SAN FRANCISCO — The dank, dilapidated underbelly of Candlestick Park, a stadium then-49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo famously called a "pigsty" 27 years ago, is a wretched place for a Sunday stroll, especially with a cramped NFL locker room as the ultimate destination.
Yet as I made my way through the tunnel at the southeast corner of the 'Stick in the aftermath of the Niners' 27-13 victory over the Miami Dolphins, it felt like a walk down memory lane.
While covering the Niners on a daily basis in the late '80s and early '90s, some of the beat writers and I made it a habit to wait for star safety Ronnie Lott – the greatest defensive back of his generation, and a faithful dispenser of wisdom and perspective – to close out our locker-room visits by telling us what it all meant.
Sometimes, Lott's words shredded our desired storylines. In 1990, as the two-time defending Super Bowl champs raced out to a 10-0 start, Lott's weekly mantra was, "We're not [expletive]. Great teams don't become great until November or December."
Twenty-two years later, after a second consecutive Sunday in December when perceived powers imploded and playoff contenders regressed, I wondered if Lott would amend his words to fit the 21st century NFL. In this current landscape, perhaps, great teams don't become great until January or February.
Or, scarier still: Perhaps great teams no longer exist at all.
It was tough not to draw that conclusion after a Sunday that saw six teams that began the day with legitimate postseason aspirations fall to opponents with worse records. As with Week 13, when the 49ers suffered a shocking overtime defeat to the St. Louis Rams and the defending champion New York Giants succumbed to rookie extraordinaire Robert Griffin III and a late Washington Redskins rally, presumed Super Bowl contenders had their blemishes exposed in high-def clarity.
This time, the Atlanta Falcons (11-2), owners of the NFC's best record, got rolled by the hapless Carolina Panthers, and the AFC North-leading Baltimore Ravens blew a late eight-point lead to the Redskins' other rookie quarterback (Kirk Cousins, who relieved the injured RG3) and lost in overtime.
"It happens," said Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, whose team has now dropped consecutive games and hosts the Ronda Rousey-hot Denver Broncos next Sunday. "Parity, bro – that's what makes this the best game in the world."
When I asked Ayanbadejo what ultimately sets the great teams apart, he replied, "Timing. There's no such thing as a great team. It's just timing."
We certainly saw this last year with the Giants, who used a dramatic comeback triumph over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 14 as a springboard to an unlikely playoff berth and, ultimately, a championship run.
The previous year the Green Bay Packers needed a pair of victories to close the regular season to earn a wild-card berth – and promptly went on a rampage that ended with a Super Bowl ring ceremony.
Then there were the 2008 Arizona Cardinals, whose 47-7 defeat to the New England Patriots in Week 16 was so humiliating that even they wrote themselves off.
"We got [expletive]-whipped by the Patriots, and we knew we weren't good enough," recalled Dolphins linebacker Karlos Dansby, who played for that Cardinals team. "It was an eye-opener, and that kind of changed our whole level of focus."
The Cards, 8-7 at the time, won their next four games to reach their first Super Bowl and ultimately came within 35 seconds of bringing home a title.
Were those teams great? Perhaps not in the classic, 1989 Niners sense of the word, but such is life in 2012. If nothing else, today's NFL is great fun, as we saw on an action-packed afternoon that featured four games in which the winning points were scored in the final two minutes or overtime. There have been 47 such games this season, tied for the highest total through the first 14 weeks since the 1970 merger.
Throw in the fact that only three teams (the Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars) had been eliminated from the playoffs before Sunday, and you can close your eyes and hear the voice of the great gladiator Maximus intoning, "Are you not entertained?"
So, if not a great team, was there a championship-worthy squad on display during Week 14?
If so, it certainly wasn't the current Cardinals, whose 58-0 road defeat to the Seattle Seahawks represented a new standard of embarrassment. (It may, however, have been the 8-5 'Hawks, whose Dec. 23 rematch with the Niners at CenturyLink Field could decide the NFC West title, depending upon how San Francisco fares on the road against the Pats next Sunday night.)
Could it have been the 'Skins (7-6), whose fourth consecutive victory allowed them to remain a game behind the Giants, 52-27 winners over the New Orleans Saints, in the NFC East? Or, for those who prefer symmetry, might it have been the Cowboys (7-6), who also kept pace in the division by overcoming a late, nine-point deficit and beating the Cincinnati Bengals, 20-19, on Dan Bailey's last-second 40-yard field goal.
