Every year there are times of hope in the AFC. During the 1995
off-season hope sprang from the Miami Dolphins, who, with an eye
toward winning the Super Bowl, signed every lukewarm free agent
east of Deion Sanders. As fall arrived the Oakland Raiders
looked particularly potent, blowing out the Philadelphia Eagles
and most of the other teams that got in their way. In November
the Kansas City Chiefs stretched a winning streak to seven
games, using a solid running game and a turnover-mad defense,
just the right underpinnings for a Super Bowl victory.
But every year--every year, that is, since the Raiders beat the
Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII in 1984--the AFC's hope
is blown away. This season that hope all but disappeared in a
five-day stretch during which the NFC's Dallas Cowboys and San
Francisco 49ers easily handled the best the AFC had to offer. In
Oakland on Nov. 19, Dallas built a 24-point third-quarter lead
and rapped the Raiders 34-21. Then on Nov. 20 in Miami, where
the defense's disappearing act at this time of year is as
predictable as the snowbirds flying south, the 49ers embarrassed
the Dolphins 44-20. Finally, on Thanksgiving in Dallas, the
Cowboys completed the NFC trifecta with a 24-12 defeat of the
Each game was more than just a win for the big, bad NFC, which
has an 11-game Super Bowl winning streak; each showed how far in
front of the rest of the league the Cowboys and the Niners are.
The Raiders pride themselves on intimidation and a burly run
defense, but Dallas receiver Michael Irvin and running back
Emmitt Smith each had a 100-yard performance in Oakland. The
Dolphins spent $17.3 million on signing bonuses in an effort to
equal the talent of the Cowboys and the 49ers, but San Francisco
sacked Miami quarterback Dan Marino on the first three plays of
their game. Kansas City's ageless wonder, Marcus Allen, entered
the game against Dallas with 577 rushing yards but ran for only
four yards against the Cowboys. Let's face it: If the AFC breaks
the Super Bowl schneid this season, it'll be an upset of
"A couple of weeks ago," 49er linebacker Gary Plummer said on
Sunday, "everyone was saying this was the AFC's year. Then we
dominated the Dolphins, and Dallas dominated Kansas City and
Oakland. You don't want to say it's the same ol' story yet...."
Maybe we do. After Dallas and San Francisco, the list of the
NFL's 10 best teams (Chiefs, Raiders, Green Bay Packers, Buffalo
Bills, Eagles, Indianapolis Colts, Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh
Steelers) includes more teams from the AFC than from the NFC.
And the AFC has held its own, for the most part, in
regular-season games against the NFC over the past 11 seasons,
winning 297 to the NFC's 310 (box, page 44). So why hasn't it
won a Super Bowl since 1984? To tell the story properly, you've
got to go back 20 years, to New Year's Day '76.
Bill Walsh, then the Cincinnati Bengal quarterbacks and
receivers coach, thought he had all the pieces in place for the
offense of the late 1970s. He had Ken Anderson, a smart and
egoless quarterback who was a tremendously accurate passer. He
had one of the game's best young receivers, Isaac Curtis, and a
cast of other offensive players good enough to help forge an
11-3 record that season. Then, on Jan. 1, Paul Brown resigned as
Bengal coach. Walsh had expected to be the next coach, but
Brown, who also owned the Bengals, picked Bill (Tiger) Johnson
instead. History tells us that Brown probably did more than any
other person to make pro football the game it is today. But
history also tells us that Tiger Johnson over Bill Walsh might
be the worst hiring decision ever made.
"I was disappointed, and I felt it was time to move on," says
Walsh, who became the San Diego Charger offensive coordinator
for one season, then coached at Stanford for two years before
taking control of the 49ers in 1979. "If Bill Walsh takes over
the Bengals," former Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson says, "who knows
if they wouldn't have been what the 49ers became."
That's the first of three personnel decisions involving coaches
that paved the way for this streak to happen. The others: Bill
Parcells not getting canned in 1983, and Johnson going to work
in Dallas in '89.
