Of course, the 49ers, the Cowboys, the Chiefs and the Steelers have loftier objectives. For San Francisco, which has won a record five Super Bowls, the first obstacle on the road to No. 6 is a near mirror-image of itself. The Packers and the 49ers feature offenses so similar that many of their audible calls will be identical. The game also pits a pair of San Francisco natives in a battle of wits: Niner coach George Seifert versus his former offensive coordinator, Mike Holmgren. "I want to play the 49ers so badly," says Holmgren, a onetime Bay Area high school history teacher, now in his fourth year as the Green Bay coach. "Half the policemen in Candlestick I either taught in school or went to school with."
Will Holmgren's homecoming be a happy one? Favre, who easily beat out Niner receiver Jerry Rice in the balloting for the league's MVP award, is the Pack's best reason for optimism. Since Nov. 5 he has thrown 24 touchdown passes against only four interceptions, and he finished the season as the NFC's top-rated quarterback, with a league-best 38 touchdown passes and 4,413 yards. In the first half of Sunday's game he completed 16 passes to nine different receivers, illustrating the team-oriented approach he has instilled in the offense in the wake of Sharpe's departure. But running back Edgar Bennett, who had 108 yards rushing against the Falcons—a Packer postseason record—will have trouble breaking free against the 49er defense, and that will place an even heavier burden on Favre. "Brett needs to be really disciplined—no winging it, no wild plays," says Falcon backup quarterback Bobby Hebert, who, subbing for injured starter Jeff George, led Atlanta to a 28-27 win over the 49ers in the final week of the regular season. "I'd be really surprised if the 49ers lose to those guys."
The other team standing between a fourth consecutive Dallas-San Francisco NFC title game is Philadelphia. Rhodes, yet another former Seifert assistant, said two weeks ago, "We're not Dallas or San Francisco. We're just a bunch of piss-boys trying to play hard." The Eagles split a pair of games with the Cowboys this season—a 34-12 loss at Texas Stadium and a 20-17 win at home that will forever be remembered for Dallas coach Barry Switzer's late fourth-quarter decision to go for the first down on fourth-and-a-foot at the Cowboys' 29-yard line. The Philly defense stopped tailback Emmitt Smith for no gain, and four plays later Eagle kicker Gary Anderson won the game with a 42-yard field goal.
Assuming that Switzer won't make the same sort of dumb mistake twice, Philadelphia can win only by playing its usual fervent defense and by relying on running backs Ricky Watters and Charlie Garner to get past the front wall of Dallas defenders. Just two starting quarterbacks in the NFC were rated lower than Philadelphia's Rodney Peete this season, but he had a career game against the Lions, completing 17 of 25 passes for 270 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Then there are the Bills, who three years ago in a divisional playoff crushed the Steelers 24-3. Now, with Thomas (25 carries, 158 yards and a touchdown against the Dolphins) and wide receiver Andre Reed finally healthy and with Kelly in pre-Super Bowl form, the Bills should not be taken lightly. Even seldom-used fullback Tim (Rin Tin) Tindale—two-time winner of the Hec Crighton Trophy, the Canadian equivalent of the Heisman—rumbled for 68 yards on just four carries against Miami. But moving the ball won't be nearly as easy against the taut Pittsburgh defense, and if the Steeler offense stays hot (165 points in their last six games), Buffalo's inspired return to prominence is likely to end.
The team facing the longest odds remains Indianapolis. Beating Kansas City will be a formidable task—the Chiefs had a 13-3 record, the best in the NFL, and were undefeated at home—but the Dead End Kids aren't likely to be fazed. They could easily have panicked in San Diego on Sunday when their star running back, Marshall Faulk, after dashing 16 yards on the game's first play from scrimmage, aggravated a bruised left knee and retreated to the sideline for good. But the Colts stuck with the running game, unleashing hitherto unknown backup fullback Zack Crockett. A rookie from Florida State, Crockett had spent the season as Roosevelt Potts's understudy until Potts went down with a knee injury in the Dec. 17 loss to San Diego. Crockett had one carry for zero yards in the regular season; on Sunday he rushed 13 times for 147 yards, including touchdown runs of 33 and 66 yards.
Indy confounded the Chargers by spreading out its offense, running draw plays and throwing play-action passes out of the I formation. The Colts neutralized Seau with those spread-out offensive sets, which required him to spend much of the day dropping back into pass coverage (Seau hauled in one magnificent interception on the San Diego one-yard line in the first quarter), and when he did blitz, the Colts came up with big plays, including a 42-yard touchdown pass from Harbaugh to Sean Dawkins late in the third quarter that gave Indianapolis a 21—17 lead.
Both Seau and Harbaugh are chess enthusiasts and the champions of their respective locker rooms. Harbaugh won $200 from Colt defensive tackle Tony Siragusa on the flight to San Diego Saturday; the quarterback scored the football equivalent of a checkmate against Seau the next day.
Life figures to get much tougher for Harbaugh in Kansas City, but he is having too much fun to worry. He was the last Colt to leave the locker room, and if a team official hadn't hustled him out, Harbaugh might have stayed at his stall until the New Year's ball descended in Times Square. As he removed his sweaty socks, he paused to savor the moment, and then he actually said, "It's a wonderful life." Socks, fajitas, whatever—Harbaugh is enjoying the sweet smell of success. He knows it probably won't last forever.