It was an emotional triumph for the Cowboys, who were reeling from the horrible news they received Saturday morning: A car accident had claimed the life of practice-squad linebacker Jerry Brown. The driver, nose tackle Josh Brent, was jailed and charged with intoxication manslaughter.
As with the Chiefs the previous Sunday, the Cowboys should be commended for the collective focus they displayed in the wake of an organization-rattling tragedy.
Because of that backdrop, Dallas' triumph was the story of a day that also featured a last-second touchdown pass by Philadelphia Eagles rookie Nick Foles (against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are fighting for an NFC wild-card spot); another comeback victory led by Indianapolis Colts rookie passer Andrew Luck, over the Tennessee Titans (ho hum); and the Chicago Bears' second consecutive defeat to an underdog opponent, this time the Minnesota Vikings, imperiling their playoff hopes and perhaps impacting the job security of coach Lovie Smith.
Then there was the three-pronged AFC North biff, which included the Ravens (9-4) falling to the Redskins, the Bengals (7-6) slipping against the Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6) – despite the return of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger – face-planting at home against the San Diego Chargers (5-8), three days after a San Diego Union-Tribune report that coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith will be fired at season's end.
Next Sunday's game in Baltimore between the Ravens and Broncos (10-3) should give us a better idea of the AFC's pre-playoff pecking order, joining potentially illuminating clashes between the 49ers and Patriots and the Giants and Falcons. If these games don't confer greatness on the winners, watching them unfold should at least be interesting.
"It always is," said Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, mindful of his team's tendency to turn its intensity on and off like Metallica's amps.
While Sunday's game at Candlestick wasn't especially compelling – the signature moment came just before the two-minute warning when quarterback Colin Kaepernick faked a third-and-5 handoff to halfback Frank Gore, bolted around left end and raced to a 50-yard touchdown – it did reveal something about a San Francisco team that seems poised to compete for a sixth Super Bowl ring.
When it comes to bouncing back, the Niners are pretty damned good. In the games following its three defeats, as well as last month's 24-24 tie with the Rams, San Francisco has outscored opponents 106-26 while going 4-0.
In the wake of their frustrating defeat in St. Louis in Week 13, reports of the 49ers' demise once again proved to be greatly exaggerated.
"They're really, really good," Dolphins halfback Reggie Bush said of the Niners, and teammate Dansby agreed, adding, "They're well-coached. They play hard. They play real hard. And they're tough to beat."
On an upset-filled Sunday, in the bowels of an aging pigsty that will soon become extinct (the 49ers will move into a sparkling new stadium in Santa Clara for the 2014 season), sloppy San Francisco was good enough to subdue Miami (5-8). Whether the Niners will be great come January and February remains to be seen, and it's not likely to be revealed until the postseason begins, at the earliest.
As he stood at a locker not far from the one Lott occupied more than two decades earlier, San Francisco tackle Joe Staley didn't even try to make sense of his team's bipolar December.
"I don't think anybody's ever figured out the NFL," Staley said. "That's why you play the games."
And in 2012, it's when you play your best that gives you a chance to have greatness conferred, deserved or otherwise.
It's all about timing, and for NFL fans seeking drama, that means good times lie ahead.
1. Adrian Peterson continues to rebound from last year's torn ACL by tearing up the league like never before: The Vikings' unparalleled halfback ran for 154 yards on 31 carries in Sunday's victory over the Bears, putting him 400 yards away from 2,000 with three games to play. If you think there's a chance "AD" will be denied access to that exclusive club that includes O.J. Simpson, Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis, Jamal Lewis and Chris Johnson, I think you're in denial. We're watching one of the best backs in history, in his prime, and he's getting better every week. "Yeah," said Peterson's backup, Toby Gerhart. "He's a monster!"
2. Wait, all of a sudden the Packers can run? Despite season-ending injuries to former starters Cedric Benson and James Starks, Green Bay churned out 140 rushing yards in Sunday night's 27-20 victory over the Lions, on the heels of a 152-yard output vs. the Vikes the previous week. Remember two years ago, when Starks' sudden emergence in the Pack's playoff opener provided the balance that helped stoke an Aaron Rodgers-led Super Bowl run? Is it happening again? If so, watch out.
