We all know that the San Francisco 49ers are the team of the 1980s. Maybe the 1990s. Maybe the millenium. The team owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. is one of the great benevolent despots in Western history. While others fiddle and let franchises burn, the 49ers' personnel department stokes the fireplace with a constant infusion of talent. Former coach Bill Walsh, the architect of the team's rise to the top, has won every plaudit short of the Nobel Peace Prize.

George Seifert, Walsh's successor, has an even more sparkling record. And Joe Montana is now routinely cited as the finest field general since Patton. With more endorsements and a warmer personality.

Yes, the 49ers are the Now team, the club that epitomizes everything noble about the National Football League.

Isn't it a shame they have to cheat?

League rules are specific. When someone is going to suit up for a game, the press and public must be informed. The idea was to prevent insiders from alerting bettors or bookmakers about dramatic changes in lineups.

When Pete Rozelle installed the rule, he certainly was not advocating gambling. He was protecting against potential scandal. When men of the stature of Shula, Landry or Noll complied, they definitely were not applauding the existence of point spreads. They were facing a reality. And helping to ensure the integrity of the game.

The 49ers apparently are above all this. Last Sunday, hours before a home game against the Saints, Montana discovered that he had a pulled abdominal muscle. Unbeknownst to the medical community and most of the free world, Joe didn't put on his uniform. This was great news for the Saints, who won to keep their playoff hopes alive. It was not cause for balloons or parades among the Dallas Cowboys, who are battling the Saints for the final playoff berth.

This is no suggestion of foul play. But they did break the rules. And they should pay.

The episode was a mere prelude to the potholes and the pitfalls of this last week of regular season play. In all too many games along this last lonely mile, the question is not who is best. It's who cares.

The most flagrant example came from the San Diego Chargers. The Kansas City Chiefs, who will play the Bears in Chicago Saturday, still hope to snatch the AFC West title from the Raiders. But should the Chiefs win, they still would need a Sunday upset of the Raiders by the Chargers.

What they will get is a Chargers rookie quarterback from that cradle of passers, the University of Idaho. The 10th quarterback selected in a weak draft for quarterbacks, John Friesz has never taken a snap in a regular season game. Meet the Silver and Black, John. Say good night to your title hopes, Chiefs.

Again, this isn't corrupt. It's just unfair. Life is unfair. And that fact applies particularly to sports. Never forget that we dwell in the land of the free and the home of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas as national basketball champ.

This brings us to the inevitable puzzles about the last week of every season. Again, who cares?

A few quick answers come to mind. The Bears and Bills know exactly where they fit into the playoff picture. They will still try. Neither of these physical clubs got this far on a diet of real or imagined pulled groins.

A striking case in point is Neal Anderson, perhaps the best running back in the league. He is banged up and the Bears would have an excuse to rest and protect him. Rest and protect are two words that are not included in Mike Ditka's dictionary. It is part of the grandeur of the franchise that Bears play hurt. Anderson will play.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are the road-map teams. The fighting spirits who have spent the last week of practice contemplating the fastest interstate to hearth and home. Off hand, three examples come to mind.

After a mid-season smoke-and-mirrors demonstration of what appeared to be character, the Vikings have mailed in the season like a used Christmas card. With postage due.

Years ago, somebody convinced the Jets that the season was about 12 games long. So they tend to peak at about Game 10. Then it's all downhill.

Coach Joe Bugel has done a terrific job telling the Cardinals that they can play. This week he faces his biggest challenge.

How do we make sense of all this? The same way we have through a dismal .500 season I guess. We attack the schedule with vigor, figuring that if we care enough maybe the teams will too.

The Seahawks, rated 2 1/2 over the Lions, are dreadful home favorites. But Coach Chuck Knox has done a tremendous job to get them within reach of the playoffs. Detroit is coming off two emotional victories over divisional rivals, and may be ripe for a letdown. Seattle minus the 2 1/2.

The Bears and Chiefs are pick 'em in Soldier Field. The Bears are unbeaten at home this year. But the Chiefs are great stretch runners: they have covered in 14 of their last 15 closing games. Take the Chiefs at pick 'em.

The Eagles are 7 1/2-point favorites in Phoenix. This is the highest road price on Philadelphia since 1980. And I generally don't lay more than a touchdown in anything short of the Grenada invasion. But the Eagles are great finishers, especially on the road. The Cardinals have managed to cover in two of their last 11 finales. The Eagles are entering the playoffs on a hot streak. Eagles minus the 7 1/2.

The Redskins are five over the Bills at RFK. These are quality teams that will be playing hard. The Bills could have a letdown after their big victory over the Dolphins. But I doubt it. Reluctantly, I'm going for the ol' Better Team theory. Bills plus five.

After last week's subterfuge, the Niners owe us all one. They are favored by three at Minnesota. They have also covered 12 of their last 13 late-season road games. The Vikings don't care. Why should you? Niners minus the three.

Last week: The Chiefs, giving two at San Diego, made it closer than it should have been, but survived, 24-21. The Bengals, getting two from the Oilers, galloped, 40-20. A plea of temporary insanity has been filed after I picked the Patriots to beat anyone: the Jets, giving seven, squashed them, 42-7. The Dolphins may have come more from the heart than from the head. The Bills whipped them, 24-14. In a Sunday night rocking chair, the Seahawks laid 4 1/2 and overwhelmed Denver by five, 17-12.

Total for the week: 3-2.

Total for the season: 40-40.