Quality cornerbacks became scarce. In the fourth quarter of the Giants-Broncos game on Dec. 13, Denver was fighting to keep its perfect season intact. New York saw dimeback Tito Paul—released in the off-season by a Bengals team that ranked 29th in pass defense in '97—in single coverage on wideout Amani Toomer. Bingo. Toomer burned Paul for the winning 37-yard touchdown. "Week after week," says Packers general manager Ron Wolf, "it becomes more glaring how the lack of defensive backs is hurting teams in this league. Just look at Dallas."
In their first nine games, before cornerback Deion Sanders sprained his left big toe, the Cowboys surrendered 13 points a game; in the next five games, mostly without Sanders, Dallas gave up an average of 28 points. On Nov. 15 the Raiders lost cornerback Eric Allen from a defense that was ranked first in the league. During a recent four-game stretch, Oakland gave up 40, 29, 27 and 44 points. "We're turning it over more now," says Raiders coach Jon Gruden, "but we miss Eric Allen. A lot."
San Francisco Sags
The Old Miners Aren't the Same
In the wake of their 24-21 loss to the Patriots on Sunday, the 49ers limped out of their locker room at Foxboro Stadium a battered and confused team. Strong safety Tim McDonald, 33, an ice pack taped to his ribs, winced as he walked. Steve Young, 37 and gimping along like Walter Brennan, didn't know the extent of the damage to his left knee, which was screwed into the turf on San Francisco's last play from scrimmage. With a league-high 13 players over 30 and ticketed for a wild-card game against a Packers team that has knocked them out of the playoffs the past three years, the Niners hardly look as if they have the vigor to make a playoff run.
They certainly won't if the offense plays as it did against New England. San Francisco still has potent offensive weapons, including the most efficient quarterback and the most enduring passing attack in NFL history. But after racking up 400 yards en route to a 21-14 lead over the Patriots after three quarters, the 49ers had only 10 yards and one first down in the fourth. On three straight possessions the Niners were as predictable as a Republican impeachment vote: They ran Garrison Hearst on first and second downs and tried to throw on third. Young's first pass was intercepted. He was sacked the two other times he dropped back.
"On both sides of the ball," McDonald said, "we feel our way too much rather than just attacking. I definitely think we have a run in us, and I think it's good we've got the Packers right off. It'll get us focused. We've got to get over that hurdle if we're going to do anything in the playoffs."
The Bills Stay Put
Wilson Gets His Due
It didn't get big headlines outside of Buffalo, but Bills owner Ralph Wilson pulled off one of the biggest feats this season: finding a way to sell $11 million in luxury seating, thereby guaranteeing that the club would receive state funding for a major refurbishing of Rich Stadium. Wilson lives in Detroit and has only emotional ties to Buffalo. Other teams have pulled up stakes and struck sweetheart deals in Baltimore, Nashville and Hartford, but Wilson hired a marketing and sales force of 23 for his campaign.
"People laugh at us owners if we say we're not in it for the money," Wilson says. "Let them laugh. I'm not in it for the money. I love the game. I never asked for a $350 million stadium, just to try to be somewhat competitive with everybody else. Plus, I love this community. Plants are closing. Businesses are being shuttered. Taxes are high. Buffalo needs the Bills."
Buffalo knows it needs Wilson too. Last Saturday, one day after Wilson signed a 15-year lease that will keep his team in Buffalo through 2013, the Bills played their first game in newly named Ralph Wilson Stadium.