Pro football's showdowns present a mixed outlook
For those waiting in eager anticipation of Sunday's pro football conference championship games and the Super Bowl on Jan. 24, last weekend brought both good news and bad.
First the bad news: Nothing that happens from here on in is likely to match the excitement of San Diego's 41-38 overtime victory against Miami.
Conversely, the good news is that the National Football League is hardly likely to subject its fans to a game as bad as Dallas's lopsided 38-0 shutout of Tampa Bay.
Dallas Coach Tom Landry modestly predicted that beating the Buccaneers would require his team's best effort. Now, however, he may wish the Cowboys had saved some of that for later - say, for Sunday's National Conference title game against the San Francisco 49ers, whose 13-3 regular season record was the league's best.
Similarly, San Diego fans must be wondering if their Chargers will have anything left against Cincinnati in the American Conference championship after expending virtually every ounce of energy to beat Miami.
The picture still lingering from this ''game of the year'' is that of Charger tight end Kellen Winslow, battered and near exhaustion, courageously reentering the contest time after time to make an important play. The NFL never had a better advertisement for its competitive drama, yet there is adequate reason to believe more is on the way.
Three of the league's four best regular-season teams have survived, which is as it should be. San Francisco, as already mentioned, was tops, with Dallas and Cincinnati right behind at 12-4. San Diego, of course, is hardly outclassed. The Chargers may not have played with desirable consistency, but they still managed a 10-6 mark and their third straight division crown.
The fact that San Diego and Dallas have been playoff regulars could help their chances in Sunday's doubleheader, which sends the winners on to the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich., for Super Bowl XVI.
History shows that overnight successes do not make it to the Super Bowl. No team with a losing record the previous season has ever advanced past the conference championship games, so Cincinnati and San Francisco (both 6-10 in 1980) are attempting to buck this pattern.
Each year, of course, the NFL throws out another chapter from the proverbial ''book,'' and this one may now be in danger. That's because Cincinnati has earned the right to host the AFC game (1 p.m., EST) and San Franciso the NFC clash (5 p.m.).The home-field advantage could be of more than ordinary importance.
Dallas has played only three games on real grass all season, winning two of them, but now faces perhaps the league's hottest team on Candlestick Park's notorious natural turf field. Considered the worst in the league, the field has recently received special attention by a visiting groundskeeper. Still, it could present problems for the uninitiated Cowboys, particularly if it's wet, which it often is during this rainy season. Seeking out a dry training site, the 49ers headed south to Anaheim only to find it raining there, too.
In Cincinnati, the Bengals not only are acclimated to the Midwest's cold temperatures, they also know the location of all the slick spots on Riverfront Stadium's carpet and how to use them. San Diego, meanwhile, prepares to play its first outdoor game on artificial turf since losing to the Bengals back on Nov. 6, 40-17.
Though once thought lacking in the character department, the Chargers showed just how gutsy they can be in defeating Miami in the fourth-longest game in NFL history. Rolf Benirschke finally won the game in the 74th minute of play with a 27-yard field goal - this after San Diego had squandered a 24-0 first-quarter lead.
The confrontation between San Diego and Cincinnati brings together the AFC's most prolific passing attacks. The Chargers have earned the name ''Air Coryell'' under Coach Don Coryell, whose offensive philosophy seems to be: ''Everybody go long - and the rest of you guys go short.''
The strategy works. San Diego has broken league records in the major passing categories in each of the last two seasons. The team's personnel are a perfect fit, with dropback passer Dan Fouts threading spirals to such superlative receivers as Winslow, wily veteran Charlie Joiner, and fleet Wes Chandler.
Cincinnati follows pretty much the same blueprint. The quarterback in this case happens to be Ken Anderson, who was just named the conference's Most Valuable Player by United Press International. People have long known that the league's 1975 and 1976 passing leader could throw the ball; he just needed the right setting. Anderson's rejuvenation has been pegged to the development of a strong, offensive line, a stable of fine passing targets (including rookie Cris Collinsworth), and an injury-free campaign.
Although it's not widely known, Anderson is a very resourceful runner and was Cincinnati's second-leading rusher, with 320 yards and a seven-yard-per-carry average. Essentially, though, Cincinnati has been a one-running-back offense, 250-pound Pete Johnson carrying the load in much the same way powerful Chuck Muncie shoulders the running burden for San Diego.
Coach Bill Walsh has done wonders with the 49ers, turning them completely around from a 2-14 record just two seasons ago. If there was a turning point in the current campaign, it probably came when San Francisco beat Dallas 45-14 in the sixth week. The 49ers have lost only once since then.
The real key in this rematch may lie with Dallas's defensive front four. It was awesome against Tampa Bay, making mincemeat of the Buccaneer line and forcing four interceptions. The 49ers are expected to provide quarterback Joe Montana with better pass protection than Doug Williams received, but the Dallas rushers could put a crimp in San Francisco's pass-oriented offense without ever laying a mitt on Montana. Throwing over 6 ft. 9 in. Ed Jones, 6-7 John Dutton, 6-5 Randy White, and 6-5 Harvey Martin may present big problems, possibly too monumental to overcome.