A few weeks ago it looked like the super matchup of the year: Niners versus Broncos, owners of the two best records in the NFL, going at it in the Dec. 15 Monday-nighter. Now you have to wonder if it's really a high-stakes game for either team.
Oh, sure, pride is involved, playing your best against the best, beating a team you could possibly play in the Super Bowl, though the way the Packers and Chiefs are rolling, you have to wonder. But let's look at this thing logically.
At this point Denver has the unmistakable look of a wildcard team, a very good one, to be sure, but still a wild card. If the Chiefs can win their two remaining games—against the Chargers and the Saints—that's what Denver will become. K.C. will win the AFC West based on a superior record in division games, even if Denver beats the Niners. By Monday night the K.C.- San Diego result will be in, and should the Chiefs squeeze out a win over the Chargers in San Diego, then it would seem to matter little to the Broncos what happens at Candlestick. (You don't mind if I don't say 3Com Park, do you? I just can't handle it.) Win or lose, they'll still most likely be the best wild-card team, unless New Orleans is getting ready to unveil a secret weapon against K.C. the following week.
Too cynical, you say? Mere sportswriters' talk? Maybe, but I'm not so sure.
The Niners are the NFC West champs, and they'll get home field throughout the NFC playoffs if they win one of their last two. It would be more comfortable if they clinch this weekend, rather than against the Seahawks in Seattle next week, but you can't really say there's a huge sense of urgency. Maybe, though, they'll get caught up in the magic of the moment—Jerry Rice's possible return, Joe Montana's official retirement ceremony.
All of which makes this an intriguing game. The Niners, stung by the K.C. blowout, were out to prove something against the Vikings, and the precision of those three consecutive scoring drives that opened the game reminded you of the Bill Walsh operation. But the defense was giving up drives of its own, and toward the end Steve Young just didn't look right to me. Perhaps it was the rain or the muddy conditions, but he appeared kind of shrunken, like a guy hunching over against a heavy wind. Is he hurting and not telling anyone? Probably means nothing, but I just can't shake this picture.
The John Elway picture was disturbing too. He started hot against the Steelers, ended up cold. His ball seemed to be diving, and lots of his passes were dropped. The Denver defense? Don't even ask. Ray Crockett, the team's best cornerback, was assigned the strong side, for run support against Jerome Bettis. So Kordell Stewart killed the Broncos with weakside passes to Yancey Thigpen, who was covered by Darrien Gordon. The worst was a 69-yard touchdown on a stop-and-go. Gordon stopped, Thigpen went.
Who is going to win the Niners-Broncos game? That depends on who wants it more—and who can generate a heavier pass rush. I didn't see much pressure from Denver last week. I saw plenty from San Francisco. The Niners are the pick.
Tampa Bay will rebound hard against the Jets in the Meadowlands, even if Trent Dilfer's sprained ankle keeps him out. Which is worse: to lose your quarterback and have to play a guy like Steve Walsh, who might not be a star but at least is veteran enough to know how to work a game, or to lose both offensive tackles? I say the latter. I say that offensive tackle is the most critical skill position in the NFL. When you're shorthanded at both spots and you're lining up a green player at guard, then you're in big trouble. As the Jets were against the Colts.
I'll give you only one thing to think about before moving on. Jets sacks against a notoriously weak line: zero. Colts sacks: eight, the most since the days of Fred Cook and Mike Barnes in the '70s.