In Parcells's first season as the New York Giants' coach, 1983,
his mother died. His running backs coach, Bob Ledbetter, also
died. The Giants went 3-12-1. The truth about what happened next
may never be known, but Parcells is convinced that New York
general manager George Young secretly contacted Howard
Schnellenberger, who had just won a national championship at the
University of Miami, about becoming the Giants' coach. Young
denies this, but Parcells and Schnellenberger had the same
agent, and the agent warned Parcells that his job was in
jeopardy. New York didn't make the change. If Schnellenberger
had been at the helm, he might not have gotten as sterling a
career out of Lawrence Taylor as LT's mentor, Parcells, did. And
the Giants, who overachieved in winning two Super Bowls, might
not have won any without the driven, mind-game-playing Parcells
In Johnson's case, a number of NFL teams bypassed him in 1988
and early '89, when he was on top of the college coaching world
after winning the 1987 national collegiate title at Miami. The
Cleveland Browns accepted Marty Schottenheimer's resignation
after the '88 season and hired Bud Carson, in part because--no
lie--Carson wore a hearing aid. When owner Art Modell dined with
Carson, he noticed the hearing aid and felt kindly toward
Carson, because Modell's first coaching hire, Blanton Collier,
had worn one. The Chiefs, who hired Schottenheimer; the New York
Jets, who kept Joe Walton for one last terrible year; and the
Chargers, who signed on Dan Henning, all overlooked Johnson, who
was there for the asking when new Cowboy owner Jerry Jones hired
him in February '89.
Walsh (and handpicked 1989 heir George Seifert), Parcells and
Johnson coached eight of the 11 winners in the NFC streak. Throw
in Joe Gibbs of the Washington Redskins, who won two Super Bowls
(Mike Ditka won the other with the Bears), and you have an
imposing group. Aside from their coaching smarts, they brought
to their teams an unyielding nature. Gibbs slept in his office.
Walsh and Niner owner Eddie DeBartolo provided their players
with luxuries like a chef who prepared gourmet meals on charter
flights, but they demanded year-round commitment in return.
Parcells cut starter Elvis Patterson after the cornerback was
burned repeatedly in the '87 season opener. Johnson went into
the playoffs one player light in '92 after dumping running back
Curvin Richards for fumbling in the regular-season finale.
These coaches preached the winning-is-everything gospel. In
Buffalo, Marv Levy preaches that winning is very, very
important, but life goes on when you lose. The Bills are 0-4 in
Super Bowls. A connection? Maybe, maybe not. But the perception
persists among players that if you want to win a Super Bowl,
you'd better go to Dallas or San Francisco.
"The Cowboys and the Niners have raised the standard for
everybody in their conference," says Denver Bronco backup
quarterback Hugh Millen. "Having been with Dallas, I know that
winning was viewed as a necessity. There were no other options.
Not winning won't be tolerated in Dallas and San Francisco. My
image of Michael Irvin going in was that he was a lot of jive.
But he's the hardest-working player I've ever been around. The
Cowboys and Niners have the type of players who are willing to
work and whose work habits are infectious."
But brilliant coaching and tough, talented players are not the
only factors in Super Bowl success. There are also the
unshakable tenets of playoff football.
1) You don't win in January if you can't run. Last year the
Chargers went into the Super Bowl determined to run at 49er
corner Deion Sanders. Well, Sanders got his dirtiest when he
went sprawling after a pass while playing on offense in the
fourth quarter. San Diego got so far behind that it had to pass,
pass, pass. During its 11-game winning streak, the NFC has
outrushed the AFC by a margin of more than two to one. Don't
look for that to change if the Cowboys reach their third Super
Bowl of the 1990s. Emmitt Smith running behind a line averaging
323 pounds? That ought to be declared illegal.
2) You don't win in January if you're careless. In its 11
straight victories, the NFC is plus-27 in turnover ratio. The
AFC is turning the ball over 3.4 times a game. "I think that's
really been the difference," says Buffalo center Kent Hull. "It
may be a matter of pressing to try to break our streak.
Sometimes you don't play with the naturalness and fluidness that
you'd like to have. Rushing and turnovers are really the key."
3) You don't win in January with your quarterback alone. The
great quarterback class of 1983, which included the Broncos'
John Elway, the Bills' Jim Kelly and the Dolphins' Marino, is
0-8 in Super Bowls. Everyone loves Miami every August because
Marino's there. Everyone hates the Dolphins in December because
their defense isn't. Says former Giant quarterback Phil Simms,
"Sometimes a great quarterback can camouflage your weaknesses.
You get mesmerized by how great the quarterback is, and you
don't see what a team can't do well."
So how can an AFC team prevail in Super Bowl XXX? Win the
turnover battle, which seems possible; K.C. has the best
turnover ratio of the 1990s. Run with authority, which Oakland
did to Dallas, averaging 4.8 yards per carry, on Nov. 19.
"It's good that Oakland and Kansas City played Dallas, because
now any mystery about playing them is not a factor," says Simms.
"Kansas City played Dallas well. The Chiefs got into rhythm with
the Cowboys and started playing them pretty even in the second
half. You need to play against a guy like Irvin, because you
can't know enough about him from watching film. Now the Chiefs
are aware of what they have to take away from the Cowboys next
Whoever survives in the AFC playoffs will have a tough task. How
tough? Cowboy-turned-Bronco Millen says, "The AFC will be a
heavy underdog. And I'd give the points."