For most of the 1990s, the NFC championship game has been one of the sexy events on the sports calendar, with more than enough star power to hold a viewer's interest.
With some variation of the San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers involved, the NFC title game has more often than not been more compelling than the over-ballyhooed Super Bowl, played two weeks later.
But for the first time in seven seasons and only the second time in the last 11 years, none of those teams, with their proven marquee value, will play for a Super berth.
Instead, it will be Minnesota and Atlanta going at it at the Metrodome, and the Fox analysts who will set up and describe the action Sunday say that new and different are all right by them.
"We're seeing fresh and a changing of the guard," said pre-game analyst Howie Long. "If you don't build your team and if you're not careful about maintaining it, you could run out of gas very quickly as Dallas and San Francisco may find out."
Although the Falcons, making their maiden voyage to the NFL's final four, and this brand of Vikings, who haven't played in an NFC title game since January 1988, are relative newcomers to this juncture in the NFL season, they do bring their own level of star quality.
Atlanta's center of attention is running back Jamal Anderson, who finished behind only Denver's Terrell Davis among the league's rushers. Anderson doesn't lack for talent or self-confidence.
"Jamal Anderson feels like he's the baddest man on earth. That's a great situation to be in," said Long. "He does not quit and he makes more out of less than just about anybody. He's under the impression that 95 percent of the league's defensive backs are afraid of him and that's for good reason, because they might be."
The Vikings aren't exactly bereft of big-name players, either, but the one who has shone above all this season is rookie receiver Randy Moss, who John Madden believes will be one of the all-time NFL greats.
"He'll need to catch more intermediate passes, but he's pretty automatic right now. If you throw it up there, he'll catch it," said Madden. "I watched him early in the season and on film and then again last week and at no time did he look like a rookie."
CBS analyst Phil Simms sees Sunday's Denver-New York Jets AFC title game as a high-scoring affair that will be decided in the fourth quarter.
And while Simms, who played for Jets coach Bill Parcells in the 1980s when both were with the Giants, won't pick a winner, he knows that the key for New York to have a chance is for the Jet defense to limit Davis, which is probably easier said than done.
"It's like playing Barry Sanders. You can never really stop him," said Simms. "Even if you get him [Davis] in place, can you stop him? I've seen it many times where you may have him stopped, and he bounces out and finds a hole."
On offense, Simms figures the Jets will need some kind of running attack of their own.
"The offense will be aggressive and throw the ball. Parcells will take some chances with some trick plays, but the big question is can they muster some kind of running game against the Broncos' front line, which has shown the ability to stop the run," said Simms.
CBS' coverage begins with the "NFL Today" on site from Denver at 3: 30 p.m. Sunday, with kickoff at about 4: 15, all on Channel 13.
It's news to him
One of the interesting sidelights of the Jimmy Johnson "Will he/won't he?" sweepstakes yesterday was a story from "Fox Sports News" that Johnson had been dissuaded from taking a post with CBS by Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga and quarterback Dan Marino.
Although "The NFL Today" could certainly use someone of the magnitude of Johnson, who was one of the original quartet on Fox's pre-game show, CBS Sports President Sean McManus chuckled during a conference call at the notion that his network had made Johnson an offer.
"Are you serious?" said McManus to a reporter yesterday. "If and when he decides he wants to hang up coaching, we'd love to have a conversation with him, but there was not much time [yesterday] to have a conversation with him."
Around the dial
Believe it or not, there are still college football games, of the all-star variety, left on the menu. ESPN2 has the Gridiron Classic tomorrow at 1 p.m. from Orlando, with the East-West Shrine Game airing from Palo Alto, Calif., tomorrow at 4 p.m. on ESPN.
There's also a solid menu of college basketball games, men's and women's, this weekend, as well. The best of the men's games has top-ranked Connecticut playing host to Pittsburgh tomorrow at noon (Channel 2), with Indiana traveling to Purdue tomorrow (Channel 13, 4 p.m.) and North Carolina State playing host to North Carolina tomorrow (ESPN, 9: 30 p.m.) For the relative few in the area who have FX, that channel will have the Stanford-UCLA tussle tomorrow at 10: 30 p.m.
On the women's side, Duke, which has Final Four aspirations, and N.C. State, which got there last year, meet Sunday at 1 p.m. on ESPN2.
Pub Date: 1/15/99