It's a matchup made in Super Bowl Heaven: Harold Carmichael, Mount Philadelphia's wide receiver, against Lester Hayes, Oakland's catchall cornerback.
It's a duel between the strongest, most visible target in pro football (Carmichael is 6-foot-8) and the game's best secondary back. This week their strengths and weaknesses will be analyzed their personalities dissected, their expectations headlined.
There is only one hitch to all this hype: the two may see little of each other in the Super Bowl Sunday.
"I covered Harold 80 percent of the time when we played during the regular season," said Dwayne O'Steen, Oakland's other cornerback. He held Carmichael to three receptions (for 17 yards) in the Eagles' 10-7 victory over the Raiders in November. "I've got to feel that I'll see as much of him this time."
The concentration on Hayes versus Carmichael distracts from an even more intriguing matchup in this game: the significantly different methods devised by the defenses of each club to combat the liberalized NFL passing rules.
Oakland, a throwback to the NFL past, depends greatly on man-to-man coverage and physical intimidation. Philadelphia, a forerunner to the NFL future, relies heavily on combination zone defenses that revolve around the skills of the linebackers.
The Raiders dare you to throw deep. They dare you to forget the running game, to concentrate instead on those seemingly vulnerable cornerbacks, who have single coverage without the benefit of the old bump-and-run rules. "Pittsburgh and Oakland play more of this (old) type of man-to-man coverage than anyone else in the league right now," said Redskin Coach Joe Gibbs, who devised game plans against both teams this season while serving as San Diego's offensive coordinator. "To do that, you have to have great cornerbacks, because they get right up on the line and press and bump. They are going to get one shot at you on almost every play.
"Philadelphia really has a contrasting style. They want to wipe out the big play, so their corners will take a deeper drop and their linebackers will cover the short zones. They work to protect their corners."
Oakland has refused to accept what everyone else in the league has taken for granted. "The new passing rules? Heck, I don't think they've changed anything," said Willie Brown, the secondary coach who was one of the league's best cornerbacks.
"You still can bump. That's what I started to do and Lester does it now. If you know how to pull it off, you can combat the new rules."
So Hayes will line up almost on the nose of even a mammoth opponent like Carmichael and dare the opposition to try to beat him. And it looks so easy, since he can't bump the receiver beyond the first five yards. Just a few steps, avoid the bump try and there should be no way Hayes can keep up, at least not every time.
Forget it. "I'm quick enough to hit and then back up and stay with my man," Hayes said. "They all think they can beat me. But they don't. Hayes also knows that safety Mike Davis, the most savage of the Oakland hitters, is waiting in center field to help out.
The results have been sensational. In 19 games this season, Hayes has intercepted 18 passes, including five in the playoffs. And O'Steen, although not as gifted, is just as pugnacious and confident. It's almost like bypassing Ruth to get to Gehrig.
Hayes always plays the left corner. That enables the Eagles to avoid him by moving Carmichael, whose size usually deters any thought of man-to-man coverage, to the other side opposite O'Steen, who was dropped by the Rams, in part, because he was involved in fights during practice provoked by his hard tackles.
"How do you stop someone 6-8?" O'Steen said. "Well, in my case, you grow seven more inches. Barring that, you play him tough, slow him down. The key is to be patient. With the rule changes, you have to make sure you make contact on your bump. If you miss the guy at the line of scrimmage, you are in trouble. So you sit back, wait and then pounce."
And what does Carmichael think of man-to-man coverage? Is a cat happy when she spots a mouse? "I think I'm big enough to overcome any bumping tactics," he said. "Not many teams try that on me any more."
Although Eagle Coach Dick Vermeil maintains he doesn't necessarily need a productive game from Carmichael for Philadelphia to win, he still is trying to help out his No. 1 target by starting Charles Smith at the other wide receiver. Smith has a broken jaw, which remains wired shut. But he caught 47 passes before he was hurt, and is good enough to relieve some of the double-teaming on Carmichael.
If Smith can't play, then Rodney Parker, who was a deputy sheriff in New Orleans two months ago before being signed by the Eagles, will replace him. Parker might wish he still had his badge once he has to face either Hayes or O'Steen.
Although Oakland's Jim Plunkett sometimes could be arrested for impersonating a quarterback, he still has been good enough to hook up with receivers Cliff (Streak) Branch and Bob Chandler for long gainers in almost every game this season. Even against the Eagles' deep-conscious secondary, Branch managed an 86-yard touchdown in the November game.
"We had chances for four more touchdowns, too, all to Bobby," said Branch, whose speed has been liberated by the rule changes. "But a couple were overthrown and (cornerback) Roynell Young made nice plays on the other two."
Chandler, the man of a thousand moves, used nearly every one of them on the rookie Young the first game. Young deflected six passes headed toward Chandler, and has improved since then.
"They threw at me 13 times," Young said. "I'm sure they'll try it again, because I'm young. But we aren't going to get into a man-to-man thing with them. We don't play that way. We aren't going to let Branch roam around free. He's too good."
"Chandler is one of those guys that probably has benefited from the rule changes as much as anybody," Eagle cornerback Herman Edwards said. "He's quicker than you think and now you can't keep him slowed down. Once he starts going into his moves, you don't know where he is headed."
Edwards has been around long enough (four years) to lament the passing of the old days when, as Branch put it, "The cornerbacks didn't have to pass-defend; they just had to keep beating on you. Now they have to play honest."
But don't feel too sorry for Edwards. Despite the new rules, he limited Minnesota's Ahmad Rashad to one reception in the opening round of the playoffs. That's like holding Dr. J to one dunk in a pickup game.
And don't feel sorry for Carmichael, either, as he prepares for his possible matchup with Hayes. The last time they met, Carmichael wound up laughing.
"Lester just makes me laugh and smile," Carmichael said. "Just watch the gyrations he goes through before the snap. He rushes up and wiggles around. It's something to watch."
Maybe that's why Hayes is so good. His opponents donht take him seriously, even after he picks their pockets.