In 1985 and 1986, the Chicago Bears and New York Giants were the obvious pre-playoff choices to go to the Super Bowl. The Bears had won 15 of 16 games and disappeared in a blur, outscoring three playoff opponents, 91-10. The Giants finished the regular season with nine straight victories and ripped through the playoffs in similar fashion.
Last season there was no NFC team poised for such greatness. The Washington Redskins, who won four of their last five games, edged Chicago and Minnesota before blowing out Denver, 42-10, in Super Bowl XXII. This year, it's the same scenario."No one," Giants Coach Bill Parcells said, "is jumping up and saying `We're the team to beat."'
The momentum factor is negligible. The Los Angeles Rams, who must play their playoff games on the road, have the longest winning streak of the NFC's five playoff teams - three. Philadelphia won two straight to clinch the NFC East. Minnesota needed a 28-27 victory over Chicago to become the wild-card host. The Bears and the San Francisco 49ers lost their regular-season finales.
But over the second half of the season the Vikings have been the most impressive. Here's a look at the conference's playoff teams, ranked in order of championship strength:
Throw out the troubling 18-6 loss at Green Bay and what do you have? A team that won its last six games by the average score of 33-7.
The Vikings (11-5) have everything it takes to reach the Super Bowl, except a home-field advantage. Minnesota hosts the Los Angeles Rams Monday in the wild-card game. It can be done: The Raiders won the Super Bowl after the 1980 season from the wild-card spot.
For starters, the Vikings have the league's best overall defense. They were second to the Bears in the key area of run defense and have a terrific pass rusher in defensive end Chris Doleman. The corners are solid and tackle Keith Millard creates havoc along the line. One down note: Linebacker Jesse Solomon - the only player who appears for each snap - may miss Monday's game with an injured knee.
The secret to the Vikings' success is their ability to create turnovers. Their net of plus-23 led the league by far and featured a staggering 36 interceptions. The high-powered offense only gave up the ball 30 times.
But there is turmoil on the offense. Quarterback Wade Wilson was pulled inexplicably late in Monday night's game with Chicago. Wilson called offensive coordinator Bob Schnelker "crazy," among other things. Wilson had one of the best seasons in the league and should start ahead of Tommy Kramer against the Rams.
That the Bears (12-4) finished the season is something of a miracle.
They lost All-Pro linebacker Wilber Marshall to the Washington Redskins, running back Walter Payton and safety Gary Fencik to retirement and Coach Mike Ditka to a mid-season heart attack. And then the injuries began to pile up.
With career seasons from linebacker Mike Singletary and defensive end Dan Hampton, the defense held together. When the Bears played well, the defense of coordinator Vince Tobin was usually the reason. Eleven times, Chicago held opponents to one touchdown or less.
The offense has been its usual inconsistent self with quarterback Jim McMahon in and out of the lineup. The Bears have been using Mike Tomczak recently, but another week of work might be enough to prepare McMahon for his first action in nearly two months.
The 49ers (10-6), who looked like the league's hottest team until losing dismally to the Rams Sunday night, are hard to read. At times they have looked terrific (beating Minnesota 24-21 in a dazzler Oct. 30) but teams like the Atlanta Falcons (34-17) have destroyed them.
The cynics in San Francisco point out that the 49ers had lost only four games by 10 points or more in six previous seasons before the blowouts at the hands of Atlanta (17 points) and the Rams (22). And consider that over the last four years the 49ers had lost only four games to teams without a winning record; this season's total is four.
The 49ers are blessed with some of the best offensive talent in the league - quarterback Joe Montana, wide receiver Jerry Rice and running back Roger Craig - but they are a mentally fragile team. The players rationalized their loss to the Rams, claiming there was nothing at stake. Untrue. Finding momentum at this point in the season will be difficult.
Only three Eagle starters - guard Ron Baker and cornerback Roynell Young (who played in the 1980 Super Bowl) and linebacker Todd Bell (a former Chicago Bear) - have any playoff experience. Coach Buddy Ryan doesn't think it's a problem.
"On most teams, experience means a lot," Ryan says. "But our guys are kind of cocky, they don't bow down to anybody. When we come into town, we do it with our horns blowing to let everybody know we're there."
Ryan has been making a lot of noise about playing the Bears, but he would really rather play at San Francisco. Dale Haupt, the man he brought from Chicago, is the defensive line coach who held Coach Bill Walsh's offense to three points the last two times out. With defensive end Reggie White, the NFL sack leader, Haupt is dealing from strength.
Los Angeles Rams:
According to Giants offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt, Rams quarterback Jim Everett is playing his best football of the season. He had four touchdown passes in the finale against the 49ers and finished with 31 for the season, balanced by only 18 interceptions.
The Rams are a well-balanced team - only San Francisco is also ranked in among the top 10 teams in offense and defense. But they have something to prove. Their 7-2 start was followed by four straight losses. All the pieces are there, the pass rush, the running game, the special teams. It's just that something is missing.