Sly Fox insists Packers are fit foes for Dallas

For the public's consumption, the gang at Fox is maintaining a brave front, swearing up and down that the absence of San Francisco from Sunday's NFC championship game is not a disappointment.

"I don't think anyone is down over the fact that the Green Bay Packers are here," said analyst John Madden, who will work Sunday's Packers-Dallas Cowboys game (Channel 45, 3:30 p.m.). "You wouldn't want the 49ers here, the way they played last Saturday. They don't deserve to be here. The Packers do."


That may be true, but for several seasons we've been trained to think that the Cowboys-49ers NFC championship game meeting is not only the real Super Bowl, but also our divine right.

Now the Fox on-air folk claim the presence of the Packers -- winners of the first two Super Bowls, but largely missing from the national spotlight since -- is a welcome change from the usual.


"There's a lot to fall in love with with Green Bay," said studio analyst Howie Long. "In a day and age when players are separating themselves from the fans, [saying] 'I play the game and I get in my expensive car and go,' these guys are jumping into the stands and that's great."

That doesn't mean that any of the Fox guys are willing to pick the Packers to beat the Cowboys in Texas Stadium, where Dallas has beaten Green Bay the last five times.

"I think the Cowboys can do things that neither Green Bay nor San Francisco can and that's run the ball. That's a big plus for them," said Pat Summerall, who will work with Madden.

The AFC scenario

These may not be popular words to read in Baltimore, but the Cinderella story of the Indianapolis Colts has captured the fancy of a lot of football people, who think they have that certain je ne se quoi perhaps to get to the ball -- er, Super Bowl -- by stopping the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday (Channels 11, 4, 12:30).

"There are certain seasons when certain teams get that feeling. I've had them . . . and there comes a point when a team grabs a feeling where 'We can't lose.' This team is dangerous," said NBC studio analyst Joe Gibbs.

An interesting side plot to the Colts' story is the relationship between quarterback Jim Harbaugh and Gibbs' studio partner, Mike Ditka, who coached and often berated Harbaugh when the two were in Chicago.

Ditka, who is not easily given to admitting his mistakes, confessed during a conference call this week that he may have mishandled Harbaugh when they were with the Bears and failed to take advantage of his talents.


"We asked him to do too much, to think too much and to read too much," said Ditka. "I've got a good relationship with Harbaugh. I had a bad relationship with him for five minutes in Minnesota and everybody knows it. I was wrong. You pay for things in life. I've paid for it. Now it's time to move on."

Snow emergency plan

Chances are, you're going to be stuck indoors all weekend, starved for entertainment. Here are five sure-fire basketball and hockey games that, weather permitting, should get you through.

Tonight's North Carolina State-Virginia women's basketball game (ESPN2, 7:30 p.m.) should be one of the best of the season in the sport. On the men's side, tomorrow's Maryland-Wake Forest game (ESPN, noon) would have been a lot better had Joe Smith stayed, but it still should be interesting. If you can get Washington's Channel 7 tomorrow, give a peek to the Missouri-George Washington game (2 p.m.) and see how two former Baltimore high school stars, Shawnta Rogers and Kwame Evans, are doing at the next level.

On Sunday, the unbeaten Clemson men's basketball team, which hasn't beaten North Carolina on the road since dinosaurs roamed the earth, gets this year's try at the Smith Center (Channel 54, 1 p.m.). And finally, you've got to tune in to Sunday night's St. Louis-New York Rangers game (ESPN, 8 p.m.). It will be former Rangers coach Mike Keenan's first visit to Madison Square Garden since he led the Rangers to the Stanley Cup two years ago, then split, and we all know how forgiving New York fans can be to coaches who abscond, don't we?