The Dallas Cowboys grabbed the torch in San Francisco last January.
Now they hope to hit the 49ers over the head with it in Dallas today.
When the Cowboys beat the 49ers in the NFC title game in muddy Candlestick Park last January, they like to think it was a passing of the torch from the team of the 1980s to what they think will be the team of the 1990s.
"We felt the winner of that game was going to be NFL champions. Not to take anything away from Buffalo, but I felt like it was a bigger challenge to beat San Francisco there at Candlestick Park than actually winning the Super Bowl on a neutral field," said coach Jimmy Johnson of the Cowboys.
The two teams will have the rematch today in Dallas and it'll be the Cowboys' chance to prove it wasn't a fluke and that they've surpassed the 49ers as the sport's dominant team.
"I think when the schedule came out, both teams looked at this as a key game. It gives us an opportunity to say we're one of the best teams in the league. I think the winner will say that, regardless of the record," Johnson said.
Quarterback Troy Aikman said, "Last year, there were maybe a handful of people who thought we could go out and beat them. Everybody thought we were a year away. Since that game, everyone has looked at us differently and I think that's why this game is bigger than it would have been if San Francisco had won last year."
Aikman added, "It's not a must-win situation because it's early in the season. But it's as close to a must-win game as you can get in October."
The Cowboys are 6 1/2 -point favorites, which is an unusual spread against the 49ers. They haven't been underdogs by a bigger margin since the 1983 NFC title game against the Washington Redskins in RFK Stadium when they were 10-point underdogs.
They lost the game when Eric Wright was called for a controversial pass interference penalty on Art Monk that set up the winning field goal even though the ball appeared to be overthrown. In a memorable line, former coach Bill Walsh said a "10-foot Celtic" couldn't have caught the ball.
But the 49ers covered the spread in that game, losing, 24-21.
The surprising thing is that the 49ers and Cowboys both are only 3-2. The Cowboys lost their first two when Emmitt Smith held out, and San Francisco was hampered by Steve Young's ailing thumb.
They're not exactly the same teams they were last January. They've combined to make 17 changes in their starting lineups -- seven moved to new teams, four were benched, three were injured and three changed positions.
San Francisco has made more of a transition, losing Pierce Holt, Tim Harris and Michael Carter on defense and adding Tim McDonald.
But George Seifert, the underrated coach of the 49ers, takes it in stride. Seifert doesn't get the credit he deserves for his 60-16 record because he has the image of just continuing in Walsh's winning ways.
With his defense ranked 26th in the league, Seifert said, "It's been frustrating, but there's a part of it that's kind of fun, this'll sound crazy, from the standpoint of the challenge to put it together, to get it squared away."
The 49ers find out today if their defense is squared away enough to stop Aikman and Smith.
Ricky Watters, whose critical fumble helped doom the 49ers against the Cowboys last January, is ready to redeem himself. He wants to outdo Smith.
"I definitely want to prove something. When you play the best and prove to be right up there with them, they start to say, 'Maybe this guy is the best.' The whole thing is, people never put Michael Jordan [in an elite class] until he beat Magic Johnson. That's the situation I feel I'm in right now," Watters said.
He forgets Jordan was in an elite class before he beat Magic, but that didn't stop Watters from comparing himself to Smith.
"We have a lot of similarities in that we both think we can't be stopped. We talked at the Pro Bowl so I know that's a fact. And we both feel we can carry the team on our backs at any given
"But what sets me apart from a lot of other backs is my receiving skills and blocking skills. I'm bigger and stronger than most of the backs that play my position. Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders, those guys are smaller guys. I can handle linebackers coming up the middle on a blitz, or if a lineman gets loose, I can pick him off," he said.
Except in his own mind, nobody is comparing the 6-foot-1, 212-pound Watters to the 5-9, 209-pound Smith.
Today's his chance to make the comparison.
The expansion derby
NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue came up with a clever way to hand one of the two expansion franchises to a new city -- probably Charlotte.
By having the expansion and finance committee recommend two cities as an entry and allowing the owners to only vote yes or no for the package, he can guarantee one of the entries will be a new city. That'll leave Baltimore and St. Louis to fight for the other spot.
The only question is whether Tagliabue can get 21 votes for this package. If he can't, all bets are off.
After all, a committee unanimously recommended that Jim Finks be named commissioner in 1989. But he got only 16 votes when a group of new-guard owners refused to follow the recommendation. Tagliabue then got the job as the compromise choice.
This time, there doesn't appear to be a strong bloc of owners on either side of the debate. A lot of owners don't care that much about which teams get the franchises, so Tagliabue may be able to get his new city.
The strange thing is that the NFL still is asking the five cities to make a 15-minute presentation the afternoon of Oct. 26. Since the committees will decide on their recommendation that morning, the cities will be wasting their time if Tagliabue can get the 21 votes.
Wheeling and dealing
The trading deadline, which is Tuesday, isn't normally a big deal in the NFL. Big trades are the exception, not the rule.
But the rumor mill is working overtime this year. Since quarterbacks Warren Moon of the Houston Oilers and Bernie Kosar of the Cleveland Browns were benched last week and have big salaries, there were rumors they could be dealt, although the Browns denied Kosar is on the market.
There was a lot of talk that this was Moon's last year in Houston even before he was benched, because the team gave Cody Carlson a contract for $2.95 million last year. With Moon averaging $3.563 million, the Oilers can't afford to keep both of them when the salary cap kicks in.
Kosar's benching for Vinny Testaverde was more of a surprise since Kosar beat out Testaverde, who flopped in the pros at Tampa Bay, at the University of Miami.
There were reports in Cleveland that coach Bill Belichick even chewed out Kosar for throwing a touchdown pass on an audible because he didn't want him changing the plays. Belichick labeled those reports "ridiculous" but there's no doubt Kosar is out of favor.
Considering Testaverde's past, it remains to be seen how long he can keep the job.
The injury report
The rash of injuries in the league has raised new questions about the safety of artificial turf.
Although injuries happen on grass (Dan Marino was lost for the year on new sod in Cleveland when his Achilles tendon snapped even though he wasn't hit), the turf in Philadelphia may be the subject of a major controversy.
The players were complaining about it even before Wendell Davis caught his feet in the turf and ruptured patellar tendons in both knees without being hit.
Rich Miano of the Eagles said, "I've heard guys from other teams say, 'If I get hurt on this field, I'm suing the city of Philadelphia because this is not safe."
Chicago attorney Gil Gordon, who has represented several Bears in workmen compensation cases, thinks that Davis has a case.
Gordon said the key would be proving the Eagles' management had prior knowledge of the sub-standard quality of the field.
The Eagles' position is that they would prefer grass, but it's the city's call.
Greg Grillone, the stadium director, said the turf has an eight-year warranty, was installed in 1988 and will be replaced in 1995.
Lawrence Taylor's father, Clarence, who lives in Virginia, is an avid Redskins fan.
So what did Taylor say to his father after the Giants clobbered the Redskins, 41-7.
"I don't tell him anything," he said. "I just look at him and smile."
Former Maryland nose tackle Darren Drozdov of the Denver Broncos has a new pet -- an Argentine horned frog.
"He's real round and after I feed him goldfish, you can see [them] swimming around inside him," he said.
After flying back from Pittsburgh where the San Diego Chargers lost, 16-3, last Sunday, coach Bobby Ross drove home about midnight, shaved and returned to the stadium and stayed up all night watching videotape.
"It's like a Charlie Brown cloud hanging over us," Ross said.
The former Maryland coach thinks he has problems at 2-3. It could be worse. He could be the current Maryland coach.