Redskins, Raiders expected to gain passage to Super Bowl XVIII
It could all change Sunday, of course. Upsets are always the unknown factor in any sporting contest. But the two National Football League teams most likely to face each other in Super Bowl XVIII on Jan. 22 in Tampa, Fla., are the defending champion Washington Redskins and the Los Angeles Raiders.
Washington, after knocking the Los Angeles Rams out of the playoffs 51-7, still has to go through the formality of beating the San Francisco 49ers at home next Sunday.
However, not much hope is held for San Francisco, which had its playoff stay extended only when Detroit's Eddie Murray missed a 43-yard field goal with 11 seconds showing on the game clock, allowing the 49ers to escape with a 24-23 victory.
The Raiders, who do a lot of things well defensively, play host to the surprising Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. Like the Redskins, the Raiders also had a game in which they did almost everything right last weekend as they wrapped the Pittsburgh Steelers' playoff season in mothballs, 38-10.
While most of the Raiders are charter members of the Theater of the Bizarre, they are also opportunists. They seem to feed on other people's mistakes. They also have a very smart quarterback in Jim Plunkett, and a fine running back in Marcus Allen.
Nevertheless the Seahawks, who upset the Miami Dolphins 27-20 in the AFC playoffs, have had a truly remarkable season. Although this was supposed to be a rebuilding year for new Seattle coach Chuck Knox, his team didn't play like it.
Instead the Seahawks kept improving, made the playoffs as a 9-7 wild-card team, and committed only one turnover in their win against the Dolphins. They also beat the Raiders twice (38-36 and 34-21) during the regular season.
In fact, the Seahawks have beaten the Raiders the last three times the teams have met, but they haven't yet done it under playoff conditions - and this could make a tremendous difference in what happens on Sunday.
The veteran Raiders, who like to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, are expected to blitz frequently against Seahawk QB Dave Krieg, while assigning at least one defender to shadow rookie running back Curt Warner. Curt was the AFC's rushing leader during the regular season.
The thing to look for in the NFC championship game between Washington and San Francisco is the same thing Redskin fans have been cheering all year - the passing of quarterback Joe Theismann and the running of John Riggins.
Theismann is a gifted field general who buys the time needed to find his receivers by staying in the pocket and waiting until someone gets open. Riggins, who doesn't seem to need a lot of blockers to get where he is going, often has big holes open for him anyway.
If anyone needs to be reminded, Washington under head coach Joe Gibbs has now won five consecutive playoff games, including last year's Super Bowl against Dallas. Overall, the Redskins have lost only three times in their last 33 starts; twice to Dallas and once to Green Bay. (Due to the vagaries of the NFL schedule, they haven't played the 49ers in either the regular season or the playoffs since a 30-17 San Francisco victory early in 1981.)
''I think the main reason the Redskins have remained a consistent football team is because Gibbs keeps telling us that the only way we can be sure to win is by playing together,'' Theismann explained. ''He even teaches us as a whole rather than as individuals. He's also pretty good each week at coming up with game plans that our opponents can't handle.''
The 49ers, of course, have a pretty good coach of their own in Bill Walsh, a top quarterback in Joe Montana, and a team that was good enough to be a Super Bowl winner itself just two years ago. But their much less impressive showing last weekend coupled with the fact that the game is in Washington makes them an underdog this time around.