Who’s better, you or me? Pride at stake for Hawks, Saints

Staff WriterDecember 2, 2013 

There’s nothing much more to say about the NFL’s best Monday Night Football matchup in a generation, but when the home-team quarterback speaks, I listen.

“As a player, you live for these types of games,” he said. “They don’t come along very often, so they’re exciting to be in.”

That unremarkable observation sounds like it could have been made by the Seattle Seahawks Russell Wilson, but it wasn’t. When the observation was made, Wilson was a toddler, less than a week into his “Terrible Twos.” (Or in the case of Wilson, no doubt, his “Terrific Twos.”)

The observation was made by former San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana before the 49ers faced the New York Giants on Dec. 3, 1990, the last time a Monday Night Football game boasted two teams with records as gaudy as the 10-1 Seahawks and 9-2 New Orleans Saints.

A lot about the world has changed since 1990, when cellphones were the size of car batteries and tweeting was for the birds. But in terms of hype preceding anxiously anticipated football games, 2013 has nothing on 1990.

“In the prime-time spotlight tonight are many of the finest players in the game — athletes who know that these are the games by which they are measured,” ABC commentator Frank Gifford told TV viewers before the Giants and 49ers put their 10-1 records on the line in San Francisco.

“Both teams are assured of making the playoffs already,” continued Gifford, “but these elite pro athletes will play tonight with a passion and a pride that is the purest form of competition: ‘Who’s better, you or me, baby?”

I don’t remember Gifford’s breathless buildup, but I can recall what I was doing that night (watching the game in a Chicago bar, where the TV sets were not equipped for high definition) and the faces of the five or six co-workers who surrounded me. (We’d been hired to write for an all-sports newspaper; 18 months later, all of us were looking for new jobs.)

The 49ers ended up beating the Giants, 7-3, the sort of score you don’t see anymore, thanks to NFL rules that gradually declawed defenses. In any case, the showdown was as pivotal as advertised: It enabled San Francisco to keep home-field advantage through the playoffs, setting up a Candlestick Park rematch against the Giants for the NFC championship.

Here is the twist that should scare Seattle fans: The 49ers accomplished everything they needed to accomplish from their Monday Night victory. By surviving the Giants, the two-time defending Super Bowl champs finished the regular season on cruise control.

And yet it was the Giants who went on to win the Super Bowl. Despite the season-ending foot fracture quarterback Phil Simms suffered two weeks after they were beaten in San Francisco, despite the challenge of traveling across the country to face a seemingly dominant opponent, despite playing the 49ers for eight quarters and failing to score a touchdown in any one of them, the Giants endured.

They endured because they played a classic type of prevent defense, a defense that prevented San Francisco from breaking things open in the NFC title game. Trailing 13-12, with 2 minutes, 36 seconds remaining and the 49ers in clock-killing mode, Giants defensive tackle Erik Howard – a former Washington State Cougar – crashed into running back Roger Craig, forcing a fumble that linebacker Lawrence Taylor retrieved out of the air at midfield.

Backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler, who started for the injured Simms, then threw two of the best passes of his life, putting Matt Bahr in position to kick a 42-yard field goal as time expired.

And how is any of this relevant to Monday night at CenturyLink Field? Here’s how: By beating the Saints, the Seahawks could all but clinch home-field advantage through the playoffs, just as the 49ers did with their defeat of the Giants in 1990. But home-field advantage is not to be confused with a red-carpet entrance into the Super Bowl.

Yes, I know, the home-field advantage in Seattle is tangible. If the standard home edge is worth a field goal, it’s worth a touchdown, at least, for the Hawks. And yes, I know, the Saints are an indoor team whose quarterback, Drew Brees, has a playoff history of morphing from Superdome superhero to just another flustered traveler confined to a coach-class middle seat on the four-hour flight from hell.

But what’s the more unlikely scenario? The Saints avenging their Monday night defeat against the Seahawks with a playoff upset in January, or the New York Giants avenging their 1990 Monday night defeat without scoring a touchdown, behind a backup quarterback?

I don’t mean to minimize all that’s at stake for the Hawks. Beyond the obvious home-field advantage angle, Monday night provides an infrequent chance for them to perform on a national stage. Their last appearance on Monday Night Football, a sluggish victory at St. Louis on Oct. 28, did nothing to impress skeptics.

Style points don’t count, granted, but after a weekend distinguished by a succession of incredible college rivalry games — it was difficult to top Oregon-Oregon State on Friday, but Ohio State-Michigan topped it on Saturday, before Auburn-Alabama topped everybody — the Seahawks will be asked to entertain football fans who’ve seen it all.

The Hawks are fit for the task.

But if they win, and if they win combining crisp execution with a bit of flair — ESPN viewers were treated to neither during the team’s most recent Monday Night appearance — it’s not a ticket to ride to New York City for the Super Bowl.

Who’s better, you or me?

The 49ers answered that question against the Giants in 1990. They played with a passion and pride that is the purest form of competition.

And then they watched the Super Bowl on a couch, dipping chips into salsa, laughing at the funny commercials.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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