NOW that the San Francisco 49ers have won their own personal ``Super Bowl'' against arch rival Dallas, the big challenge is to rise to the occasion yet again in the real Super Bowl, the one without quotation marks that determines the official 1994 National Football League champion on Jan. 29 in Miami.
The Niners will enter the first all-California title game as decided favorites against the San Diego Chargers, who weren't even penciled in as a playoff-caliber team before the season began. The Chargers could bring their city its first professional championship since 1963, when the Chargers beat the Boston Patriots for the American Football League crown.
The Niners, on the other hand, have been among the most decorated franchises in any sports league in recent years, winning four Super Bowls since 1982, including three during the National Conference's latest 10-year mastery of the American Conference.
Playing in a city known for its bridge, the 49ers themselves appear to be building a bridge between the eras of coach Bill Walsh and quarterback Joe Montana and that of successors George Seifert and Steve Young. Owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. and team president Carmen Policy deserve credit for laying the groundwork for a seamless transition. Some question how they've worked around the NFL's salary cap to acquire a player like defensive back - and major-league baseball player - (Neon) Deion Sanders, but their daring and cleverness in doing so surely has made other teams envious.
Sanders has brought some chutzpah to a team that may have needed a confidence recharge, especially after losses to Dallas in the conference finals the last two years. In Sunday's NFC championship game, the aggressive 49er defense was instrumental in jumping the team to a quick three-touchdown lead over Dallas. ``Spotting them a 21-point lead was like spotting Carl Lewis 20 yards in a 100-yard dash,'' said Cowboy running back Emmitt Smith after his team's 38-28 loss.
San Diego was a 17-13 victor over Pittsburgh in Steel City. The triumph - coupled with a thrilling opening playoff win over Miami -
wasn't secured until the Steelers failed on fourth down at the Chargers' three-yard line with about a minute to go.
Far from overblown American sports
FREELANCE writer Jim Patton, a guy disillusioned by the excesses of American pro sports, wanted to find out what the sports environment was like overseas. He traveled to Italy and liked what he discovered even if it sometimes puzzled him. Patton has gathered his impressions in an invitingly different sports book, ``Il Basket d'Italia: A Season in Italy With Great Food, Good Friends, and Some Very Tall Americans'' (Simon & Schuster).
Italy was a logical jumping-off point for Patton, since the basketball league there is a popular destination for American players, including some with National Basketball Association credentials. Patton was pleased to discover that basketball wasn't a religion in Italy and that games were treated as just that, as ``amusements, entertainments.''
Patton was struck by the low-key nature of TV coverage. So-called important games would be picked up ``in progress'' after regularly scheduled programming ended. And even when a telecast started with the opening tap, there was no hype. ``Imagine,'' he writes, ``they come on the air and just start the game: no melodramatic music and voiced-over story-line intro to reinforce what a momentous matter it is, with reputations at stake and even `character' determined!''
By book's end, Patton is a convert to the understated ways of this basketball culture. ``It feels healthy; it feels right,'' he concludes.
Touching other bases
* Pop quiz: In golf, what does ``fried egg'' refer to? (Answer appears below.)
* According to Atlanta's Olympic organizers, there is no truth to the rumor, floated by International Chess Federation president Florencio Campomanes, that chess may be added to the 1996 Games as an exhibition sport. Consequently, there is no need to change the Olympic motto to ``Faster, higher, brainier.''
* A former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader has written a guide to cheerleading, an odd project for the member of such a showgirlish troupe.
* Quiz answer: According to Golf Digest, a ``fried egg'' is a ball half-buried in the sand.