Pass play: Sanders, Irvin set stage Marquee matchup could be decisive


It was easy to spot cornerback Deion Sanders during the San Francisco 49ers' playoff game with the Chicago Bears last Saturday.

Sanders, who was about as busy as the Maytag repairman, was the one with the clean uniform.

While his 49ers teammates were blocking and tackling in the mud, Sanders kept waiting to make a play, but the Bears never threw his way.

He not only didn't intercept a pass, he didn't make a tackle or defend against a pass.

When teammate Gary Plummer needled him about his clean uniform, he even picked up some mud and dropped it on his

white pants.

"It's really frustrating when nothing is happening," Sanders said after the 49ers' 44-15 victory. "It's been that way throughout the season. But I've got to be careful because [opposing teams] can get me when I'm falling asleep out there."

Sanders won't have to worry about getting frustrated Sunday in the NFC championship game against the Dallas Cowboys.

With Emmitt Smith's status uncertain because of a tender hamstring, the Cowboys will have to throw the ball to pull an upset.

Nobody wants to challenge Sanders more than Michael Irvin, the brash Cowboys wide receiver who has predicted a victory.

In effect, one of the reasons the 49ers signed Sanders was to stop Irvin. Though Sanders usually stays on the right side and will match up with Alvin Harper at times, the duel with Irvin is getting all the attention.

Sanders said the matchup "will determine the outcome of the game."

Naturally, Sanders thinks he'll come out on top, though Irvin caught eight passes -- none longer than 15 yards -- for 94 yards in Dallas' 21-14 loss to San Francisco in November.

"I don't foresee a problem," Sanders said.

Irvin has a different view.

"Here's a guy telling me, 'You're not going to make this third-and-12,' " Irvin said. "I'm saying, 'Yes I will.' "

Irvin added: "I like it when the challenge is great, and usually when the challenge is great, the whole world is watching."

Irvin, though, said he and Sanders won't do much talking to each other on the field.

"We don't say much to each other," he said. "I have a deal great of respect for Deion and I figure he's got the same mutual respect for me.

"He believes in himself. No matter how much he's criticized, he sticks with himself. He's his own man."

Irvin does concede that Sanders can play the game.

"He's got a heck of a lot of natural talent, quickness, great lateral movement, and he's got a head for it," Irvin said. "He's not just a player with a lot of physical tools. He's a smart player."

Sanders' arrival also enabled Merton Hanks to move from cornerback to free safety, where he's more effective. Hanks helped beat the Cowboys with a pair of interceptions in the first game and had a third one overruled by a questionable call.

Despite Sanders' impact on the 49ers, he came close to not signing with the team. He said his first meeting with coach George Seifert was not exactly a lovefest.

"George nearly ran me away from here," he said. "I was ticked off after the meeting, to be honest with you. I didn't like the things that were said. I think he was talking to a different guy than was sitting in front of him. It was a little frustrating and I almost caught the first [plane] out of here to Miami."

Seifert said he told Sanders the 49ers weren't going to cater to him. The cornerback's flamboyant style wasn't exactly the 49ers' way.

"It was maybe one of the best things that happened. . . . Everything was expressed, all the cards were laid out on the table," the coach said. "I think it allowed him to come in here and be himself.

"I had to say, 'This is the way we do it.' You don't want a player to come in thinking it's one way and he gets here and finds it's another way. Then you don't have a player. So it's better to even make it sound worse than it is."

Despite his misgivings, Sanders decided the 49ers were his best shot at a Super Bowl ring, and he signed a one-year deal.

"I couldn't let one thing deter me from what I really wanted to accomplish," he said.

It turned out Sanders had no trouble fitting in.

"People were expecting to see a wild guy, somebody that might take away from things in the locker room," said 49ers quarterback Steve Young. "But he came in and he's a workaholic. It's all business, all preparation. He urges other people to prepare the same way he does. I think he's been a fantastic addition."

Bolstering his contention that his reputation is overblown, Sanders said he hasn't changed a bit.

"I didn't do anything different," he said. "I wasn't going to change at all."

Seifert has tolerated some of his strutting on the field, and Sanders may have helped the team become a bit looser. It has been a good marriage, but it may be a short one.

Nobody knows how much longer Sanders will be with the team. Assuming there's a baseball season this year, he plans to play that sport again with the Cincinnati Reds and could decide to leave San Francisco if he gets a Super Bowl ring.

For now, what counts is that he'll be waiting and ready for Troy Aikman to throw in his direction, which the Cowboys quarterback likely will.

"Dallas will run their stuff no matter who's out there," said 49ers safety Tim McDonald.

And Sanders might even get his uniform dirty.

* NOTES: Smith showed continued improvement from his pulled hamstring yesterday as he bounced around the Cowboys' locker room at Valley Ranch. At one point, Smith had electrodes that had been attached to his left hamstring in his hand. "Need to get these re-attached," he said. Smith has vowed to play Sunday even if the field is a swamp. "I'm a pretty good mudder," Smith said. "But I'll be out there." . . . Reggie Roberts of the NFL office said "the field is still a little wet but we think it could be fine on Sunday."


Dallas Cowboys (13-4) vs. San Francisco 49ers (14-3)

When: Sunday, 4 p.m.

Where: Candlestick Park, San Francisco

TV: Chs. 45, 5

% Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)

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