- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 9, 2001

Since the NFL went to six divisions in 1970, no two teams have dominated a division like the San Francisco 49ers and the Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams. They went 1-2 in the NFC West 11 times from 1970 to 1989 and claimed 23 of the first 25 NFC West titles.
That dominance crumbled in recent years as Carolina (1996), Atlanta (1998) and New Orleans (2000) rose up. But this season has been just like the old days with the 49ers and Rams both 9-2 heading into what should be a high-scoring showdown today in St. Louis.
"This is what makes the NFL so much fun for the fans and the media, but the real world for us is, 'Buckle up, we have a heck of a team coming in here,'" said Rams coach Mike Martz, whose team has won the past five matchups, although by just 30-26 on Sept. 23.
"This has been coming to a head for the last couple of years," Rams defensive end Grant Wistrom said. "We've been a pretty good team, and they've been improving, and now it's to a point where we are the best two teams in the conference."
The Niners defense certainly isn't fazed by the vaunted Rams offense.
"Their receivers do not want to go across the middle and get hit," San Francisco safety Lance Schulters said. "They want to catch the ball and fall down or run out of bounds. They're not even going to hit you up high when they block. They're going to try to cut you. Come on, man. They have the softest receivers in the league."
Bears-Packers
Chicago's defenders are more respectful toward quarterback Brett Favre and the Green Bay offense even though the Bears are ranked higher in scoring defense (third) than the Packers are in scoring (fifth).
"Brett's a great quarterback, and we're going to have to make some quick decisions [against him]," Bears standout safety Mike Brown said of Favre, who rallied the Packers to victories the past two weeks and is just 108 yards from becoming the first quarterback to pass for 3,000 yards in 10 straight seasons.
Chicago has gone 20 games without allowing a 100-yard rusher, but Green Bay's Ahman Green, who ran for 93 yards on 18 carries on Nov. 11, has come the closest. Green is also the only player with a run of 20 yards or more against the Bears this year.
Since Green Bay (8-3) won 20-12 in Chicago four weeks ago, another Packers victory today would move them ahead of the Bears (9-2) in the NFC Central and guarantee that both teams will finish with winning records for just the third time since 1968.
"It's going to be like the Thrilla in Manila," Packers defensive tackle Santana Dotson said. "It's going to be 15 rounds of intensity. Sometimes I wish I could grab a bag of popcorn and peanuts and go up about 10 rows and watch it myself."
The Packers are 29-10 (14-1 at Lambeau Field) during the season's final month since Favre became their quarterback in 1992. That includes a 5-1 mark against the Bears (3-0 at home). Chicago was just 2-17 on the road during the past 10 final months.
Jets-Steelers Each of these surprising AFC teams will be without a top player. Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis, the NFL's second-leading rusher with 1,072 yards (10 behind New York's Curtis Martin), suffered a serious hip injury last week against Minnesota that has caused pain and weakness in his groin and abdominal wall and also involved some internal bleeding. New York's top cornerback, Aaron Glenn, sprained his right knee last Sunday as the host Jets blew a 13-0 lead and lost 17-16 to New England.
Bettis, who makes the AFC Central-leading Steelers (9-2) go, will be replaced by fullback Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, who has just 51 carries in four seasons.
Usual Bettis backup Amos Zereoue mostly will be used on third downs because of a sore shoulder.
"I know there may be playoff implications, but it's not a playoff game," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said about resting Bettis. "It's important to keep that in mind."
Glenn might be out four weeks. Ray Mickens will take Glenn's place for the 7-4 Jets, who trail Miami by a game in the AFC East.
First-year coach Herman Edwards is a little defensive about New York's usual late-season collapses. The Jets are 14-30 in December since 1990, including last year's 1-3 finish.
"If you go back far enough, you can bring up a lot of ghosts because they didn't win a lot," Edwards said. "You want to go four years back? One year back? You want to take it back to Joe Willie [Namath]? It doesn't have to do with what we're going to do now."



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