The question is, how will Green Bay and Dallas rebound from their titanic Struggle on the Tundra? The Packers' resounding victory hid the fact that they're hurting in some areas, particularly along the defensive line, where Reggie White has a bad back and Gilbert Brown has a sprained ankle. Now they're facing a three-game road trip, starting with the Vikings on Monday night.
Since Mike Holmgren became coach in 1992, the Packers have twice gone on three-game road trips. In 1994 they lost all three. Last year they dropped two. Some folks believe that this is the league's way of offsetting Green Bay's cold-weather home field advantage. Others say it's just the luck of the draw. Whatever, the Packers need to be concerned because they're still in a serious division race and not on cruise control, like the 49ers.
Dorsey Levens set the club rushing record with his 190-yard performance, and he certainly was the hammer that pounded the Cowboys into submission, but allow me, please, one small note of caution. Might it not be a good idea to give Levens, who carried the ball 33 times against Dallas, a play off every now and then? (The guy who was brought in to be his backup this year, Aaron Hayden, wasn't even active on Sunday.) No, you say? Green Bay is doing just fine without my help. Well, O.K., but don't say I didn't warn you.
The Vikings are trouble. They've beaten the Pack five straight times in the Metrodome. They're coming off a weird loss to the Jets in which their pass rush was inconsistent and Cris Carter was a forgotten part of their offense until the fourth quarter. But Minnesota still could have won, or at least taken the game into overtime, if not for a strange call on the two-point conversion attempt at the end of regulation, a counter by Robert Smith. Translation: The Vikings will be furious, and they'll be up for this one, while the Pack might be on a semidowner after that Dallas extravaganza.
In the first meeting this season Brett Favre shredded Minnesota's zone in the first half, then the Vikings made a serious run after intermission as the Green Bay guns fell silent. This time I like the Vikings on pure emotion.
The Cowboys' problems are deeper. They were a whipped, tired, thoroughly beaten team throughout that brutal fourth quarter on Sunday when Levens punished them for 91 yards, and now they must pull themselves together and get ready for Tennessee's Eddie George to attack them.
Is there any doubt that the Oilers will run the ball? Quarterback Steve McNair is bothered by an injured collarbone and sternum. Tennessee's wideouts don't match up well with the Dallas corner-backs. Anyone drawing up a game plan against those exhausted defenders who trudged off the field in Green Bay has to start by seeing how they'll hold up against more of what the Packers gave them. Oh, sure, coaches get cute sometimes and get away from what they do best just to fool people, but Jeff Fisher doesn't operate that way. Still, I like the Cowboys in this one. They're a proud team, and now they're a wounded animal.
Ties have thrown the NFC East into a fine mess. Three teams have a tie on their records, and when was the last time that happened in the same division? The Cowboys are still very much in it, despite their 6-6 record, and so, oddly enough, is 5-6-1 Philadelphia. Oh, no, I'm not writing the Eagles off, not when they've got Cincinnati, Atlanta and a home game against the Giants still on their schedule. They seem to have found a savior, second-year quarterback Bobby Hoying, who was absolutely brilliant on Sunday in the upset of the Steelers and has begun his career by throwing 83 passes without an interception. Yes, the Eagles are my pick against the Bengals.
And the Giants are my pick over Tampa Bay. Why? Because Trent Dilfer has never faced those winds in the Meadowlands. That's a new experience. O.K., you say, the Bucs can fall back on a running game, but still very vivid in my mind is the way the Giants shut down Terry Allen in their Sunday-night tie against the Redskins. Until Warrick Dunn is effective again (he's been held under 40 yards in five of the last six games), I can't see the Bucs winning on the ground.
Look for the Chiefs to beat the Niners in K.C. Once you clinch a division title, as San Francisco has, you just don't play with the same intensity, even though your coach hammers you relentlessly with the message, "We're playing for home field for the postseason." Witness the Niners' seven-point win over San Diego, a team with a hopeless situation at quarterback. (Two of the 49ers' three scores came off turnovers.) Playing Kansas City in Arrowhead will be a different matter.