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This Time, the Pack May Really Be Back

ON paper, the Green Bay Packers have been primed any number of times to break out of a decades-long rut of mediocrity. Finally, there is real cause for faith in that old slogan, "The Pack is Back," which once brought only chortles around the National Football League.

The Packers moved decisively into next Sunday's National Football Conference championship game against Dallas, and they did it the hard way, beating the defending Super Bowl champion 49ers in San Francisco, 27-17.

Wisconsin's Packers can stay hot twice more, they would give the NFL's 76th season a storybook ending. A victory in the Super Bowl would be the perfect way to mark the contest's 30th anniversary, since it was Vince Lombardi's Packers who won Super Bowl I in 1967.

At the time, the matchup was called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game and was mostly a curiosity. The American Football League champion Kansas City Chiefs weren't considered a serious threat to the mighty Packers, which led to many empty seats at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Green Bay won 35-10, then beat Oakland in Super Bowl II, 33-14.

If the current Packers get by Dallas, a 30-11 winner over Philadelphia on Sunday, they will have beaten two of the NFL's premier franchises in the post-Lombardi era: Dallas owns four Super Bowl titles, San Francisco five. The only other team with four or more Super Bowl wins is Pittsburgh, which earned crowns in the 1974, '75, '78, and '79 seasons.

The Steelers dismantled Buffalo Saturday, 40-21, and only need to dispatch the wild-card Indianapolis Colts to make their reservations for Tempe, Ariz., and Super Bowl XXX on Jan. 28. That is a big "only," considering that Colts, in their black footwear, looked as impressive in beating Kansas City on a bitterly cold day as the team once did during its Baltimore heyday. The Colts eliminated Kansas City, 10-7, which had the NFL's best-regular season mark. It helped that Kansas City placekicker Lin Elliott couldn't get his frigid instep working, and missed three makeable field goal attempts, missing a potentially game-tying 43-yarder with 37 seconds left.

If all unfolds poetically, the Packers will sink three teams that have gone on to glory since Green Bay was last champion. In doing so, the Little Franchise That Could would show that the smallest city in major-league sports is still capable of a very big achievement.

No-name skating championship?

ON a skating calendar crammed with nouveau championships of various kinds, the United States Figure Skating Championships, scheduled Jan. 14-21 in San Jose, Calif., may seem a little lost. Bigger, marquee names usually grace made-for-TV "competitions." Even so, there's nothing like putting national titles on the line to create a palpable sense of suspense.

Those who will skate in San Jose once would have been called amateurs. Now they are simply "eligible" as defined by the sport's governing bodies.

Michelle Kwan should give defending ladies champion Nicole Bobek a real run for her money, and Scott Davis and Todd Eldredge are expected to duel for the men's crown. The singles competitions will conclude Sat., Jan. 20, with ABC providing coverage of each event.

A new college rivalry in Boston

UNTIL now, about the only metro-Boston college sports event with major public appeal was the annual Beanpot hockey tournament among four city schools - Boston University, Boston College, Harvard, and Northeastern. But if Boston College and the University of Massachusetts decide to make an annual basketball date, the city could have another significant college attraction.

The schools met at Boston's new FleetCenter earlier this season and the atmosphere was electric. A crowd of 18,000 turned out, a scene almost unimaginable in the past, given Boston's history of apathy toward college sports and its traditional interest in the Bruins and Celtics.

This is a new era, though. The UMass basketball team is top-ranked nationally, and enthusiasm for the Minutemen, who reside in central Massachusetts, is spreading. The time couldn't be riper, therefore, for making the UMass-BC rivalry a FleetCenter fixture, which is what some have already advocated.

Touching other bases

*Pop quiz: Besides Nebraska, which other major-college football team went undefeated this season? (Answer at right.)

*Fan balloting for the Feb. 11 National Basketball Association All-Star Game in San Antonio, Texas, is breaking new ground by including overseas voters. This is the first time a major professional league has conducted voting abroad, which is possible because ballots are being distributed through an athletic shoe franchise with stores in Europe, Australia, and Hong Kong. Ballots are also distributed at NBA arenas.

*Trivia nugget: The pending move of pro football's Browns to Baltimore only echoes another jarring exodus made from Cleveland decades earlier. The Cleveland Rams won the 1945 National Football League title then moved to Los Angeles, becoming the first and only pro championship team to immediately seek greener pastures.

*The old adage about pro athletes growing bigger and stronger by the year doesn't hold water in the National Basketball Association. According to statistics compiled by the league, the average player is actually shorter now than he was in 1986. Not by much , though, only 35 one-hundredths of an inch. His height is listed as 79.27 inches or roughly 6 ft., 7 in. The big difference occurs on the scales. The weight of NBA players has shot up by more than eight pounds to 223.66.

*Quiz answer: The University of Toledo (Ohio) of the Mid-American Conference, an NCAA Division I-A league. The Rockets capped an 11-0-1 season with a 40-37 victory over Nevada Dec. 14 in the Las Vegas Bowl. The game, the first ever played with new tiebreaking rules in place, was decided in overtime.

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