MAD RUSH A LARGE NUMBER OF HEAD-TO-HEAD GAMES BETWEEN THE TOP TEAMS IN THE NFL OVER THE NEXT FOUR WEEKS WILL GO A LONG WAY TOWARD DETERMINING THE FAVORITES FOR SUPER BOWL XXXI

November 11, 1996

The NFL season was two months old last Friday night when Brett
Favre, the Green Bay Packers' quarterback and the reigning
league MVP, dug into dinner and pondered the playoff race ahead.
"Seems like it's as wide open as it has been in years," he said.
"I just wish we weren't so beat up."

Against the Detroit Lions on Sunday, the Packers' two healthy
split ends were Terry Mickens and Anthony Morgan, neither of
whom had played in 1996. The available flankers were Don Beebe,
an eight-year veteran who was cut by the expansion Carolina
Panthers after last season, and rookie Derrick Mayes, who had
three NFL receptions. They had all moved up on the depth chart
because Favre's favorite wide receiver, Robert Brooks, was out
for the season with a knee injury and the other starting
wideout, Antonio Freeman, was sidelined for at least another
month with a broken left forearm. Also, because of injuries and
ineffectiveness, the left and right tackles were being manned by
committee.

But Green Bay, which beat Detroit 28-18 to run its record to an
NFC-best 8-1, isn't the only one of the three preseason Super
Bowl favorites on shaky ground. The San Francisco 49ers, who
held off the New Orleans Saints 24-17 on Sunday, are 7-2, thanks
mainly to their formidable defense. Niners quarterbacks Steve
Young (groin, concussion) and Elvis Grbac (shoulder) have spent
more time in the X-ray room than in the end zone. The Dallas
Cowboys, winners of four straight before losing 31-21 at home to
the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, dropped to 5-4 and suddenly
look vulnerable even with wideout Michael Irvin back in uniform.

As a result of the precarious status of Green Bay, San Francisco
and Dallas, who among them have filled all eight spots in the
last four NFC Championship Games, the Big Three have a lot of
company at the top with seven weeks left in the regular season.
Unexpectedly, the Denver Broncos (8-1 after a 22-21 win over the
Oakland Raiders on Monday night) have lifted themselves out of
mediocrity, and the Washington Redskins (7-2) have risen from
the dead. Add in one of the league's most overachieving bunches,
the 7-2 Eagles, and the team with nine lives, the AFC-champion
Pittsburgh Steelers (7-2), and then brace yourself for a meat
grinder of a schedule in the next four weeks. In an 18-day
stretch, the Cowboys play the 49ers, the Packers and the
Redskins. Green Bay also has games against the Kansas City
Chiefs (6-3) and the Broncos. Before its Thanksgiving Day game
in Dallas, Washington plays Philadelphia and San Francisco.
Denver is on the road for games against the New England Patriots
(6-3) and the Packers. Let the war of attrition begin.

"When we beat the 49ers a couple of weeks ago, we won the game
but got the crap beat out of us and lost Robert Brooks for the
year," Favre said. "That's what happens when two good teams play
with intensity. So you look at the schedule we've got--and the
schedule all these other guys have in the next month--and we all
say, 'I hope we make it out of this alive.'"

Here's the order in which SI rates the NFL's best teams, heading
into the most critical stretch of the season. The next month
should give a good indication of which two clubs have the best
shots of advancing to Super Bowl XXXI on Jan. 26.

Green Bay. The home field advantage is there for the Packers'
taking. And they want it because the NFC team with the home
field edge has advanced to the Super Bowl in 12 of the past 16
seasons. Also, as the NFC's top seed, Green Bay would avoid the
other two division champions--say, San Francisco and
Philadelphia--until the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 12, when
the weather would clearly be a factor. Last Jan. 12 the high was
64[degrees] in Dallas, 63[degrees] in San Francisco and
31[degrees] in Green Bay. Favre loves the cold; he's 14-0 when
the game-time temperature was 35[degrees] or less.

With their best receivers sidelined, the Packers will rely
heavily on their defense. Any unit that lines up Reggie White,
one of the greatest pass rushers ever, at end and 325-pound
Gilbert Brown, one of the best run stuffers around, at
nosetackle can be counted on for assistance. Nevertheless, as
Atlanta Falcons vice president of player personnel Ken Herock
says, "It's up to Brett Favre now. Let's see how far he can take
them."

If his performance on Sunday was any indication, Favre can take
Green Bay a long way. He completed seven passes to Mickens, who
matched his career total entering the game, and finished with
281 yards and four TDs. The schedule may be nasty, but the Pack
handles adversity well.

San Francisco. The 49ers' 10-9 road win over the Houston Oilers
on Oct. 27 might not have been a signature Niners victory, but
it showed what a resilient team San Francisco is. With Young,
Grbac and tackle Harris Barton out with injuries in a game
against one of the rising teams in the league, the 49ers'
defense got the win and third-string quarterback Jeff Brohm the
save--with a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to rookie wideout
Terrell Owens. "It blows me away that people are talking about
our demise," says Niners safety Tim McDonald. "Take out the tape
and watch our defense play, and tell me we're on the way down."

