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1989- The Peak Of NFC Dominance: Part 3 (The Rest of the NFC)

Going into the 1989 NFC Playoffs, there were four other teams that seemed capable of giving the 49ers a game, if not possibly beating them.

Surprisingly, not one of those teams would be the Chicago Bears- the NFC powerhouse had slumped badly in 1989, losing 10 of their last 12 following a 4-0 start. As it was, other familiar conference contenders could not be ignored.

The New York Giants, champions just a few years earlier, had no fear of the 49ers. They had beaten them twice in the playoffs in 1985-1986, as well as having gone toe-to-toe with them earlier that November in a game that wasn’t decided until late in the 4th quarter.

Plus, the nucleus of their ’86 championship team was still intact- Phil Simms, Lawrence Taylor, Mark Bavaro, Carl Banks, Gary Reasons. One difference was in the running game- gone was the lightning fast scoring machine Joe Morris, in was aging but still productive Ottis Anderson- an old NFC East nemesis from years past in St. Louis.

The LA Rams, despite their Monday night San Francisco setback, were also a team that wasn’t intimidated by the champs. They had beaten them three of the last five times at Candlestick Park. Their offensive nucleus of Jim Everett, Flipper Anderson, Henry Ellard, Greg Bell, and Jackie Slater was highly potent and productive. The defense, led by Kevin Greene and Gary Jeter, was capable of stifling any offense.

The Minnesota Vikings, the last team to beat San Francisco in the playoffs back in 1987, were going for it all thanks to their future mortgaging trade of Herschel Walker from the Dallas Cowboys.

They had a big-play passing attack with Wade Wilson throwing to Hassan Jones, Anthony Carter, Steve Jordan, and Leo Lewis. But it was their loaded defense that carried the team- Chris Doleman and Keith Millard combined for 39 of the team’s 71 sacks (only one behind the 1984 Bears for most in a single-season), though Al Noga and Henry Thomas were also capable and fearsome sackers.

The Philadelphia Eagles of Buddy Ryan, defending NFC East champions, were stacked from top to bottom- on offense alone, they had the electric Randall Cunningham at quarterback, Cris Carter catching touchdowns at wideout, and a pair of Keiths- Jackson at tight end, and Byars at running back. But it was their defense that was even more talented- Reggie White, Clyde Simmons, Seth Joyner, Andre Waters, Wes Hopkins, and Eric Allen.

The Eagles had actually swept the Giants that season and pulled off a rare road win in Denver’s Mile High Stadium, but any chance of a repeat division title was scuttled by bad losses to the Chargers, Redskins, and Saints- all of them non-playoff teams.

In fact, Washington was one of two non-playoff teams in the NFC despite a 10-6 record (which stood out considering Cleveland’s 9-6-1 record was good enough in the AFC for a #2 seed and first-round bye). The Redskins had a lethal passing attack with Mark Rypien throwing for over 4000 yards to a Posse of wideouts- Art Monk, Gary Clark, and Ricky Sanders.

While there was no shame in three losses by a combined 10 points to the Giants and Broncos, it was their other three defeats that proved costly- two of them at home.

The Redskins blew a 20-point lead to the Eagles, with Gerald Riggs’ costly fumble late in the game returned the other way in an eventual Philadelphia win. But while they put up 37 points in that game, they could only muster up an inexcusable 3 points at home against the Dallas Cowboys, far and away the worst team in football that season. The other bad loss was a turnover-plagued disaster against the L.A. Raiders- 8 giveaways, including 4 lost fumbles (out of 8 overall fumbles, which could have made their turnover numbers even worse).

The other 10-6 team that just missed the playoffs was the Green Bay Packers, an out-of-nowhere amazing story of close calls and comebacks. Led by the pass-catch-sack trio of Don Majkowski, Sterling Sharpe, and Tim Harris, the Pack were the epitome of down-to-the-wire. Only 3 of their 10 wins were by double-digits: their other 7 wins were by a combined 13 points.

They included a comeback from a 21-0 deficit against New Orleans, a dramatic 4th down instant replay reversal against the Bears (their first win against Chicago since 1984), and a surprising road win against the mighty 49ers.

But tiebreakers in the tough NFC ultimately did them in- on the last night of the season, the Bengals/Vikings game not only put Pittsburgh in, but also kept Green Bay out. Had the game gone the other way, the Packers would have gone to San Francisco for a rematch and the Bengals to Houston.

With all these capable teams ready to take their shots at the 49ers, the playoffs would be part entertaining and part coronation.


1989- The Peak Of NFC Dominance: Part 2 (The 49ers)

Over in the NFC, the defending champion San Francisco 49ers returned the nucleus of their core mostly intact (the only notable name player wise not returning was longtime center Randy Cross).

But with Bill Walsh stepping down, there was some curiosity as to how they would respond under the new head coach- longtime defensive coordinator George Seifert.

But with a star-studded roster that read like a who’s who of football- Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig, Tom Rathman, Ronnie Lott, Charles Haley- the Niners would put together one of the greatest seasons in football history.

Outside than a late fumble against the Rams that led to a game-winning field goal and some Cardiac Pack ‘Majik’ by Green Bay’s Don Majkowski, San Francisco played almost flawless football from start to finish.

