Playoff math: 49ers + Dallas = champ

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The NFL playoff picture is hopelessly confusing. At the same time, it is abundantly clear.

Comprehending the seemingly infinite possibilities would seem to require a college degree. Yet, adding one plus one is all you really need to do to make sense of it all.

With two weeks left in the regular season, 21 of the 28 teams

remain eligible for the Super Bowl tournament. Sixteen are fighting for the seven playoff berths still unassigned. Just about everybody except the Redskins has a shot. Even the 1991 Rams are still alive. OK, not really.

The permutations are so numerous and the tiebreaking procedure is such a labyrinth that even many of those involved don't know what they need to do to qualify for the postseason.

Basically, the whole thing is as bewildering as a mall parking lot in December.

Yet, it also is as simple as a piece of kindergarten math. The NFC will boil down to the 49ers playing the Cowboys at Candlestick Park. The winner of that game will kick the AFC winner in the teeth two weeks later in the Super Bowl. There. Is that simple enough for you?

No matter which of the limitless scenarios unfolds in the next two weeks and the first two rounds of the playoffs, the final acts of this play are already written in ink. Niners and Cowboys. One plus one. Winner frolics in the Supe.

You can put that in your Tagliabue tiebreaker pipe and smoke it, friends. It's a done deal.

The Super Bowl is scheduled for Joe Robbie Stadium at the end of January, but the real Super Bowl will occur on the third Sunday of 1995 at Candlestick Park.

So, as much as there are hundreds of questions still needing to be answered about the postseason (including my personal favorite, "if head-to-head results are used to break a three-way tie for a wild card spot, shouldn't that be head-to-head-to-head?"), in truth there is only one question to answer: Niners or Cowboys?

The Niners are the chalk right now. They've won 10 straight games, beating the Cowboys along the way. Two straight losses in the NFC title game has renewed their hunger. Free agents have plugged their defensive holes. They finally seem to have gotten past the issue of whether Steve Young can replace Joe Montana, which, of course, he can't. Young isn't Montana, but he is the league's MVP this year.

The Cowboys, meanwhile, are struggling to maintain the form that won the last two Supes. Their defense is noticeably softer against both the run and pass. Their offensive line isn't opening the same holes for Emmitt Smith. Troy Aikman is looking glassy-eyed after a tough season in which he has suffered a concussion and a knee injury.

The Niners are better right now. But to assume that means they should win in January is foolishness. The Cowboys are a remarkably potent big-game team, full of strut and talk they can back up; they're just bored right now, Aikman is just rusty, and you can be sure things will be different in January. As a matter of fact, the guess here is that the Cowboys will win.

No matter which team does, though, it will handle the AFC winner in the lopsided fashion that has prevailed in the Supe over the past decade. That opinion will anger fans in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Miami and other cities on the AFC map, but their teams just don't have the right stuff to win.

The Steelers have a championship-caliber defense and one future Hall of Famer in cornerback Rod Woodson, but their offense is toopedestrian. Neil O'Donnell just isn't going to win the Super Bowl.

The Browns have a punishing defense and workmanlike offense, but not enough big-time players. Besides, Vinny Testaverde's eyes would cross at the idea of playing in the Super Bowl. And uptight Bill Belichick might just spontaneously combust.

The Browns' victory over the Cowboys last week is being championed by AFCers as a sign that NFC dominance is ending, but what about the mediocre Giants' defeat of the Browns just the week before? If the Cowboys and Browns met again in the Super Bowl, the Cowboys would win by two touchdowns.

What about the rest of the AFC? The Chargers were humiliated at home by the Niners last week. Forget them. The Raiders are improving, but can't do diddly on the road. The Broncos might be able to beat Penn State.

The Dolphins probably would put up the best fight of all the AFC contenders; a hot Marino could keep the game close, and getting to play at Joe Robbie Stadium would be helpful. But they'd still lose.

Bill Parcells' Patriots will be the next AFC team to win the Supe, but not this year.

No matter which AFC team gets slapped around, though, at least it won't be the fast-fading Bills. One more year of them and their drive for redemption would have sent the entire country into trauma counseling.

So, when Deion or Michael Irvin start celebrating in the third quarter and you pass out on the couch from all the excitement, remember, it could have been worse. At least we'll have someone other than poor Marv Levy standing around looking befuddled.

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