No defense is stronger up the middle than the 49ers', so it
should come as no surprise that opponents are completing a
league-low 48.8% of their passes. McDonald and Merton Hanks are
the best pair of safeties in the league, and linebacker Ken
Norton Jr. is having another Pro Bowl year. The Niners also have
the NFL's best interior pass rush with tackles Dana Stubblefield
and Bryant Young.

Troubling questions: Will Young and/or Grbac be standing come
the playoffs? Was the 191-yard rushing effort the 49ers had
against the Saints--the quarterback was the leading rusher in
their two previous games--an aberration?

Denver. You've got to like the Broncos' moxie. Ask linebacker
Bill Romanowski why he signed with Denver as a free agent in the
off-season, and he says, "Because I knew they'd win big." Ask
tight end Shannon Sharpe if the Broncos can dent the Green
Bay-San Francisco-Dallas triad, and he says, "What is this thing
with Green Bay, with everybody considering them a top dog? Where
did they come in? They haven't won anything." Ask coach Mike
Shanahan where the Broncos figure in the playoff race, and he
says, "I don't think anybody's better than us. I said this
before the year started."

For a decade Denver survived mostly on the guile of quarterback
John Elway, but since Shanahan's arrival last season the running
game has become vital to the Broncos' success. "When you can
run," Shanahan says, "you can dictate the game." Second-year
back Terrell Davis leads the league in rushing, with 979 yards.

Denver does have weaknesses: Its cornerbacks are suspect, and
the patchwork offensive line must prove it can hold up during
this tough stretch.

Pittsburgh. Don't look now, but the Steelers have won seven of
their last eight, including a 42-6 rout of the St. Louis
Cardinals on Sunday, and their next four games are against the
Cincinnati Bengals, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Miami Dolphins
and the Baltimore Ravens--none of whom have a winning record.
"I'd be lying if I looked at our schedule and didn't say we
should beat these teams," says running back Erric Pegram. If
Pittsburgh sweeps those teams, it should be in position to host
the AFC Championship Game for the third year in a row, despite
having lost as many significant players (including 15 starters)
as any team in the four-year history of unfettered free agency.

Credit director of football operations Tom Donahoe and coach
Bill Cowher for filling the holes. Consider the performances of
these replacements for players whom the Steelers have lost since
the Super Bowl: Running back Jerome Bettis is on pace for a
1,700-yard rushing season; guard Will Wolford and tackle Justin
Strzelczyk have made the offensive line stronger than it was a
year ago; fourth-year linebacker Chad Brown has seven sacks in
place of the injured Greg Lloyd; and retread quarterback Mike
Tomczak has completed 62% of his passes.

Pittsburgh's fears? Tomczak could come back to earth any day,
and the Steelers can't afford an injury on the offensive line or
at linebacker. Also, they finish the season against San
Francisco and at Carolina.

Philadelphia. The most impressive thing about the Eagles' win in
Dallas on Sunday? The Super Bowl champion Cowboys entered the
game as healthy as they've been all season, and they had won
nine of the last 10 meetings between the teams, yet Philadelphia
was often the dominant team. "What we showed is that we have
both the talent and the mental toughness to win," said Eagles
running back Ricky Watters.

The Eagles are 16-5 over their last 21 regular-season games.
They have a superb runner (Watters), a steely defense (led by
linebacker William Thomas) and an intriguing quarterback (Ty
Detmer). With the easiest remaining schedule among the NFC
contenders, Philly appears to be a lock for at least one home
playoff game.

Dallas. Until Sunday the Cowboys hadn't lost since their
toothless 10-7 effort in Buffalo on Sept. 22. They were coming
off a vintage 29-10 win in Miami, where quarterback Troy Aikman
threw for 363 yards. But the revival of Dallas, after a 1-3
start while Irvin was serving a five-game suspension, has as
much to do with swagger as it does with performance, and it will
be interesting to see how much bounce the Cowboys have in their
step. "We'll be all right," says guard Nate Newton. "We've just
got to go through the back door now."

Blind optimism? It could well be if the Cowboys don't revive
their running game, which ranks 21st in the league, and if
Aikman's blind-side bodyguard, left tackle Mark Tuinei, can't
continue to play on a partially torn knee ligament.

Washington. Often during the first half of the season, Redskins
coach Norv Turner heard the refrain: You haven't beaten anybody.
Turner, whose club lost to Buffalo 38-13 on Sunday, admits as
much: "We haven't done anything yet, and every player on this
team knows it. But they also know they can play better. That's
why I have high hopes."

Washington has beaten teams like New England and the
Indianapolis Colts by riding back Terry Allen (852 rushing
yards), turning the ball over a league-low eight times, scoring
on all 23 chances in the red zone and getting production from
pass-rushing tackle Sean Gilbert. The brutal three-game, 12-day
stretch lies ahead, but so do games against the Arizona
Cardinals (twice) and the Tampa Bay Bucs. A 10-win season is
within reach.

