49ers get strength test after weak-to-weak ride

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There were a lot of cynics snickering when the San Francisco 49ers pushed George Seifert out the door last year and replaced him with untested Steve Mariucci.

After all, Seifert had two Super Bowl rings and the best career winning percentage of all time (.755), and Mariucci went 6-5 in one year at the University of California and lost a bowl game to Navy.

As it turned out, the NFL couldn't give him another shot at Navy, but it did the next best thing.

It gave him two games each against the 1-7 Atlanta Falcons, the 2-7 New Orleans Saints and the 2-6 St. Louis Cardinals in the first half of the season.

The result is the 49ers are tied with the Denver Broncos for the best record in the NFL at 7-1, but nobody has any idea how good they are.

They start finding out Sunday when they play host to the Dallas Cowboys in a renewal of one of the NFL's best rivalries.

These two teams have combined to win six of the past nine Super Bowls and have been virtually obsessed with each other. After San Francisco signed Deion Sanders in 1994 and won the Super Bowl, the Cowboys lured him to Dallas the next year and won the Super Bowl.

This game is too big for Monday night. Since Fox paid $1.58 billion to get the NFC television package in 1994, the network has gotten gotten this game every year during November's sweeps week.

The game isn't what it once was because the Cowboys are struggling at 4-4, but it should show whether the 49ers are as good as their record.

Mariucci survived his only crisis when the 49ers won their second game in St. Louis without Steve Young and Jerry Rice. Young returned the next week and they've cruising every since.

"He stood tall through that little session," Young said. "And that's where a lot of guys said, 'Wow, we'll follow this guy.' Up to that point, it was like: 'Well, we don't know.' "

The 49ers do know that their top-ranked defense has yet to face an offense ranked above No. 23. The Cowboys are ranked 19th, and quarterback Troy Aikman is coming back from a concussion.

"You look at their personnel, you look at what they bring to the table, you just automatically assume they should be doing better," 49ers safety Merton Hanks said of the Cowboys.

With a three-game lead in their division, the 49ers have virtually wrapped up a playoff spot. They're playing this one for their reputation.

Best of the rest

Patriots at Vikings: This is a fascinating matchup pitting a pair of beleaguered coaches. In New England, Pete Carroll has the same 5-3 record the team had last year under Bill Parcells, but he has been charged and convicted of not being the Tuna by the restless Patriots fans. That means all those New England players who spent the off-season talking about how much they'd like to play for Carroll have to produce.

For Minnesota, coach Dennis Green is doing just fine on the field with a 6-2 mark. His problem is a book he wrote in which he laid out a plan for a hostile takeover of the club. He now says he was just "thinking out loud." Whatever, Vikings fans may not give him a warm reception in the first home game since the book was

released.

Steelers at Chiefs: The Monday night game features another intriguing coaching matchup: Marty Schottenheimer against his former assistant, Bill Cowher. So far, Cowher's career is following along the lines of Schottenheimer's. Both have sterling regular-season records but losing playoff marks, although Cowher has made one Super Bowl, which Schottenheimer has yet to do. The Steelers won in Kansas City, 17-7, last year with Mike Tomczak at quarterback and now will try to do it with Kordell Stewart.

Seahawks at Broncos: This will be a shootout between a pair of aging quarterbacks, 40-year-old Warren Moon of Seattle and 37-year-old John Elway of Denver. Elway's passing game is ranked only 14th this year because Terrell Davis heads the league's best rushing offense. Moon, by contrast, has the second-best passing offense (behind the Ravens) after passing for 409 yards against the Raiders last week. The Broncos shredded the Seahawks, 35-14, in Week 2, but the Seahawks have won five of six and are a much different team.

Worth a look

Lions at Packers: Did you forget that the Lions upset the Pack- ers, 26-15, in Week 5, when Barry Sanders rushed for 139 yards and the Lions intercepted three passes. The Packers got their game together last Monday night in New England, so it doesn't figure to happen again, but erratic Detroit has been on a win-one, lose-one pace all year. After a loss to the Giants and a bye, this is their win-one week. If Green Bay is to get on a roll, it can't afford to stumble after the New England victory.

Ravens at Jets: It figures to be tougher for the Ravens to run against the Jets' eighth-ranked rushing defense than it was against the Redskins' 30th-ranked run-stoppers a week ago. But they need to run and control the clock against a defense headed by former Browns coach Bill Belichick. Bill Parcells doesn't allow his assistants to give interviews, but a New York newspaper reported this week that Belichick wants "payback." Did he forget that the Patriots beat the Ravens last year, when Belichick and Parcells were with New England?

