It’s usually the NFL’s most entertaining weekend - the quarterfinals on the road to the Super Bowl. Twelve hours of quality football.
The Chicago Bears pulled off the only upset of the wild-card weekend and replace the New England Patriots as Cinderella in search of the dance. But Chicago is going to need much more than a fairy godmother to beat the San Francisco 49ers in Candlestick in the quartersfinal’s only mismatch.
The results should set up the showdown between the Dallas Cowboys and 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. The Green Bay Packers, if they had Sterling Sharpe, would have been a bigtime threat to upset Dallas, whose offense sputtered in December. But the Cowboys’ defense is in Super Bowl form and will be able to stop Brett Favre.
It’s hard to beat a team three times in one season - Minnesota proved that against the Bears - but Pittsburgh must do it to Cleveland to get to the AFC title game. The Miami Dolphins and San Diego Chargers will put up lots of points.
Predicted matchups for the next round: Miami at Pittsburgh and Dallas at San Francisco.
Here’s a look at the four games:
Cleveland (12-5) at Pittsburgh (12-4), 9:30 a.m. PST:
The ultimate throwback game. “They looked good all year on defense. They allowed the fewest points all year by a defensive unit,” Steelers tight end Eric Green said. “Bring your lunch pail because it’s going to be an all-day affair.”
Two not-so-artistic teams with dominating defenses will slug it out. The Steelers beat the Browns, 17-10 and 17-7, this season. The turnover scorecard from the two games: eight for Cleveland (six on Vinny Testaverde INTs) and none for Pittsburgh. Neither excites on offense, but the Browns (204 points allowed) and Steelers (234) play in-your-face defense. Pittsburgh linebackers Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene combined for 24 of a league-leading 55 sacks.
This will be a game played in the teens. Testaverde and Pittsburgh’s Neil O’Donnell are not elite quarterbacks. They will face big pressure. The Steelers are just a bit better and can control it on the ground with Barry Foster and Bam Morris.
“I’m looking at it as though the first two games were last year, which they were, and put them behind me,” the Browns’ Pepper Johnson said. “That stuff is over and hopefully we go down there this time with a vendetta and a sense of urgency and play good, hard football against them.”
Cleveland defensive coordinator Nick Saban has taken the Michigan State job and his Pittsburgh number, Dom Capers, reportedly will be named Carolina Panthers coach. Also, Browns QB coach Rod Dowhower has accepted the head coaching job at Vanderbilt.
Playoff History: This will be the 91st meeting in the rivalry dating back to 1950 but amazingly the first time they have met in postseason. This is only the fourth time in 45 years they’ve made the playoffs in the same season.
Prediction: Steelers 14, Browns 13. Testaverde played the game of his life against the so-so Pats defense. The blitzhappy Steelers are another story.
Chicago (10-7) at San Francisco (13-3), 1 p.m. PST:
This could get ugly early. The Niners were 37 points short of scoring twice as many as Da Bears: 505 to 271. Niners coach George Seifert’s biggest problem will be getting his regulars enough work before the score gets out of hand.
Steve Young put up fantastic numbers: 35 TDs, 10 INTs, completing 70.3 percent. But for Joe Montana’s replacement, the season doesn’t start until Jan. 15. Young must win the NFC title game and then his first Super Bowl to get the respect he deserves.
Chicago’s Steve Walsh has been a nice story, but this is where the Bears get off the train. Coach Dave Wannstedt, then the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator, devised the Dallas defense two years ago that beat Young and the Niners in the championship game. He doesn’t have enough players to make it work yet in Chicago.
Playoff History: They have met twice in the NFC Championship Game, with the 49ers winning, 23-0, in 1984 in San Francisco and, 28-3, in Chicago in 1988. The Niners won the Super Bowl both times.
Prediction: 49ers 38, Bears 10. Just a warmup.
Green Bay (10-7) at Dallas (12-4), 9:30 a.m. PST:
What can the Packers’ defense do to top the minus-1 yard it held Barry Sanders to last week? Limit Emmitt Smith to minus-2? No chance. Smith, who suffered a hamstring injury in the Cowboys’ 15th game, returned to practice Friday. He saves his best for the playoffs, with 801 yards rushing in eight games.
This is a statement game for Troy Aikman: He needs to establish maximum confidence going into San Francisco. Aikman has not looked sharp since coming back from a knee injury.
Without Sharpe, the Packers don’t have enough weapons for Favre. Sharpe caught four TD passes against Dallas in Green Bay’s 42-31 loss on Thanksgiving. Green Bay could get by Detroit without him. Not Dallas.
“You will hear people say it’s not going to hurt them that much. But it does,” Cowboys WR Michael Irvin said. “He had how many touchdowns, four against us? It’s sad to lose a player like that. Even if he’s not catching balls, he’s getting a lot of attention and opening things up for everyone else.”
Playoff History: The Cowboys beat the Packers, 27-17, last year in Dallas in the divisional round and KO’d them in a second-round game in 1982. The Packers defeated the Cowboys in back-to-back NFL title games to advance to the first two Super Bowls. The second victory over the Cowboys came in the famed Ice Bowl game at Lambeau Field.
Prediction: Cowboys 27, Packers 13. Aikman gets untracked, setting up the Showdown at the ‘Stick. And Jason Garrett tacked 42 points on the Pack defense (36 in the second half) on Thanksgiving and threw for 311 yards.
Miami (11-6) at San Diego (11-5), 1 p.m. PST:
Dan Marino hasn’t been to the Super Bowl since 1984, his second year in the NFL. He is the best quarterback never to have won the big game. And the way the AFC picture has developed, the Dolphins have an excellent chance to get there and play at home.
The key will be the defense. It looked like the same old moveable object in the first half against Kansas City, not coming close to stopping Montana. Then Joe Cool was shut out in the second half.
The Chargers stumbled home at 5-5 after the 6-0 start and barely hung on for home-field advantage. San Diego could be making a quick exit. It’s hard to imagine Stan Humphries winning a shootout with Marino.
Playoff History: Two years ago, it was Miami, 31-0, in San Diego’s first playoff since 1982. The Dolphins also won, 34-13, in ‘82, one year after San Diego’s thrilling 41-38 overtime victory at the Orange Bowl.
Prediction: Dolphins 34, Chargers 24. A nice warm-weather game for Miami against a team that peaked in September.