Packers not close to packing it in Defending champions not invincible, but remain team to beat

AFC race looks wide-open

49ers' late struggles ease way for G.B.

December 27, 1997|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

In a season when Brett Favre's numbers aren't quite so spectacular, when the Green Bay Packers' defense isn't quite as relentless, Super Bowl hopes arise in the NFL's playoff ranks.

It is wishful thinking, of course. An implausible pipe dream.

Who is going to stop the Packers?

The New York Giants, after they dismiss the Minnesota Vikings in today's wild-card round? The same Giants who need three defensive turnovers to get an offensive touchdown? No way.

The San Francisco 49ers, who get the Packers at Candlestick in the NFC championship game? The same 49ers who gave up 44 ## points to a Kansas City Chiefs offense quarterbacked by Rich Gannon? And another 38 to a dreadful Seattle Seahawks team a week ago? Not very likely.

No, it will take something very unexpected, something very dramatic, to keep the defending champs from their second straight Super Bowl. And the NFC doesn't appear to have it. Just look at what the Packers have done this season.

They have changed seven starters since last season's Super Bowl and lost their best special teams player, Desmond Howard, to free agency. Yet, they matched last year's regular-season record of 13-3 and won their third straight Central Division title.

They have been vulnerable on run defense all season with injuries to stars Reggie White and Gilbert Brown. Yet, in the last five weeks, only one team -- Buffalo -- scored more than 20 points on them, and the Bills were never in the game.

Favre? While his numbers are slightly off his MVP pace of the past two seasons, he is still the most feared quarterback in football. His 35 touchdown passes are seven more than New England's Drew Bledsoe, eight more than Denver's John Elway.

As usual, the AFC is wide open. Realistically, the Chiefs, Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos are the three best teams. The Miami Dolphins may be the only AFC playoff team that has no shot of reaching the Super Bowl.

This is how the two conferences shape up for the countdown to San Diego and Super Bowl XXXII:

NFC

Green Bay: Subtract Edgar Bennett and insert Dorsey Levens' 1,435 rushing yards. Subtract Andre Rison and add Robert Brooks' seven TD catches. Now try to stop that offense.

San Francisco: The 49ers looked good winning 13 games, until you looked at who they beat -- the dregs of the NFC West. To play with the Packers, they'll need a running game, and that disappeared when Garrison Hearst broke his collarbone in Week 14. They're hopeful he'll return for the playoffs.

Whether their defense does is more problematic. Although the 49ers ranked first in total defense in the league, they were outscored, 82-18, in those two stretch losses.

Forget that Seattle didn't matter. No team gets drubbed willingly.

New York: The Giants have had a wonderful season, but their offense is next to stagnant. They will need more production from second-year quarterback Danny Kanell if they're going to get past Minnesota.

Their big-play defense could have a field day against Randall Cunningham, but a trip to Lambeau Field next week will tell the Giants how far they have to go.

Tampa Bay: Even though Trent Dilfer threw a franchise-record 21 touchdown passes and Warrick Dunn is a threat every time he touches the ball, the Buccaneers had problems on offense down the stretch. The blitz is big against Dilfer, whose pass offense ranks dead last in the NFL.

The Bucs will give the Detroit Lions trouble tomorrow because of their fierce defensive front, though.

The key will be whether they can contain Barry Sanders.

Detroit: As usual, it's all on Sanders' shoulders. The Lions can't count on fidgety quarterback Scott Mitchell or an overachieving defense to beat the Bucs. They will go only as far as Sanders can run -- and this season, that's pretty far.

Minnesota: Cunningham is the fifth starting quarterback coach Dennis Green has used in his five playoff appearances in Minnesota (he's 0-4). Cunningham was only 1-4 in the postseason in Philadelphia, so he's probably not the answer. Neither is the Vikings' 29th-ranked defense.

AFC

Kansas City: Coach Marty Schottenheimer's reputation as a big-game loser will get the ultimate test. He's got home-field advantage for the second time in three years, and the last time (1995) he lost to Indianapolis. In fact, the last three AFC teams with home-field advantage failed to reach the Super Bowl.

What works in Schottenheimer's favor is a blitzing, pressure defense. What doesn't work is the uncertainty at quarterback. Elvis Grbac returned from a six-week, injury-induced absence last Sunday, and looked spotty in inclement weather. He still has some rust to get off. Schottenheimer pulled Steve Bono for Rich Gannon two years ago against the Colts, and probably will do it again if Grbac starts slow.

Pittsburgh: The Steelers are No. 1 in the league in rush offense and rush defense, a persuasive combination. They've got Jerome Bettis at running back and Levon Kirkland at middle linebacker. For games in cold climes, that's a winning formula.

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