Walsh (and handpicked 1989 heir George Seifert), Parcells and Johnson coached eight of the 11 winners in the NFC streak. Throw in Joe Gibbs of the Washington Redskins, who won two Super Bowls (Mike Ditka won the other with the Bears), and you have an imposing group. Aside from their coaching smarts, they brought to their teams an unyielding nature. Gibbs slept in his office. Walsh and Niner owner Eddie DeBartolo provided their players with luxuries like a chef who prepared gourmet meals on charter flights, but they demanded year-round commitment in return. Parcells cut starter Elvis Patterson after the corner-back was burned repeatedly in the '87 season opener. Johnson went into the playoffs one player light in '92 after dumping running back Curvin Richards for fumbling in the regular-season finale.
These coaches preached the winning-is-everything gospel. In Buffalo, Marv Levy preaches that winning is very, very important, but life goes on when you lose. The Bills are 0-4 in Super Bowls. A connection? Maybe, maybe not. But the perception persists among players that if you want to win a Super Bowl, you'd better go to Dallas or San Francisco.
"The Cowboys and the Niners have raised the standard for everybody in their conference," says Denver Bronco backup quarterback Hugh Millen. "Having been with Dallas, I know that winning was viewed as a necessity. There were no other options. Not winning won't be tolerated in Dallas and San Francisco. My image of Michael Irvin going in was that he was a lot of jive. But he's the hardest-working player I've ever been around. The Cowboys and Niners have the type of players who are willing to work and whose work habits are infectious."
But brilliant coaching and tough, talented players are not the only factors in Super Bowl success. There are also the unshakable tenets of playoff football.
You don't win in January if you can't run
. Last year the Chargers went into the Super Bowl determined to run at 49er corner Deion Sanders. Well, Sanders got his dirtiest when he went sprawling after a pass while playing on offense in the fourth quarter. San Diego got so far behind that it had to pass, pass, pass. During its 11-game winning streak, the NFC has outrushed the AFC by a margin of more than two to one. Don't look for that to change if the Cowboys reach their third Super Bowl of the 1990s. Emmitt Smith running behind a line averaging 323 pounds? That ought to be declared illegal.
You don't win in January if you're careless
. In its 11 straight victories, the NFC is plus-27 in turnover ratio. The AFC is turning the ball over 3.4 times a game. "I think that's really been the difference," says Buffalo center Kent Hull. "It may be a matter of pressing to try to break our streak. Sometimes you don't play with the naturalness and fluidness that you'd like to have. Rushing and turnovers are really the key."
You don't win in January with your quarterback alone
. The great quarterback class of 1983, which included the Broncos' John Elway, the Bills' Jim Kelly and the Dolphins' Marino, is 0-8 in Super Bowls. Everyone loves Miami every August because Marino's there. Everyone hates the Dolphins in December because their defense isn't. Says former Giant quarterback Phil Simms, "Sometimes a great quarterback can camouflage your weaknesses. You get mesmerized by how great the quarterback is, and you don't see what a team can't do well."
So how can an AFC team prevail in Super Bowl XXX? Win the turnover battle, which seems possible; K.C. has the best turnover ratio of the 1990s. Run with authority, which Oakland did to Dallas, averaging 4.8 yards per carry, on Nov. 19.
"It's good that Oakland and Kansas City played Dallas, because now any mystery about playing them is not a factor," says Simms. "Kansas City played Dallas well. The Chiefs got into rhythm with the Cowboys and started playing them pretty even in the second half. You need to play against a guy like Irvin, because you can't know enough about him from watching film. Now the Chiefs are aware of what they have to take away from the Cowboys next time."
Whoever survives in the AFC playoffs will have a tough task. How tough? Cowboy-turned-Bronco Millen says, "The AFC will be a heavy underdog. And I'd give the points."