When the best meet, look for a (yawn) rout

JOHN EISENBERG

January 21, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

A wise, old pressboxer -- literally encased in crust, or so it seemed -- took me aside a few years back and burbled this pearl of wisdom: It is an unwise man who accepts a sports writer's advice on anything other than directions to the race track.

This truism is easily gleaned from any office conversation (yesterday: "Dow Jones? Didn't he pitch relief for Rochester?") but the old galoot drove it into my bosom. Thus it is with trepidation that I enter the advice business. But as General Custer said before the charge, "Well, here goes."

If you are among the 100 million people planning to watch the Redskins play the Bills in the Super Bowl, better drum up a Plan B. Chances are good the game will go rancid long before the french onion dip melting down on your coffee table.

It isn't just that the Redskins appear convincingly better, which they do. It's also that this is the best possible match-up, between the NFL's strongest teams. It's the game everyone wanted. What's wrong with that? Such perfect Supes have a tendency to sink faster than (choose your own Bruce Willis movie).

The cynic will note that just about every Supe sinks faster than (choose your own Bruce Willis movie). This is an irrefutable point. The average margin, through 25 editions, is 16 points.

But listen: It's actually even worse when the game has a four-star look. Six of the 25 Supes have been between teams that, on the basis of record and performance, stood clearly above the others in their conferences. The average halftime margin in those games was two touchdowns.

The sound bite goes something like this: Looks good, smells bad. So, here we go again. Better get the VCR loaded up with "Rollerball" or get your Twister mat cleaned and pressed. The game looks good now, but you might be trolling for a new activity come halftime Sunday night.

The problem is there invariably is some factor, not always apparent beforehand, that reduces the game from shiny to soiled. In the first Supe, for instance, it turned out Freddie "The Hammer" Williamson and the Chiefs secondary, supposedly a strength, couldn't stop the Packers receivers. The result: 250 passing yards for Bart Starr, and a resolute 35-10 pin.

Six years later, the Redskins supposedly were a match for the undefeated Dolphins, but it turned out the Redskins' top-ranked defense couldn't stop the Dolphins' steady, crunching offense. The 14-7 final was misleading. The Dolphins control of the game was complete from start to finish.

When the Cowboys and Broncos met in Supe XII with just two losses each, the Cowboys won by 17 largely because Denver quarterback (and AFC MVP) Craig Morton was about as mobile as a redwood. Four years later, the 49ers built a 20-0 halftime lead, as their defense, with three rookie defensive backs, shut down the Bengals' prolific short-pass offense.

The worst example came in Supe XIX. The Montana 49ers and Marino Dolphins had three losses between them. It was a great game in the newspapers, a bomb on the field: 38-16, Niners.

(The final piece of evidence, the 49ers' 55-10 Bronco-busting two years ago, was easily foretold. But it was indeed a matchup of teams with the best records in each conference. The Twister mats were out in 10 minutes that year.)

So, what might be the factors that paint the mustache on this year's masterpiece-in-waiting? How about the Bills' defense? Are we really supposed to believe it's suddenly terrific just because it stopped average Denver and even-more-average Kansas City in the playoffs? Sorry.

All you need to do to score on the Bills is stop two players, Cornelius Bennett and Bruce Smith. That's a no-brainer for a particularly clever schemer such as Joe Gibbs. Remember, this defense let the Giants control the ball for 40 minutes a year ago. The Redskins, with a better line, could score a lot of points Sunday.

Also, the Bills' offense might not be able to keep up. It peaked a couple of months ago and, except for the Kansas City game, hasn't nearly been the force it was earlier. Denver showed everyone how to defend Jim Kelly and group: the same way the Giants did a year ago, with intimidating play in the secondary.

Now, in the unlikely event that the Bills run away from the Redskins, the reason might be the fast artificial track in the Metrodome. This will not be a Redskins setting, suitable for their messy, grinding style. The Bills have a speed advantage that could be telling in a fast-break game.

Don't count on that happening, though. Count on the Redskins winning. But mostly, one way or the other, count on a blowout. Plan on doing something else once the second half begins. It's advice from an untrustworthy source, but you might want to consider it.

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