SAN FRANCISCO -- The Washington Redskins can win. Not on flukes or miracles or the law of averages finally catching the San Francisco 49ers. Washington can beat the back-to-back Super Bowl champs in their Candlestick Park home on Saturday because, right now, the rising Redskins may be better than the slumping Niners and because the Redskins match up with the 49ers better than anybody else.
The Redskins can win, because, since Thanksgiving, they have beaten four playoff teams -- the Dolphins, Bears, Bills and Eagles. Nobody else is that hot. They routed Dan Marino and Don Shula. They edged Mike Ditka in a game in which five interceptions should have doomed them. They kept the powerful Bills from crossing midfield until the second half. And they whipped Randall Cunningham and the Eagles so badly in Philly that Buddy Ryan got fired.
Meanwhile, the Niners have been in a six-week funk, losing to the Rams and Saints and getting scared to death by almost anybody. That's why Niners Coach George Seifert has been so paranoid all week. He should be. He's worried.
The Redskins can win because, at the moment, they have the NFL's best running game. And the 49ers have one of the worst. If you can run on the folks the Redskins have been shoving around, such as the Eagles' No. 1-ranked rushing defense, then why can't you move the Niners' No. 3-ranked rushing defense? The Hogs are back in Riggo Drill form and Earnest Byner is on a lifetime vindication roll.
If the Redskins can run adequately, the 49ers will be in shock. "Whether or not we can stop their running attack is the key to this game," said 49ers defensive end Kevin Fagan. "They're basic, but they've been doing it so long that they do it better than anybody."
San Francisco's ground game has been so pathetic that six straight foes have played nickel or dime defenses against the 49ers for the whole game and flourished. San Francisco points and yards went down so fast that, now, even the Niners admit they'll abandon the run and pass from the get go.
This has been a revelation to the Redskins, who can't wait to go to the nickel with A. J. Johnson helping Martin Mayhew with John Taylor. The Redskins already had Darrell Green to clamp on Jerry Rice, one on one, a luxury no other team has. And Redskins linebackers such as Wilber Marshall, Monte Coleman and the emerging Andre Collins are good enough to neutralize the Niners' short-passing game to their backs and tight ends.
Ask yourself this: In the playoffs, when one team plans to throw 35-40 times out of necessity while the other plans to run 35-40 times out of choice, who usually wins?
The Redskins can win because Joe Gibbs is one of his generation's great postseason coaches (12-3), while George Seifert hasn't really proved who or what he is -- except that he's the extremely nervous man who inherited Bill Walsh's team and hasn't messed it up. Yet.
The Redskins can win because they are peaking and finding an identity while the 49ers aren't quite sure who they are these days. Washington knows what it can do: Run the ball, play conservative offense, keep pressure off erratic Mark Rypien and utilize a bend-don't-break style of defense using 18 players in a maze of situation subbing. The 49ers desperately are trying to turn back into the Niners of '81 on the fly. Then, Joe Montana was the whole show. Can they switch back in one week?
The Redskins can even win because there is a 60 percent chance of rain. "I don't want it to rain," said 49er Seifert Friday. Rain doesn't help a precise, possession passing game. The Redskins are designed for muck and love it. That's why they never practice indoors or go to warm weather sites.
Of course, the 49ers can win too.
Montana passed for 390 yards in September. He could do it again. The man has 19 TD passes and one interception in the past two postseasons. Rice and Taylor have beaten the best and could do it again. The 49ers' defense reaches a higher plane in January. And at times Washington's defense has been erratic.
Still, the Redskins can win because they are scared to death of the 49ers, as they should be, while San Francisco can't quite be afraid of a team it beat so comfortably, 26-13, so recently. Asked one week ago who he'd like to play, the 49ers or the Giants, Gibbs said: "We haven't been able to beat either of 'em. Can I pick 'C'?"
The question in every mind is: Who will show up? The Niners and Redskins of the past three years? In which case the Niners would dominate. Or the two teams of recent weeks; in which case a tight, tense game would seem inevitable.
"You'd have to say that the playoffs for a team is whatever its season has been like," said the 49ers' Matt Millen Friday. "For instance, last year we were an offensive team. This year, we've been a defensive team."
Even Millen acknowledges the Niners have not been in the same mood they achieved last January. "It's been a strange week," he said. "Anxiety, paranoia, silliness, uncertainty."
Are the 7 1/2-point underdog Redskins, who were in such a shaky state after confidence-numbing losses to Dallas and Indianapolis, really ready to pull off an upset that would have to be called historic?
Sure. As Charles Mann said: "We're flying around, playing inspired. That's the main difference. It didn't look like that or seem like that earlier in the season." But, as Marshall amended: "We've played better, but not as well as we can or as well as we'll have to."
The 49ers have enormous reserves of mystique to fall back upon, while much of the Redskins' poise and fire seems to have been born yesterday. Even if the Redskins can win, when it comes right down to it, will they?
It says here that, in a tight game, they will have that chance. Smart people never bet a dime against athletes such as Montana and the 49ers. But these are just words, not dollars, so lets make it Washington 20, San Francisco 17.