They didn’t get into high gear until around November, with four early season comeback wins all on the road- against New Orleans, Indianapolis, Tampa Bay, and a most-memorable 4th quarter in Philadelphia.

While the 49ers largely flexed their muscles on both sides of the ball en route to outscoring their opponents by 189 points, their three most memorable wins during that 14-2 season came amidst great dramatics.

In the aforementioned Philadelphia game, Joe Montana was sacked numerous times throughout the first 3 quarters. While his early numbers that day at the Vet were solid- 201 yards and a touchdown- he more than made up for it late.

By 1989, Montana’s reputation as a comeback magician whom could never be counted out was already established. But he outdid even himself in the final 15 minutes against a loaded Eagle defense- 227 yards and 4 touchdowns. Final result: 38-28.

2 months later came another standout 10-point win against a rugged NFC East team- this time on Monday Night against the New York Giants. While this was the opposite of the Eagles game- here, San Francisco started strong but teetered late- Montana still came through late for 10 clutch points in a battle of 9-2 teams in what had become the NFL’s big coast-to-coast rivalry.

Then a few weeks later on a Monday night rematch with the Rams, San Francisco was up against the wall on the road again in Anaheim. By 1989, 49ers-Rams had become mostly a road-dominated series: the Rams had held their own at Candlestick against the Niners in recent years, but not in Anaheim.

On this night, the fate of the NFC West was still up for grabs- a Rams win would have given them a season sweep and head-to-head tiebreaker, stayed one game back with 2 games left, L.A. had winnable games against the weaker Jets and Patriots remaining, and San Francisco’s next game was against the tough Buffalo Bills.

But Joe Cool proved his worth and form yet again in money games, putting up bigger numbers than even in the Philadelphia comeback.

He threw for 458 yards- 286 of those to John Taylor, who weaved his way for a pair of 90+ yard touchdowns. The second one narrowed the Rams lead from 27-10 (LA scored 10 points after his first touchdown) en route to a 30-27 win.

Montana finished the season with 3,521 yards and 26 touchdowns. While he had actually put up bigger statistical seasons before (He had thrown for more passing yards and touchdowns from 1983-1985), he had only 8 interceptions this year and completed a mind-blowing 70 percent of his passes- this added up to a phenomenal 112.4 passer rating.

Despite this and other gaudy 49er stats (Jerry Rice and John Taylor each having double-digit touchdown seasons), their pratfall in the 1987 playoffs with a team that was similarly dominant in the regular season pumped the breaks for those who were already coronating the 49ers.

After all, the rest of the NFC playoff field was nothing to sneeze at.

1989- The Peak of NFC Dominance: Part 1 (AFC)

When one side or area in sports stands out so far and above the other, there is always an apex- the highest point of superiority by comparison.

In the NBA’s Western Conference, you could argue it was 2008 or 2010- when all 8 playoff teams won at least 50 games.

In the NHL’s Western Conference, it was arguably 2006-07- when a 104-point season from the Minnesota Wild (which in years past would have been good enough for at worst a top 2 seed) could only get them a #7 seed.

In baseball, there were years when the AL East easily had more quality teams than the AL West (1984, 1987).

In the NFL, during the NFC’s run of 13 straight Super Bowls from 1985-1997, 1989 was arguably the apex.

Some point to 1994, when the Cowboys and 49ers practically were in a league of their own. But unlike other years, the NFC lacked depth. There was no Dome Patrol Saints or Buddy Ryan Eagles to push the heavyweights.

Others point to 1992, when the NFC was stacked with strong teams. But the AFC had quality teams on their side of the bracket.

I believe that 1989 was the peak, the apex, the height of when the NFC was far superior to the AFC.

For the only time since the NFL playoffs expanded to 6 teams per conference in 1978, a team that won fewer than 10 games got a first-round bye (Cleveland). By comparison, only 5 other teams got a first-round bye with fewer than 11 wins (1979 Buccaneers, 2006 Saints, three different 49ers teams- 1983, 1988, and 1993)

In 1989, the AFC contenders were more flawed by comparison to any other time during the NFC’s Super Bowl streak.

The Denver Broncos were the only double-digit win AFC team that year. While they possessed a superior defense and running game compared to their 1986-1987 AFC champions, they were still carrying the stigma of their lopsided Super Bowl past.

The Cleveland Browns had their last hurrah of the 80s with Kosar and company, but a new coach (Bud Carson, mastermind of the 1970s Steel Curtain wrecking crews and the celebrated 1991 Philadelphia Eagles defense) and an older roster made for uncertainty.

They were capable enough to sweep the talent-laden Oilers and beat the Vikings. But two bad home setbacks were hard to ignore- a shutout by the Bengals and one of only two losses at Cleveland Stadium to the Steelers between 1980-1993

The Buffalo Bills had a turbulent season in which they barely won an AFC East they had lapped by Thanksgiving a year before. Known as the Bickering Bills, the team was prone to starts and stops. While they had good wins over Cincinnati and the LA Rams, there was an improbable last-second loss to Atlanta- who finished with the second worst record in the NFL that season.