3. It's quite possible that Turner (Chargers), Andy Reid (Eagles), Ron Rivera (Panthers) and Pat Shurmur (Browns) will all be fired after the season, but the quartet of embattled head coaches fielded teams that played hard and earned victories on Sunday, so congratulations to them. I have a sneaking suspicion that Rivera may remain employed in Carolina, and we should start to consider the possibility that the Browns' recent run of success could save Shurmur.
4. The Rams (6-6-1) don't have anything close to .500 talent, but they've got a terrific coach in Jeff Fisher and an intriguing schedule (Vikings, at Bucs, at Seahawks) the rest of the way. It seems crazy, given what would have to happen for St. Louis to pull it off, but this team could sneak into the playoffs by winning out. Next year, after he and general manager Les Snead continue their reshaping of the roster, Fisher will get the Rams to the postseason legitimately.
5. Remember when Antonio Bryant threw his jersey at then-Cowboys coach Bill Parcells? According to a report by Mike Fisher of Dallas' 105.3 The Fan, nose tackle Jay Ratliff recently one-upped Bryant, and then some: Physically challenging Jerry Jones and making a derisive comment about the owner's age is a whole other level of mouthing off to the boss.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. How much caffeine (and, specifically, Peet's iced tea) enhances my outlook on life, on a consistently satisfying basis.
2. Why any NFL player who has had even a couple of alcoholic beverages would decide not to take advantage of the confidential, 24-hour car service provided by the NFLPA – or, failing that, a good, old-fashioned taxi or limo. I realize that many young athletes have a bulletproof mentality, and that alcohol impairs judgment, leading to poor decision-making, and that a lot of people in our society drive while intoxicated on a regular basis. It's time to end the excuse-making and effect change, and perhaps this is one area in which professional football players really can be role models.
As we've seen so many times in the past, including then-Browns receiver Donte' Stallworth's DUI manslaughter conviction three years ago, and as this latest incident involving the Cowboys' Josh Brent (and which claimed the life of Jerry Brown, his friend and teammate) reaffirms, the cost of carelessness is hauntingly steep. The sad thing is that, given the enthusiasm so many fans display toward NFL players, most partying members of the home team could probably coax a free ride from about 80 percent of their fellow bar patrons. Getting behind the wheel drunk is inexcusable, especially when getting someone else to drive you home is so ridiculously easy.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE THE DAWN
While I'm proud of the Cowboys for fighting through their grief and displaying commendable focus in Sunday's victory over the Bengals, I'd like to voice my displeasure toward one member of the team's coaching staff, who flat-out lost his mind at a key juncture of the game. A few minutes into the third quarter, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan received an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty after walking onto the field and seemingly spewing a stream of expletives at Bengals tackle Andre Smith during a play. So, instead of second-and-16 from the Dallas 18-yard line, Cincinnati parlayed Ryan's mistake into a first-and-goal at the 9. Ultimately, Dallas held the Bengals to a field goal, which gave Cincinnati a 16-10 lead. And, in the end, Ryan walked off a winner. However, if I'm Cowboys coach Jason Garrett – or Jones – I'd be losing patience with Ryan, a talented strategist who needs to take a chill pill, and be still, if he wants to maintain the privilege of standing on the sidelines during NFL games.
First of all, Rob, perspective: A player you coached died on Saturday, so maybe refrain from escalating a petty argument to the point of spectacle. Secondly, while I know this may be hard to stomach, the game is not about you. The dudes in pads and helmets are out there slamming into one another; your job is to coach 'em up and get out of the way. If you don't like it, to borrow from my old friend Warren Sapp: Put a jersey on. In the meantime, don't engage in impulsive, grandstanding behavior that could cost your team a game – and, by extension, cost Garrett his job.
TEXT/DIRECT MESSAGE/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
– Text Sunday afternoon from Chargers linebacker Takeo Spikes.
"That we have a long way to go"
– Text Sunday evening from Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, on what the 58-0 victory over the Cardinals told him about his team.
"Adrian Peterson has a disorder called gaining 25 yards per run"
– Text Sunday afternoon from my 13-year-old son, who (like his younger brother, everyone else who sought my counsel) has AD on his fantasy team.
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