Still, Washington is vulnerable if Allen, playing on two
reconstructed knees, crumbles or if its 28th-ranked defense
continues to make the offense win a track meet every week. The
Skins got run over in Buffalo--Darick Holmes and Thurman Thomas
both rushed for more than 100 yards--but give Washington one
mulligan. However, there are no mulligans in the playoffs, so
the Skins had better improve defensively or they'll go one and
out.

The Packers are a rare bunch in this era of professional sports
because they don't let their egos get in the way of the team's
goal. On Sunday tight end Mark Chmura, a Pro Bowl player in '95,
continued a pedestrian receiving season, catching two balls for
28 yards. Yet he seemed perfectly happy. "Today there was a play
where I was the first option for Brett," Chmura said. "But it
was a play I knew Keith Jackson runs better than I do. So I came
out and told him, 'You're in.' He caught the pass and gained
about 20 yards. That's how it is here. Guys realize the bowl we
want is the Super Bowl, not the Pro Bowl."

So Green Bay enters the brutal stretch of the season as our NFC
favorite to play in New Orleans. As for the AFC? We like the
Broncos. But the NFL doesn't hand out its trophy for being the
best team on Nov. 4. It goes to the team that survives the war
of attrition, and that war begins in earnest this weekend.

COLOR PHOTO: OTTO GREULE/ALLSPORT Double Trouble Bryant Young (97), a third-year tackle, anchors the formidable defense that has kept the 49ers among the NFL's elite teams this year. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO In the Running Bettis, who has rushed for more than 100 yards seven times, takes some of the pressure off Tomczak and the Steelers' passing game. [Jerome Bettis] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Passing Fancy The Packers remain the NFC favorites because of Favre, but even they have shortcomings--and injuries--that could short-circuit their title hopes. [Brett Favre]

THIRTY PIVOTAL DAYS

No surprise: With seven weeks left in the regular season, the
Packers and the 49ers lead the Super Bowl XXXI derby. Surprise:
The Cowboys are fighting for their playoff lives, while the
upstart Broncos and Redskins are contending not only for playoff
spots but also for the best record in their respective
conferences--worth home field advantage throughout the
postseason. And then there are the ever-retooling Steelers,
whose weak remaining schedule projects to no worse than a 12-4
finish, and the Eagles, who have the inside track for the NFC
East title. Here are the seven teams that have the most Super
Bowl potential and the 10 games, to be played between this
Sunday and Dec. 8, that will go a long way in determining the
AFC and NFC favorites.

TEAM W-L THE FORECAST

1. Packers 8-1 Trouble in Titletown if Favre can't adjust
to a new set of wide receivers

2. 49ers 7-2 Niners are doing it the old-fashioned way:
with defense

3. Broncos 8-1 John Elway on pace to shatter club
record for TD passes in a season

4. Steelers 7-2 Closing in on their fourth AFC Central
crown in five years

5. Eagles 7-2 Combined record of December opponents is
a paltry 13-23

6. Cowboys 5-4 On the verge of relinquishing the NFC
East title for the first time since '91

7. Redskins 7-2 Will go as far as MVP candidate Terry
Allen's legs take them

Still Dangerous: Chiefs (6-3), Patriots (6-3), Bills (6-3).

THE GAMES THE SKINNY

Nov. 10 Niners' most important Young in
Cowboys at 49ers this grudge match may be their
run-stopping DT Bryant, not QB Steve

Nov. 10 Shaky Green Bay tackles must find
Packers at Chiefs a way to handle sack specialists
Derrick Thomas and Neil Smith

Nov. 10 Home team has the edge in meeting
Bills at Eagles of old (Marv Levy, Jim Kelly)
vs. new (Ray Rhodes, Ty Detmer)

Nov. 17
Broncos at Patriots Looms as a shoot-out between
John Elway and Drew Bledsoe, two of
the league's hottest quarterbacks

Nov. 17 Washington had only 220 yards
Redskins at Eagles in 17-14 season-opening loss to
Philly, but QB Gus Frerotte
will be nine games wiser

Nov. 18
Packers at Cowboys Green Bay spent off-season
trying to figure out how to win
in Dallas, where it is 0-6 since 1993

Nov. 24 Chance for Niners to work on
49ers at Redskins much-maligned rushing attack
vs. Skins' soft run defense

Nov. 25 Steelers must play keepaway
Steelers at Dolphins from Dan Marino, so expect
a lot of smash-mouth from
Jerome Bettis

Nov. 28 A fan's Thanksgiving Day feast,
Redskins at Cowboys with Dallas's motivation heightened
by Washington's sweep in 1995

Dec. 8 Denver RB Terrell Davis meets
Broncos at Packers Green Bay's 1,193-pound defensive
line: Reggie White, Santana Dotson,
Gilbert Brown and Sean Jones

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)