Mobile QBs scramble final 4 AFC, NFC tests pit 4 who win with legs, too

Analysis

January 06, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The running games loom large in the NFL's conference championship scene this week, and, as always, defense will be a major emphasis.

But it's the matchup of quarterbacks that makes this year's football final four such an intriguing prospect.

The NFC championship game unites the league's most prolific quarterback of the last four years -- Brett Favre of the Green Bay Packers -- with its most efficient -- Steve Young of the San Francisco 49ers.

In the AFC, it's young gun Kordell Stewart of the Pittsburgh Steelers against one of the reigning old guns, 37-year-old John Elway of the Denver Broncos.

Stewart is in his first NFL season as a full-time starter; Elway is in his 15th. Yet, they both have the same number of Super Bowl victories: zero. That is the ghost that Elway chases down the homestretch of a remarkable career.

There are no such ghosts in Sunday's NFC showdown. Favre (1996 season) and Young (1994) have each won a Super Bowl, and together they've collected five of the league's last six MVP awards, as well.

This final four is top-heavy with Super Bowl experience -- a total of 17 combined appearances -- and elusive quarterbacks.

Packers coach Mike Holmgren yesterday called Young one of the best running quarterbacks he's seen.

"Steve is an awesome player," Holmgren said. "The dimension he brings -- and you saw it in their game against Minnesota -- you can play perfect defense, and he gets the first down running.

"He's the best running quarterback I've seen play the game in a long time. He's a highly skilled passer, too. That combination is a tough combination. He's a unique player. Just like Brett is the key for us, he's the key for them."

All four quarterbacks have the ability to scramble for a first down. But Stewart takes the threat a step further. With an 80-yard touchdown run this season, he may redefine the idea of a running quarterback before his career is over.

Elway runs now only to buy time, and Favre falls somewhere between Young and Stewart as a scrambler. He runs with an abandon that gives Holmgren great pause.

"Steve and Brett are similar," Holmgren said. "They will swear to you, they will do this, be safe and run out of bounds. And then never do that. They're competitive. They get into a game and play a certain way."

It is part of the reason they're in the final four. Here's how those quarterback duels shape up:

Denver at Pittsburgh

With Stewart at quarterback, the Steelers (12-5) are amazingly resilient. They came from 21 points down to beat the Ravens in Week 6. And they rallied from 14 down to beat the Broncos in Pittsburgh in Week 15.

Stewart raked Denver (14-4) for 303 yards and three touchdowns passing in that game, and rushed for 49 yards and two scores in a 35-24 victory. But he had help. Jerome Bettis rumbled for 125 rushing yards, and the Steelers held Terrell Davis to 3.6 yards a carry.

When the Broncos look back at that game, they see 11 dropped passes that might have altered the outcome. Elway was only 17-for-42 for 248 yards, and Davis had just 75 yards rushing.

The loss dropped Denver into a wild-card slot. With a victory in Pittsburgh, the Broncos would become the fourth wild-card team to reach the Super Bowl since the wild card was instituted in 1978. Their 14-10 win at Kansas City on Sunday was the team's first road playoff win in 11 years.

And remember, even though Elway is 0-3 in the Super Bowl, he is 3-0 in AFC championship games.

Green Bay at San Francisco

The Packers (14-3) have had the 49ers' number in the 1990s, winning the past three matchups and four of the last five.

More importantly, Green Bay ended the 49ers' season each of the past two years, a circumstance that ultimately led to former Packers assistant Steve Mariucci's replacing George Seifert as coach in San Francisco.

This -- beating Green Bay -- is why Mariucci was the pick.

"I'd be lying to you if I said I didn't think about it every day," he told reporters after the matchup was set with Green Bay's 21-7 win over Tampa Bay.

The 49ers (14-3) are counting on home-field advantage -- and the presence of Young at quarterback -- to turn the tide.

Young missed a regular-season loss in Green Bay with an injury last season, then was limited to five passes in a 35-14 playoff loss because of cracked ribs.

Certainly, the 49ers haven't forgotten the 1995 playoffs, when they lost at home to the Packers, 27-17, in a game that put Green Bay among the NFC elite.

This Sunday, they'll see if they can deliver the payback.

NFL playoffs

Sunday's games

AFC championship

Denver at

Pittsburgh (pick),

12: 30 p.m., chs. 11, 4.

NFC championship

Green Bay at

San Francisco (pick),

4 p.m., chs. 45, 5

Super Bowl

At San Diego, Jan. 25,

6 p.m., chs, 11, 4

Pub Date: 1/06/98

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