Dominance of NFC can't slow Super popularity

ON THE NFL

January 18, 1998|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

The way things work in the NFL, the league stages a championship game and then it holds a party two weeks later to crown the champion.

The party, of course, is the Super Bowl, where the Green Bay Packers figure to be crowned the 1997 champions in San Diego next Sunday.

The Packers don't just receive the gleaming Tiffany's Vince Lombardi Trophy that day. They actually have to play a game against the Denver Broncos.

That's a mere formality that will officially be called Super Bowl XXXII. The Packers established themselves as the best team last Sunday when they beat the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC title game, which has become known as the real Super Bowl.

That's because the NFC has won 13 straight Super Bowls, most of them blowouts.

The oddsmakers even figure the NFC dominance into the point spread. The Packers wouldn't be favored by 12 points over the Broncos in the regular season, but they are because it's the Super Bowl.

The fact that the Packers are the defending champions makes it even more likely they'll win. It's almost easier to repeat than it is to win the first time.

The Packers will become the seventh team to repeat if they win. By contrast, Denver, Minnesota and Buffalo have made a combined 12 trips without winning one.

Five of the 24 teams that were in the league when the first Super Bowl was played at the end of the 1966 season -- the Oilers, Ravens-Browns, Cardinals, Lions and Falcons -- have yet to make an appearance. Five of the six teams added since then -- the Saints, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Panthers and Jaguars -- also have yet to get there.

The same teams tend to dominate the game. Cinderella's glass slipper usually gets smashed.

While 10 teams have yet to make it, six teams -- the 49ers (5), Cowboys (5), Steelers (4), Raiders (3), Redskins (3) and Packers (3) -- have combined to win 23 of the 31 games.

If you add the two wins each by the Giants and Dolphins, it leaves just four teams -- Jets, Chiefs, Colts, Bears -- that won just once.

But this hasn't affected the popularity of the game. The routs don't make a difference, either.

The Super Bowl ratings are usually more than 50 percent higher than the ones for the conference title games. It's not only the most watched sporting event of the year, but also the most watched television program.

The Super Bowl is more party or midwinter holiday than sporting event, so it doesn't matter if it's not much of a game.

That's because a lot of the people watching -- or at least those in a room during a party when the game is on -- don't care about the game. If they did, they would have watched the conference title games.

The one thing nobody can answer is why the NFC dominance continues unabated.

Carmen Policy, president of the 49ers, said, "I haven't figured out why that's so, but it is. With free agency today, what's the excuse? We're all playing under the same rules, all dealing with the salary cap. But the NFC continues to dominate."

The way the Packers are playing, it figures to continue at least one more year.

Sounding worried

Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway, who came into the league with a spoiled-brat reputation when he spurned the Baltimore Colts, has now grown into an elder statesman who's the sentimental favorite after losing three Super Bowls.

But his comments last week made him sound like a man whose psyche has been damaged by the three one-sided defeats.

Although he said he plans to enjoy the week, he said: "I've never been able to live those [losses] down. I would like to put it behind me, but it's not allowed."

He also said: "I told some of our younger guys: 'You may think this is great now. But you don't realize what the wrath will be like if you don't come out on top.' "

He sounds like a man who figures more wrath is coming next week.

Brett Favre, by contrast, acted like a man who really is enjoying himself.

When reporters invaded the locker room last week in Green Bay, he greeted them with a stink bomb.

Losing

One of the AFC's problems in trying to catch up to the NFC is that two of its best coaches, Kansas City's Marty Schottenheimer and his protege, Pittsburgh's Bill Cowher, can't seem to get the hang of how to win in the playoffs.

Schottenheimer fell to 5-11 and Cowher 5-6 with postseason losses to Denver. Since 1992, they've each lost twice when they earned the No. 1 seed in the regular season.

Both lost at home to Denver this year, and their decision-making was particularly suspect. Kansas City didn't manage the clock well in the last two minutes, and the Steelers put the burden on Kordell Stewart, essentially a rookie quarterback who threw two end-zone interceptions, ignoring Jerome Bettis, who averaged 4.6 yards per carry in the game.

Cowher, who apologized the week before for a failed quarterback sneak against New England on a fourth-down play, didn't take any blame for his decisions that backfired against the Broncos.

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