Although there will be the usual pressure on both teams that reach Super Bowl XIX on Jan. 20 in Palo Alto, Calif., that feeling won't come close to matching the tension in next Sunday's two NFL conference championship games. Lose at that level, meaning the game that gets you there, and the playoff journey that began last July in training camp suddenly sits on your throat like a blacksmith's anvil.
Take the Miami Dolphins, for example. They will be clear favorites against the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers, yet the Steelers' stretch defense can sometimes shrink a football field to a size of a Ping-Pong table.
If twice-beaten Miami should get knocked off by Pittsburgh, which lost seven times during the regular season, the critics will be all over Dolphins' Coach Don Shula. But since the Steelers have already gone farther in the playoffs than anyone expected, few barbs will be directed at Steelers' Coach Chuck Noll if they should be eliminated.
That same situation will exist later in the day for the once-beaten San Franciscos 49ers, who will be entertaining the Chicago Bears at Candlestick Park. The Bears won the NFC Central with a 10-6 record.
While Chicago's defense was the best in the league this year, it still might not be able to handle the multiple talents of San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana, especially if Coach Bill Walsh decides to protect him with a moving pocket.
Predicting the outcome of NFL games with any degree of certainty, of course, flies in the face of league commissioner Pete Rozelle's favorite clich'e, that ``on any given day any NFL team can beat any other team.'' It probably never rang with more conviction late in the season, however, than it did last weekend.
Allowing for the fact that two of the four favorites won (San Francisco over New York 21-10 and Miami over Seattle 31-10), it really didn't seem possible that Chicago could beat Washington 23-19 and Pittsburgh follow suit by defeating Denver 24-17.
While the defensive work of both the Bears and the Steelers was consistently outstanding, the really surprising thing was that they both won with suspect quarterbacks. Steve Fuller, a Chiefs' and Rams' reject who started for Chicago only because Jim McMahon was injured and possibly out for the season, actually didn't get a lot of time against Washington. The Bears ran only 57 plays compared to the Redskins' 76. But Fuller was sharp when he needed to be, completing 9 of 15 passes for 211 yards, including touchdown throws to Willie Gault and Dennis McKinnon.
Pittsburgh, which went to Mark Malone at quarterback partway into the season after David Woodley was injured, upset Washington when Malone complete 17 of 28 passes for 224 yards and one TD. Even though pro football can sometimes be as unpredictable as the stock market, good but not great teams like the Bears and Steelers seldom win playoff games of this magnitude two weeks in a row. Usually there is an emotional letdown.
San Francisco's Walsh is so adept at camouflaging his offense that even Chicago's vaunted defense might initially have problems reading it. And in Miami, where Pittsburgh has never won, Shula is certain to counteract the Steelers' trap-block offense with a few defensive adjustments. The winners, of course, will have two weeks off after Sunday's games to get ready for the only championship game in the universe that identifies itself with Roman numerals.
New Orleans Coach Bum Phillips, who traded a 1985 first-round pick to Houston for Earl Campbell in a questionable mid-season deal, is still defending the move. Phillips says he will revise his backfield during the off-season to incorporate both Campbell and George Rogers into his running game, while also trying to upgrade Earl's effectiveness as a pass blocker. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle has asked three team owners to look into how the Philadephia Eagles can best solve their financial problems. Providing recommendations to Rozelle will be owners Ralph Wilson of the Buffalo Bills, Hugh Culverhouse of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Patrick Bowlen of the Denver Broncos. Earlier, Eagles' owner Leonard Tose, who is reportedly $42 million in debt, nearly signed an agreement that would have moved the team to Phoenix.
There is speculation that the Detroit Lions have already asked the Seattle Seahawks for permission to talk to Coach Chuck Knox about making a job change. Would you believe rumors that Detroit is offering Knox a $100,000 bonus if the Lions make the playoffs during Chuck's first year?