No defense is stronger up the middle than the 49ers', so it should come as no surprise that opponents are completing a league-low 48.8% of their passes. McDonald and Merton Hanks are the best pair of safeties in the league, and linebacker Ken Norton Jr. is having another Pro Bowl year. The Niners also have the NFL's best interior pass rush with tackles Dana Stubblefield and Bryant Young.
Troubling questions: Will Young and/or Grbac be standing come the playoffs? Was the 191-yard rushing effort the 49ers had against the Saints—the quarterback was the leading rusher in their two previous games—an aberration?
Denver. You've got to like the Broncos' moxie. Ask linebacker Bill Romanowski why he signed with Denver as a free agent in the off-season, and he says, "Because I knew they'd win big." Ask tight end Shannon Sharpe if the Broncos can dent the Green Bay-San Francisco-Dallas triad, and he says, "What is this thing with Green Bay, with everybody considering them a top dog? Where did they come in? They haven't won anything." Ask coach Mike Shanahan where the Broncos figure in the playoff race, and he says, "I don't think anybody's better than us. I said this before the year started."
For a decade Denver survived mostly on the guile of quarterback John Elway, but since Shanahan's arrival last season the running game has become vital to the Broncos' success. "When you can run," Shanahan says, "you can dictate the game." Second-year back Terrell Davis leads the league in rushing, with 979 yards.
Denver does have weaknesses: Its cornerbacks are suspect, and the patchwork offensive line must prove it can hold up during this tough stretch.
Pittsburgh. Don't look now, but the Steelers have won seven of their last eight, including a 42-6 rout of the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday, and their next four games are against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Miami Dolphins and the Baltimore Ravens—none of whom have a winning record. "I'd be lying if I looked at our schedule and didn't say we should beat these teams," says running back Erric Pegram. If Pittsburgh sweeps those teams, it should be in position to host the AFC Championship Game for the third year in a row, despite having lost as many significant players (including 15 starters) as any team in the four-year history of unfettered free agency.
Credit director of football operations Tom Donahoe and coach Bill Cowher for filling the holes. Consider the performances of these replacements for players whom the Steelers have lost since the Super Bowl: Running back Jerome Bettis is on pace for a 1,700-yard rushing season; guard Will Wolford and tackle Justin Strzelczyk have made the offensive line stronger than it was a year ago; fourth-year linebacker Chad Brown has seven sacks in place of the injured Greg Lloyd; and retread quarterback Mike Tomczak has completed 62% of his passes.
Pittsburgh's fears? Tomczak could come back to earth any day, and the Steelers can't afford an injury on the offensive line or at linebacker. Also, they finish the season against San Francisco and at Carolina.
Philadelphia. The most impressive thing about the Eagles' win in Dallas on Sunday? The Super Bowl champion Cowboys entered the game as healthy as they've been all season, and they had won nine of the last 10 meetings between the teams, yet Philadelphia was often the dominant team. "What we showed is that we have both the talent and the mental toughness to win," said Eagles running back Ricky Watters.
The Eagles are 16-5 over their last 21 regular-season games. They have a superb runner (Watters), a steely defense (led by linebacker William Thomas) and an intriguing quarterback (Ty Detmer). With the easiest remaining schedule among the NFC contenders, Philly appears to be a lock for at least one home playoff game.