomorrow.

Once one of the NFC teams does make it to the Super Bowl, it will have to go through the ritual of beating the American Football Conference titlist to win the Super Bowl. The NFC champion has won eight of the past nine Super Bowls and six straight.

The Buffalo Bills have the best shot of representing the AFC because they have the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

If they do it, they'd be a first-time Super Bowl team going against an NFC team that has made it in the past.

The only time a team making its first appearance beat a team that had been there before was after the 1974 season, when the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IX.

History favors the NFC. Now it's a matter of deciding which scenario the NFC will use this year.

)

Odds to win Super Bowl

Team********* *********Odds

San Francisco 49ers*****4-5

Buffalo Bills **********4-1

L.A. Raiders ***********4-1

N.Y. Giants ************4-1

Miami Dolphins *********8-1

Chicago Bears *********12-1

Washington Redskins ***12-1

Cincinnati Bengals ***15-1

Source: Keith Giantz and Russell Culver.

Sports Features Syndicate Inc.

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