American Football: Young guns for a super show

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The Independent Online
STEVE YOUNG must wonder what it takes to be loved. He has been a key figure in the re-emergence of the San Francisco 49ers, is the top-rated quarterback for the second successive season, and has just been voted the NFL's Most Valuable Player. Then there was the 49er fan this week who told a San Francisco phone-in that she hoped that Young broke his leg before today's play-off encounter with the Washington Redskins.

Such iniquities can only be explained by one man. Joe Montana is back. Montana, who has guided the 49ers to four Super Bowl victories, returned after two years out with an elbow injury to play in the 49ers' final regular season game against Detroit. He played the entire second half, and after shaking off some understandable rustiness began to look something like his old self.

That performance was greeted by near-delirium from the 49er faithful and has added spice to the preparation for today's game - putting quite unfair pressure on Young despite his vintage season. 'The more experience, the better. It's great having Joe back,' Young said, presumably with his fingers crossed behind his back.

Young's brilliant form means Montana goes into the game as back-up, but should the 49ers trail, and Young show signs of fallibility, then the clamour for Old Joe may be unanswerable. It should not come to that because the 49ers have been much the better side this season, and whoever they have at quarterback is likely to outshine Mark Rypien. For all that, the Redskins are the best- coached team in the league, and make a habit of winning the games that matter.

Rain is forecast for Candlestick Park, but the fans there should count themselves lucky. Snow is expected in Pittsburgh where today's other play-off game takes place, with the Steelers entertaining - if that is the right word - the Buffalo Bills. If there is a white backdrop the game can be expected to become a rushing contest between two teams particularly adept at that aspect of the game: the Bills are ranked as the leading rushing offense in the league, with an average of 152 yards per game, while the Steelers are rated No 2 in the AFC.

Tomorrow's already eagerly awaited confrontation between Dallas and Philadelphia could be raised yet another notch on the intensity scale if Andre Waters, the Eagles safety, plays. Waters has been out for nearly three months after breaking his leg, and was thought to be lost for the season. However, unflattering televised comments by Dallas's Emmitt Smith - describing Waters as the dirtiest player in the league - have provided the ultimate incentive for Waters to make today's game. 'It's been burning inside of me, what he said. (It) motivated me more to push myself to get back as soon as possible, to get another shot at the Cowboys,' Waters said.

The final game of the weekend sees San Diego go to Miami fresh from the comprehensive culling of Kansas City. They look the most certain winners of the weekend. The others should be Buffalo, Dallas and San Francisco.