"Now we're pretty fast," says Jauron, a master of understatement. When your starting linebackers all run the 40 in less than 4.5 seconds, that's more than pretty fast. Holdman, Urlacher and Colvin aren't yet in the same league as the unit of Wilbur Marshall, Mike Singletary and Otis Wilson in the mid-1980s, but none of the current crop has turned 26 yet, either. "They're all still learning how to play," says Jauron. "The one thing that's so encouraging is their feel for the game."
It was fashionable to call the Bears lucky after they erased 15-and 14-point leads in the final five minutes of games against the San Francisco 49ers and the Browns, and then won both games on bobbled or tipped interceptions returned for touchdowns in overtime. This team, though, is much like its Yale-educated coach: methodical and dedicated to working on weaknesses until they become strengths. What was a running back, James Allen, doing trailing a Hail Mary pass on the final play of regulation against Cleveland? The right thing, obviously, because the Browns were looking to cover wide receivers, not running backs, in the end zone, and Allen made a diving grab of the tipped ball. "Smart players are usually in the right position," says Jauron. These days Chicago has a bunch of them.
Understand that the biggest reason San Francisco is an NFC West contender—a year before even its front office thought it possible—is quarterback Jeff Garcia. The Niners brought him in to replace departed backup Ty Detmer before the 1999 season. All he's done since inheriting the starting job, after Steve Young went down with a career-ending concussion early that year, is throw for more yards and more touchdowns than Young or Joe Montana did in the first 35 starts of their careers. A 31-year-old who, save for a receding hairline, looks as if he's a year removed from being your paperboy, Garcia has kept San Francisco's bloodline of high-powered quarterbacks alive.
Still, the Niners would be foundering without a rebuilt defense that starts six players in their first or second pro seasons. "You can't simulate the game on defense by watching," says Ahmed Plummer, who has formed a solid cornerback tandem with fellow 2000 draftee Jason Webster. "What was great about coming here was that we were going to play right away. We have grown on the job."
So much so that opponents are completing only 57% of their passes, which is five percentage points better than Baltimore's defense is doing this year. "That's a shocking stat," says general manager Terry Donahue. "We were destitute on defense a couple of years ago. We had to get young, fast and healthy, which means you play kids instead of guys near the end." That formula has worked. The Niners have the NFL's 18th-ranked defense, up from 29th a year ago.
As coach Steve Mariucci picked over fruit and cheese in his hotel suite last Saturday night, he counted his blessings. The salary cap is $67 million, but when you take away all the charges from the big contracts of the past, the 49ers are a modest $47 million payroll team. "We're beginning our ascent," he said. "We're over the crash and burn, and we're building a team again."
The problem with predicting a Super Bowl winner is that even the best teams have their flaws. The St. Louis Rams, devoid of the power running game needed to bleed the clock, lost 34-31 to the New Orleans Saints on Oct. 28. They ran the ball on only 24% of their plays, a recipe for disaster against a ball-hawking secondary. Kurt Warner was intercepted four times, and New Orleans wiped out a 24-6 lead because St. Louis could do nothing to shift the momentum. The Oakland Raiders, susceptible to long drives because their pass defense is only the league's 17th best, were pounded in a 34-27 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday night. The lowest-scoring team in the AFC West, Seattle scored on drives of 53, 79, 76, 61, 88 and 25 yards, and Shaun Alexander had the fourth-highest rushing day (266 yards) in league history.
Maybe Mariucci has the best grasp of the situation. Last Saturday, on the eve of the Niners' knock-down, drag-out 28-27 victory over the Saints, he told his players that the season is like a 16-round prize fight. "Men, you've just got to win a majority of the rounds," he said. "If you get knocked down in Round 4, Round 5, who cares? Get back up. You're still alive."
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