Even though the Dallas Cowboys aren't brazen enough to publicly predict victory in Sunday's Super Bowl, an air of supreme confidence oozes through their helmets. Ten-gallon hats are helpless to contain it.
Deion Sanders, the team's most outwardly self-assured star, told reporters this week that ''we're disliked because we're very confident.'' At the same time, he wouldn't be baited into guaranteeing a demolition of the underdog Pittsburgh Steelers. He refused to cast himself as ''the Joe Namath of the '90s.''
The reference was to Namath's famous 1969 forecast, in which the New York Jets quarterback correctly envisioned his team's Super Bowl III upset of the mighty Baltimore Colts. Namath will be at Sunday's game in Tempe, Ariz., (kickoff 6:18 p.m. EST on NBC), along with every other Super Bowl's Most Valuable Player on this, the event's 30th anniversary.
Two of those MVPs will be in uniform, both for Dallas: quarterback Troy Aikman and running back Emmitt Smith, visible reminders that the Cowboys have thus far been the National Football League's team of the '90s. They led Dallas to championships in the 1992 and 1993 seasons, and a victory Sunday would give America's love-it-or-loathe-it franchise a level of supremacy never before achieved.
Three Super Bowl titles in a four-year span would allow the Cowboys to usurp the Steelers' position in the ''concentrated excellence'' department: Pittsburgh once copped the league's Vince Lombardi championship trophy four out of six years, beginning in the mid-1970s.
This may seem ancient history, yet it gives a certain patina to the Steelers despite their 16-year absence from what Pittsburgh assistant coach Ron Erhardt calls the Big Banana (that is, the Super Bowl).
While such an aura can be helpful to a team in some ways, Steeler owner Dan Rooney realizes that the new generation of Steelers should not be burdened or lumped in with the glorious teams of Terry Bradshaw, Chuck Noll, and Mean Joe Greene. If Pittsburgh beats Dallas, Rooney has said, he would consider ''putting all the trophies in separate cases'' to make clear the distinction between then and now.
By the same token, the current Steelers see no reason to be saddled with the American Conference's recent Super Bowl miseries (11 straight losses). The media have made much ado about this hard-to-explain drought, but Pittsburgh hasn't been a party to it, not having appeared in the Super Bowl since beating the Los Angeles Rams in 1980.
For anybody who wants to play the history card with the Steelers, they've got the ultimate trump: the city of Pittsburgh's phenomenal record in championship finals. Since 1927, Pittsburgh's pro teams are 9-0 when titles were on the line, a streak jointly achieved by the Steelers (Super Bowl wins in 1975, '76, '79, and '80), the Pirates (World Series triumphs in 1960, '71, and '79), and hockey's Penguins (Stanley Cups in 1991 and '92).
Best of all, in the present context, is this: The Steelers and Cowboys have met twice before in the Super Bowl (in games X and XIII), and Pittsburgh has won both times - and in real suspense-o-ramas that bear no resemblance to lopsided Stupor Bowls of more recent vintage.
Dallas and its gargantuan offensive line seem intent on settling old scores this year, including those of stinging 21-l7 and 35-31 losses to Pittsburgh long ago. In the National Conference championship game, the Cowboys erased an old hurt by beating Green Bay to atone for a frigid defeat in the 1967 season's NFL championship game (the Ice Bowl). And even this season, the Cowboys used their most galling loss (a late-season defeat by Philadelphia) for motivation in burying the Eagles in the playoffs.
Rings, not revenge, however, are what Dallas wants. Both Dallas and Pittsburgh have four Super Bowl rings and each team has won 13 times in 26 previous engagements of all kinds.
Whoever wins this time breaks the tie and joins San Francisco as history's only other five-time Super Bowl winner.