Cowboys look to put out 49ers' flame in rematch of NFC title game

PRO FOOTBALL

October 17, 1993|By VITO STELLINO

The Dallas Cowboys grabbed the torch in San Francisco last January.

Now they hope to hit the 49ers over the head with it in Dallas today.

When the Cowboys beat the 49ers in the NFC title game in muddy Candlestick Park last January, they like to think it was a passing of the torch from the team of the 1980s to what they think will be the team of the 1990s.

"We felt the winner of that game was going to be NFL champions. Not to take anything away from Buffalo, but I felt like it was a bigger challenge to beat San Francisco there at Candlestick Park than actually winning the Super Bowl on a neutral field," said coach Jimmy Johnson of the Cowboys.

The two teams will have the rematch today in Dallas and it'll be the Cowboys' chance to prove it wasn't a fluke and that they've surpassed the 49ers as the sport's dominant team.

"I think when the schedule came out, both teams looked at this as a key game. It gives us an opportunity to say we're one of the best teams in the league. I think the winner will say that, regardless of the record," Johnson said.

Quarterback Troy Aikman said, "Last year, there were maybe a handful of people who thought we could go out and beat them. Everybody thought we were a year away. Since that game, everyone has looked at us differently and I think that's why this game is bigger than it would have been if San Francisco had won last year."

Aikman added, "It's not a must-win situation because it's early in the season. But it's as close to a must-win game as you can get in October."

The Cowboys are 6 1/2 -point favorites, which is an unusual spread against the 49ers. They haven't been underdogs by a bigger margin since the 1983 NFC title game against the Washington Redskins in RFK Stadium when they were 10-point underdogs.

They lost the game when Eric Wright was called for a controversial pass interference penalty on Art Monk that set up the winning field goal even though the ball appeared to be overthrown. In a memorable line, former coach Bill Walsh said a "10-foot Celtic" couldn't have caught the ball.

But the 49ers covered the spread in that game, losing, 24-21.

The surprising thing is that the 49ers and Cowboys both are only 3-2. The Cowboys lost their first two when Emmitt Smith held out, and San Francisco was hampered by Steve Young's ailing thumb.

They're not exactly the same teams they were last January. They've combined to make 17 changes in their starting lineups -- seven moved to new teams, four were benched, three were injured and three changed positions.

San Francisco has made more of a transition, losing Pierce Holt, Tim Harris and Michael Carter on defense and adding Tim McDonald.

But George Seifert, the underrated coach of the 49ers, takes it in stride. Seifert doesn't get the credit he deserves for his 60-16 record because he has the image of just continuing in Walsh's winning ways.

With his defense ranked 26th in the league, Seifert said, "It's been frustrating, but there's a part of it that's kind of fun, this'll sound crazy, from the standpoint of the challenge to put it together, to get it squared away."

The 49ers find out today if their defense is squared away enough to stop Aikman and Smith.

Sounding off

Ricky Watters, whose critical fumble helped doom the 49ers against the Cowboys last January, is ready to redeem himself. He wants to outdo Smith.

"I definitely want to prove something. When you play the best and prove to be right up there with them, they start to say, 'Maybe this guy is the best.' The whole thing is, people never put Michael Jordan [in an elite class] until he beat Magic Johnson. That's the situation I feel I'm in right now," Watters said.

He forgets Jordan was in an elite class before he beat Magic, but that didn't stop Watters from comparing himself to Smith.

"We have a lot of similarities in that we both think we can't be stopped. We talked at the Pro Bowl so I know that's a fact. And we both feel we can carry the team on our backs at any given

time.

"But what sets me apart from a lot of other backs is my receiving skills and blocking skills. I'm bigger and stronger than most of the backs that play my position. Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders, those guys are smaller guys. I can handle linebackers coming up the middle on a blitz, or if a lineman gets loose, I can pick him off," he said.

Except in his own mind, nobody is comparing the 6-foot-1, 212-pound Watters to the 5-9, 209-pound Smith.

Today's his chance to make the comparison.

The expansion derby

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue came up with a clever way to hand one of the two expansion franchises to a new city -- probably Charlotte.

By having the expansion and finance committee recommend two cities as an entry and allowing the owners to only vote yes or no for the package, he can guarantee one of the entries will be a new city. That'll leave Baltimore and St. Louis to fight for the other spot.

The only question is whether Tagliabue can get 21 votes for this package. If he can't, all bets are off.

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