With the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers gone, the New York Giants and Chicago Bears, two big-shouldered teams with foundations about as old as the league itself, play Sunday at Soldier Field in Chicago.
It could turn into a war of attrition. The first team to drop loses. The last team to collapse advances.
"We are hungry," Giants linebacker Andy Headen said after New York's 17-3 upset of the 49ers. "The Bears don't know it, but we are hungry. It's gonna be hard, with them picked to win the Super Bowl. But I want them to know that the Giants are coming."
It's likely this week will be filled with beastly talk. The Giants (11-6) are playing just the way a coach would have them play at this time of year. Except for kicker Eric Schubert (who missed three field goals), they were practically flawless in the way they picked apart the 49ers, piece by piece.
"If they play the way they played us, they can give Chicago trouble," said San Francisco running back Roger Craig, who dropped six passes and gained just 23 yards on nine carries.
The Bears (15-1), who have the only defense in the National Football League ranked higher than the Giants, are known to be even meaner and tougher than New York.
"Since we wrapped up the home field a few weeks ago, we really haven't had an incentive," defensive end Dan Hampton told the Chicago Tribune. "Now with the playoffs, we have something to prove. Our emotion is going to be high.
"Whether or not the Giants can get up for it doesn't matter to us. I know we'll be up."
It's likely the Giants, who became the first team in 41 games to not allow the 49ers (10-7) to score a touchdown, will be as ready as the Bears. They clobbered what was widely preceived as the offense of the '80s the other day, and they like to believe there's no stopping them now.
"Offensively, defensively, it didn't matter," quarterback Phil Simms said. "All day long I felt that if we had to get something done, we were going to get it done."
When reporter after reporter asked why, Simms and his teammates pointed a finger at five people. The offensive linemen.
"Our line did a helluva job," Simms said. "No question, the difference between this year's team and last year's team is our offensive line."
Said guard Chris Godfrey: "We couldn't wait to get out of the huddle. It wasn't if we were gonna block them. It was which block we were gonna use to beat them."
Simms never was sacked. He threw for 181 yards. Joe Morris ran for 141. If there's one point of strategy the Giants say made their season, it was a balanced offense. If there's one game that proved that, it was Sunday's.
Something else became very clear at Giants Stadium: it is becoming increasingly difficult to made back-to-back appearances in the Super Bowl.
The Washington Redskins were the last team to do it, winning in 1982, losing in 1983. Pittsburgh was the last before that, winning in 1978 and 1979.
The 49ers have won two of the last four Super Bowls, but have fallen far the following season. In 1981, they went 13-3 and beat Cincinnati, 26-21, in the Super Bowl. In 1982, they dropped to 3-6 in the strike season.
Last season, they went 15-1 and beat Miami, 38-16, for the NFL title. This season, they hit hard times, losing to Minnesota and New Orleans, among others.
"It kind of caught up to San Francisco like it caught up to us last year," Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs said yesterday. "It was a string of bad things . . . people get injured, play nicked.
"I still think it's a possibility (to repeat as NFL champion), but there are so many things to overcome, physically and mentally. You have to have that same drive, that same intensity. Sometimes, that's hard to do."
Redskins General Manager Bobby Beathard agreed.
"What a team effort it is getting there, and how different it is after that," Beathard said. "You have to be relatively injury-free, and you need to have a year of selflessness. You can't have selfish players, or too many of them.
"I've seen it in contract negotiations, and I know other people I've talked to around the league have seen it too. Instead of being 100 percent team-oriented, some guys think they are a little more important. The only way to get back there is with a team effort."
The 49ers certainly suffered more than their share of injuries, many of them aggravated by the Giants.
"I don't think we have to apologize for anything," San Francisco Coach Bill Walsh said. "We were beaten by a team that just outplayed us and won a game they should have won. We had internal problems related to injuries, but that is our business.
"If we would have won," Walsh added, "I really don't know how we would have played the Bears."