The ninth week of the National Football League season may appear no more significant than any other. Certainly the results of Sunday's games don't weigh more heavily in the standings.
Nevertheless, keen-eyed NFL watchers know that Week 9 begins the second semester of a 16-week regular season, and thus can be a revealing indicator of where teams are physically and mentally as they make the turn for home.
On that basis, the San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos are the favorites to land in Super Bowl XXXII, to be played in San Diego Jan. 25. They are the only teams with 8-1 records, and each has a prerequisite for any serious contender - seasoned leadership at quarterback. Steve Young guides the 49ers, John Elway the Broncos.
Although both are superlative passers (Elway, in fact, moved into second place in career passing yards Sunday with 47,019 yards), their teams have very clearly not neglected the run.
Entering Sunday's game against Dallas, San Francisco's running game had accounted for 42 percent of the team's offense and led the National Football Conference with a 138-yard rushing average. The Broncos, meanwhile, have gotten consistent production from Terrell Davis, who compiled more than 100 yards in Denver's 30-27 win over Seattle.
Anyone who figured that San Francisco's hopes clung desperately to Young's throwing arm had to think again after seeing Garrison Hearst churn out 104 yards against the slumping Cowboys, whose failures are reflected in Emmitt Smith's frustrations. Smith, who left the game with an injury, has scored only one touchdown all season, as Dallas dipped below .500 (4-5).
At one point earlier in the campaign, word circulated around the league that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was contemplating coaching the team himself. He might be seriously tempted now, especially given the team's repeated frustrations in the so-called red zone - the territory near the goal line where Dallas has been forced to settle for field goals over touchdowns with disturbing regularity.
It happened again Sunday, when the 49ers mounted a critical goal-line stand to deny Dallas a third-quarter touchdown in a 17-10 defensive struggle. On the pivotal third-down play, San Francisco linebacker Ken Norton roared into the Dallas backfield to jam traffic and contribute to a three-yard loss.
Both San Francisco and Dallas are teams trying to regain eroded glory, and the 49ers are the ones succeeding. Before the season, however, many questioned the Niners' wisdom in hiring Steve Mariucci, who spent one year coaching the University of California to replace George Seifert.
Even with a 7-1 record at midseason, San Francisco hadn't convinced skeptics that they'd really been tested while feasting on weak NFC West division rivals. The victory over Dallas was its first outside the division and confirmed that these 49ers are for real.
The Broncos also look formidable, yet they know how elusive the grand prize - a league championship - can be. Denver has made it to the Super Bowl on four previous occasions and lost each time. Denver's conference, the American, is seeking to snap a 13-year NFC run of Super Bowl dominance.
The defending champion Green Bay Packers are in a neck-and-neck division race with the Minnesota Vikings, whose coach, Dennis Green, has caused a furor with a controversial plan for buying the team outlined in his newly released book, "No Room for Crybabies."
The Packers seem to have lost some of their edge, but they are still far better off than the team they beat in last January's Super Bowl, the reeling New England Patriots, who've now lost their last three games to fall to 5-4.
The irony here is that New England is a game behind the New York Jets, the very team that hired former Patriot architect Bill Parcells to coach last season's worst team. Some have said that Parcells, whose bitter departure from New England grew out of differences with management, inherited the NFL's best 1-15 team.
Still, few anticipated the Jets would now be 6-3, nor that the New York Giants would also lead their division (the NFC East) with an identical mark. Last year New York was an NFL wasteland. Now Parcells and new Giants coach Jim Fassell have recharged the Big Apple for the league.