The Houston Oilers on paper were arguably the most talented team in the AFC, but a lack of success on the road and a lack of discipline seemed to undermine their loaded roster and homefield advantage at the Astrodome- AKA the House of Pain.

Then there were the Steelers, probably the only 1989 AFC playoff team not hindered by major expectations. Coming off what is still their worst season since the franchise revival of 1972 (5-11 in 1988), they didn’t start off fast in 1989: a 51-0 turnover-plagued disaster of a homer opener against Cleveland, and a 41-10 setback at Cincinnati.

But Chuck Noll would pull out one last bit of that old Steeler magic, as they went 9-5 the rest of the way- including a 5-1 finish after splitting their next 8 games following that nightmare start. It included impressive wins against a talent-laden Vikings team, a comeback from 14-0 down in a Miami monsoon, and a rare road win at the Cleveland Dawg Pound.

Still, they needed every domino to fall on the final week in the AFC. Five teams were ahead of Pittsburgh in the AFC playoff hierarchy at this point- Cleveland, Indianapolis, Miami, Cincinnati, and the LA Raiders.

The Browns clinched the AFC Central with a Saturday night road win at the Astrodome and Pittsburgh already had the head-to-head tiebreaker over Miami, so the Steelers needed all the other teams to go down.

Improbably, they did- the Colts got blasted at New Orleans 41-6, while the Raiders lost at the Meadowlands 34-17 in a game the Giants had to win to take the NFC East. On Christmas Eve, Cincinnati lost at the Metrodome to the Vikings (which everyone else did that year) 29-21.

That final Monday night game also had impact on the NFC side.


Gonzaga and The Possible End of March Cruelty

Another chance.

Gonzaga with a tremendous season on the verge of college basketball’s holy grail.

19 straight years in the NCAA Tournament.

18 straight years where they have not conquered their region.

This time, they have a chance to conquer their personal Everest.

But to do so, they have to deal with a true party crasher- Xavier, who for most of the season did not resemble last year’s 2 seed but seems to be getting hot at the right time.

One of the things about a Final Four run is that everything has to fall into place.

Especially for the smaller schools.

One could argue that Gonzaga drawing Xavier instead of Arizona is a case of things falling into place, but on the other side, things may be falling into place for Xavier (Got arguably the most vulnerable 3-6 seed combos in their region.

Maryland and Florida State were not as formidable a 3-6 as opposed to the East (Baylor-SMU), South (Cincinnati-UCLA), or Midwest (Oregon as a 3 seed).

But these small schools from smaller conferences that made these runs needed things to fall perfectly.



Wichita State

While the Shockers did not have it easy in 2013 making the Final Four, they did catch one break- in between Gonzaga/Ohio State, they did not have to face the 4-5 seeds (Kansas State and Wisconsin). Instead, they drew a LaSalle team that seemed in over their heads by the time they got to the Sweet 16.

And even against Ohio State, they survived that inevitable “Fork in the road” moment when they saw a 20 point lead dwindle down to 3. Tekele Cotton hit a big 3 pointer that ended up cushioning the lead back up for good when a Miss could have led to a devastating scenario.

The Rams of 2011 for the most part looked dominant against big name high seeds- Purdue, Georgetown, Kansas.

But in between was a game vs 10 seed Florida State (instead of 2 seed Notre Dame) and a game where VCU was trailing in the final seconds of overtime. They scored on an inbounds play with 7 seconds left and blocked a shot on defense to preserve their only close win as they went from First Four to the Final Four.

2010- While one could argue they were underseeded compared with Pittsburgh/Vanderbilt, the Bulldogs still ended up facing Murray State instead of Vandy in the round of 32.

In the regionals at Salt Lake City, they faced a potential crossroads twice- Syracuse had a 4 point lead with 5:23 remaining. Kansas State scored 9 unanswered points to tie the Elite 8 with 3 minutes left.

In the Final Four, they had to hold off a spirited last minute rally by Michigan State and held on thanks to timely defense, rebounding, and free throws.

Butler survived all of those do or die scenarios.
Then there was 2011 as an 8 seed.

Old Dominion at the buzzer.

Pittsburgh in the dying seconds- specifically a missed free throw that could have given the

Panthers a lead, then a stunning foul with less of a seconds left.

In the Elite 8 against Florida, they trailed by 11 points. Then had to survive a potential game winning 3 at the end of regulation.


They survived all of those fork-in-the-road moments and made their second straight Final Four.

Even the dominant Rebels of 1990 saw their tournament lives flash before their eyes against Ball State in the Sweet 16.

The Cardinals had the ball with less than 15 seconds left down 2 and a chance to pull off an unfathomable upset.

The Rebels survived, but even they had to face a potential fork in the road en route to a mostly overpowering tournament run.


All these small schools had those fork in the road moments.

Gonzaga has had a fork in the road moment so far- West Virginia had a lead with less than 1:30 left in the Sweet 16.

But timely defense and a big three point shot pulled this game out of the fire.

They may have another fork in the road moment against Xavier.

Will this be Gonzaga’s moment of truth to make the Final Four?

We shall see.

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