American Football: America revels in the last throws of Montana: Peter King says that the resurgent Dallas Cowboys may stand in the way of a dream pairing for next Sunday's Super Bowl

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The Independent Online
OH, TO be a football fan in the United States today, as four teams stand one win away from Super Bowl XXVIII in Atlanta. In one corner, the championship game of the American Football Conference: Joe Montana and the Kansas City Chiefs travel to Buffalo to play the never-say-die Bills. And in the other corner, the National Football Conference title game, between probably the two best teams in the sport: the Super Bowl defending champions Dallas play the tradition-rich San Francisco 49ers.

Each of the four teams offers an angle of extra interest. The Chiefs, for example, feature Montana, 37, perhaps the greatest quarterback in the NFL's 74-year history. He had not started a game in 30 months coming into this season, due to an assortment of injuries. But after an April trade from San Francisco, the only man to win the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player award three times is one win away from his fifth Super Bowl start.

Then there are the Bills. Three years ago, they lost Super Bowl XXV to the New York Giants, 20-19, when their 47-yard field-goal attempt went 30 inches wide with eight seconds left. Two years ago, they were embarrassed by Washington, 37-24. Last year was the worst, 52-17 to Dallas. Columnists and talk-show hosts are dreading another Buffalo appearance, and this has motivated the Bills all year. 'Let's Piss 'Em All Off,' say the T-shirts worn by Buffalo fans.

The 49ers offer the extra dimension of their strangely divided fans. Some are still bitter at the club for trading the most famous athlete ever to play in northern California, though it made football and business sense. Montana was rickety, while his successor, Steve Young, is vibrant and young enough (32) to play out the decade as one of the league's best quarterbacks. None the less, a segment of San Francisco fans will be rooting more stridently for Montana and the Chiefs than for Young and the 49ers. And a contest between Montana and Young might make for the most alluring Super Bowl since it began in 1967.

Then there are the Cowboys, battling internal and external forces to be the kings of football again. 'This year has been so much harder,' their coach, Jimmy Johnson, says, 'and, quite honestly, not as much fun.' The league's MVP, Emmitt Smith, who has won three straight NFL rushing titles, missed the first two games in a rancorous contract dispute. Johnson, four players and the team's owner, Jerry Jones, raised eyebrows about their dedication in mid-season when the six men took a day off to film a clothing commercial. And Johnson himself created a distraction by saying he'd be 'intrigued' at the prospect of leaving the Cowboys to coach a new NFL team in Jacksonville.

The added allure is that both games are too close to call. The smart money says the winner of the Dallas-San Francisco match also wins in Atlanta, but smart money never bets against Joe Montana. And smart money should not bet against Buffalo either, even though the Bills are experts at losing Super Bowls. 'I've told these guys,' the Buffalo coach, Marv Levy, said, 'that they're the most resilient team in NFL history. There's nothing they can't do.'

Dallas look the strongest of the four teams. The Cowboys have a frightening arsenal of offensive weapons, led by the arm of their quarterback, Troy Aikman, who has recovered from back surgery, and the legs of Smith. Aikman can hand the ball to Smith, he can throw to wide receiver Michael Irvin, the cockiest player in the league, or he can throw short to the bullish tight-end Jay Novacek. Dallas, however, have not always played pretty football this season, yet apart from a two-game losing slump in November, they have won all 13 games and played almost flawlessly since Smith's return to the line-up. And though it has not been as much fun as last year, Johnson says it could be more rewarding.

'We can accomplish something nobody thought we could,' he said last week. 'When we were 0-2 without Emmitt and with Troy hurting, we kept hearing we had a Super Bowl hangover, that we were going to fall on our face. But we were stubborn.' Today, we will find out how stubborn.

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