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You say it won't be a game? You're telling us that the San Francisco 49ers will cover the 19-point Super Bowl spread—or 20 or 21, or whatever it is by kickoff Sunday—before the first quarter is over? We've heard it all before. In the same place, too: Miami, 26 years ago.
In January 1969 the New York Jets were in Fort Lauderdale, the same town in which the San Diego Chargers are billeted this year. The opening line on Super Bowl III had the Baltimore Colts favored by 17. By kickoff, after people had gotten a good look at the Jets—at the chaos surrounding their practices, at Joe Namath and his "The Jets will win.... I guarantee it" boast—the line was up to 19½.
And wasn't it fun watching all the experts take a big bite of humble pie as the Jets took the Colts apart? It's the same format this time.
"Pity the Chargers in the Super Bowl" was a line in the New York Daily News the day after the Niners had beaten the Dallas Cowboys and the Chargers had fooled everyone by eliminating the Pittsburgh Steelers. "I feel, honestly, that this was the Super Bowl," said San Francisco cornerback Deion Sanders. "I don't mean to take anything away from...whoever won that damn other game."
O.K., all you front-runners, keep yapping, but San Diego does have a shot at the ring. It won't be easy; the Niners are awesome—breathtaking on offense and much sounder defensively than the Colts were going into Super Bowl III. You're wondering how the Chargers can pull it off? Let's break it down.
THE LESSONS OF HISTORY
Go back four years, to Super Bowl XXV. The New York Giants, a typical NFC East power team, versus the Buffalo Bills, who came into the game after a frenzy of 95 points and 995 yards of offense in their two playoff victories. The Giants had had to slug their way into the Super Bowl with a very tough win over San Francisco, and the Bills had already beaten New York in the regular season. The oddsmakers made New York a seven-point underdog.
So, what happened? The Giants played a regular two-deep zone, kept three linebackers on the field, assaulted the Bill wideouts, didn't let anyone get open deep and wore down Buffalo. In the second half New York's offense put together two time-consuming drives, and when the game was over, the Giants had a 20-19 victory and their coach, Bill Parcells, was telling people, "Power wins in the NFL."
San Diego is an NFC East—style team, a power outfit assembled by general manager Bobby Beathard in the image of his Washington Redskin Super Bowl champions of 1983 and '88. The Chargers have massive guards and tackles surrounding Courtney Hall, a smaller center. Beathard's Redskin teams had the same setup around center Jeff Bostic. San Diego deploys two or sometimes three tight ends on first and second downs, and they are primarily blockers. The Skins had Donny Warren, a first-rate blocking tight end; the Chargers have Duane Young and Alfred Pupunu. The San Diego tailback is 245-pound Natrone Means; in '82 Washington handed the ball to 240-pound John Riggins. On defense, 320-pound tackle Reuben Davis is the Chargers' version of former Redskin Dave Butz.
At the same time, the 49ers are as close to an AFC-style team as the NFC can offer. The Niners control the ball with the pass, using it to set up a running game keyed to the mobility of their line. San Francisco's attack is a rapier thrust rather than a sledgehammer.