Dolphins at Bills: Buffalo coach Marv Levy, who used to dominate Don Shula, hasn't had the same success against Jimmy Johnson. He lost two Super Bowls to him and was swept by the Dolphins last year. The Dolphins, though, didn't look like a Johnson team on Monday night, blowing a 15-point, fourth-quarter lead to the previously winless Chicago Bears. Miami can bounce back if its runs the ball the way it did against the Ravens.

Jaguars at Oilers: If quarterback Mark Brunell is sidelined with his injured knuckle, the Jaguars will give Rob Johnson his first start since he beat the Ravens on one leg in the opener. The Oilers counter with Steve McNair, who's getting better every week. This is the first of two meetings in a three-week span between these division rivals, and it should determine whether Tennessee can get back into the AFC Central race.

Filling out the schedule

Redskins at Bears: This game matches a pair of former Jimmy Johnson assistants, Norv Turner of Washington and Dave Wannstedt of Chicago, who are proving they don't have Johnson's touch. Turner is 22-34 in his fourth year and Wannstedt is 33-39 in his fifth. If quarterback Gus Frerrote starts off slowly, the big question is whether Turner will switch to Jeff Hostetler.

Chargers at Bengals: The oddsmakers aren't convinced that the 4-4 Chargers are any better than the 1-7 Bengals in Cincinnati. The game is rated even, despite the fact that Cincinnati keeps finding ways to lose. San Diego has more at stake because it is still alive in the playoff race.

Eagles at Cardinals: The Cardinals have decided to stick with Jake Plummer at quarterback despite his poor showing on Sunday. Unless Plummer duplicates the good job he did in relief in Philadelphia, that should translate into an easy Eagles victory. But it makes sense for the Cardinals to start grooming Plummer for the future.

Bucs at Colts: It's just the tonic for team that has lost three straight -- a visit to winless Indianapolis, which has the inside track in the Peyton Manning derby just as the Colts did in 1983 in the John Elway derby. Manning must be rooting for a Colts upset.

Raiders at Panthers: This is the first time Carolina has played the Raiders since it entered the league, although Jeff George passed for 815 yards against the Panthers in three starts when he was in Atlanta. Carolina has rebounded to 4-4 and could stay in the playoff race with a victory.

Rams at Falcons: Kenny Albert and Tim Green drew the short straw. They're the Fox announcers this week, so they have to find something interesting to say about a game featuring the 2-6 Rams and 1-7 Falcons at a half-empty Georgia Dome. That's a tough assignment.

Vito Stellino's power rankings

1. Denver: Beat the snow and the Bills last week.

2. San Francisco: The schedule finally starts getting tougher.

3. Green Bay: Looked like Super Bowl champions in New England.

4. Pittsburgh: Bill Cowher goes against his mentor.

5. Minnesota: Dennis Green's a better coach than author.

L 6. Jacksonville: Rob Johnson may get another shot this week.

7. Kansas City: Marty Schottenheimer faces his protege.

8. New England: Do the Patriots really miss Bill Parcells?

9. N.Y. Giants: Hard to believe they're in first place.

10. N.Y. Jets: Keyshawn Johnson wants the ball against the Ravens.

11. Dallas: One more loss and the Cowboys become a losing team.

12. Tampa Bay: The Bucs are fading after a fast start.

13. Miami: Became overconfident after win over Ravens.

14. Philadelphia: Just when all seems lost, the Eagles survive.

15. Tennessee: Moving up after slow start.

16. Detroit: Can the Lions upset the Packers again?

17. Seattle: Warren Moon just won't act his age.

18. Carolina: Can Kerry Collins out-duel Jeff George?

19. Ravens: Can they run again from three-wide-receiver formation?

20. Buffalo: It turns out Jim Kelly may have a hard head.

L 21. Washington: Is Sean Gilbert going to sit out the season?

22. San Diego: Why aren't the Chargers favored in Cincinnati?

23. Oakland: Does Al Davis know he has the AFC's third-worst record?

24. Arizona: Jake Plummer couldn't fix Cardinals' problems.

25. St. Louis: Gets to meet the Falcons twice in three weeks.

26. Cincinnati: It turns out it wasn't all David Shula's fault.

27. New Orleans: Mike Ditka needs the bye week to cool off.

28. Atlanta: They don't miss Dan Reeves in New York.

29. Chicago: Did the Bears lose Peyton Manning while beating Miami?

30. Indianapolis: Indy could be Manning's worst nightmare.

Pub Date: 10/31/97

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