San Francisco Chronicle

Thoughts of Bay Area Bowl suddenly seem absurd
January 03, 2003

KEEPING IN mind that the hardest question to answer is the one that requires proving a negative, we'll ask it anyway.

You know what you haven't heard lately? The Raiders-49ers Super Bowl scenario.

Weird, too, because it was all over the place last year. Then again, Oakland and San Francisco had shared playoff experiences only twice before, in 1970 and 1972, so this was not only new, but at least in the case of the 49ers, exciting.

At least for the seven days it took for the Packers to drive the 49er Faithful back to their familiar fallback position of blaming Steve Mariucci for single-handedly destroying the franchise.

But now both teams are back, and while there is much talk of the Raiders getting to San Diego despite the usually insurmountable burden of being the top seed in the AFC, nobody is talking up the 49ers as a potential partner.

No, the Westies are working from a position of extreme public lack of sentiment, almost as if they were the NFC's Cleveland Browns (and you make any Carmen Policy-based comparisons you like, just as long as you keep them to yourselves).

The Raiders have it all their own way, of course, having proven that they can win throwing 65 passes in September and win throwing 14 passes in December.

They have the league MVP, the finest wide receiver God ever slapped a coat of paint on, an offensive line that is the team's best since the Upshaw-Shell- Otto Era, and a Top 10-quality defense. Why, if they hadn't returned October for a factory recall . . . but you know the rest.

The 49ers, however, "endured" a 10-6 record, albeit while playing with injury-depleted 10-6 talent. They won only two of those 10 games by more than a touchdown, and their six losses came by an average of nearly 10 points. They covered the spread less often than every team in the league but St. Louis and Cincinnati.

Plus, the shouted wisdom is that without a win this Sunday against the Giants, Mariucci will be fired. Not eased out. Not resigned. Not unrenewed. There won't be an uncomfortably transparent show/show trial the way there was when George Seifert got "resigned."

We'll be talking fired, as in kicked down a flight of stairs, sent skidding down the driveway, declared a nonperson by the proudly revisionist Faithful. Dick Nolan to the end.

Now tell me what about this vision suggests Super Bowl contender. Go on, we've got time. Waiter, we'll need a little more time if you don't mind.

Maybe if they'd been an AFC team, you could have more faith. After all, eight of the past 10 AFC Super Bowl representatives were not top seeded, while eight of the past 10 from the NFC have been.

But no, that isn't it, either. Every AFC team but the Browns has reason to dream those dreamy dreams, and the Browns are just at that new-car-smell stage, postseasonally-speaking.

There's something that doesn't seem quite right about the 49ers, at least by the prevailing community standard of beating every team by 30 and then winning the three playoff games by 40.

Their flaws are clear to see. They are the fourth-best team in the conference entirely on merit. Even Raiders fans have lost a bit of their rhetorical zeal about the team across the pond, because they are aiming at significantly larger fish.

The 49ers are aiming that way, too, but outside their private little quilting bee, the only topic in play is whether they can beat the Giants on Sunday and save Mariucci's job.

If it was hard to see them in San Diego just on the basis of their talent level and results to date, it is almost impossible to see them there when Job No. 1 is keeping the coach from chasing the Cincinnati job.

See, what the Raiders-49ers rivalry needs is a commonality of hatred, and right now, the Raiders don't have the time to spare. They are still waiting to learn whether it's the Jets, Colts or Browns they need to loathe first. They are trying to determine whether there is another Baltimore Ravens lurking under cover, ready to deal them the shot they never saw coming two years ago.

The 49ers are not their problem. The 49ers are the 49ers' problem, as they have been since they lost to the Chargers in Week 11.

So Jan. 26 will just have to take care of itself this time. If the Raiders and 49ers do meet, all we can say is that they will be nearly as surprised as the rest of us.

Tell us what you think on the new 49ers Clubhouse message board.