- Joe Theismann, Football analyst
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Looking at the rosters for the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills, who meet Sunday (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET), both teams are among the youngest in the NFL. The 49ers have 13 rookies and nine second-year players; the Bills have 11 rookies and nine second-year players.
What's the difference between the two? Confidence. When the Bills got close to the end of the game last week against Miami, I guarantee that some of the players were thinking, "Oh no, here we go again." The 49ers, though, have a different end-of-the-game mentality. In San Francisco, the players say, "Jeff Garcia will win it for us."
Last week against Indianapolis was one of the few games all season in which the 49ers took control. They have been the "Comeback Kids," the NFC West's answer to the Chicago Bears. They have played four overtime games, beating Atlanta twice 16-13 and 37-31, Carolina 25-22, and losing to Chicago 37-31. They have also beaten New Orleans 28-27 and the Jets 19-17.
Football fans should be excited about watching the 49ers play, because they'll see an entire 60 minutes of football -- and maybe more. The 49ers could easily be 5-5 or 6-4. But they're 8-2 because Garcia is playing fabulously, having accounted for 25 of the 49ers' 29 offensive touchdowns, either passing or running. He is getting better all the time. Meanwhile, the young defense is making plays under the guidance of Jim Mora Jr., who has done an outstanding job as the defensive coordinator.
Before last week's Sunday night game, Bears coach Dick Jauron posed a question: Which comes first, winning or confidence? If you start to win, you gain confidence. But without confidence, how do you win? I really believe the 49ers, through their winning and last-minute heroics, have gained confidence and feel like they can beat anybody. They are not a dominant team, but they play well on every unit and are tried and tested, which is great for a young team.
While the youthful 49ers are winning, the young Bills are struggling through a philosophical change. They have gone from an offense that spreads the ball out to a West Coast style. They have gone from a 3-4 defense to an aggressive 4-3 style.
The Bills' confidence will come from trusting the system, something that will take time. The Bills have played good, but they have gotten away from it at the end of games. Looking at the last two games, it appears they are playing better. But head coach Gregg Williams has to be extremely disappointed because they had a chance to win both games.
If the Bills had won last week, they would be a lot more confident going into San Francisco. Nevertheless, because the Bills look improved, I see them as a dangerous opponent for San Francisco.
Here are the keys to Sunday night's game:
Three keys for the Bills
1. Protect Van Pelt. Alex Van Pelt will probably run the offense a little bit better than Rob Johnson because he seems to be a bit more comfortable in it. The Bills must give him a chance to win the game and get the ball into the hands of Eric Moulds. Outside of Marvin Harrison, this game features two of the top three or four receivers in the league -- Moulds and Terrell Owens. Moulds needs to have a game like the one he had last week, catching at least one or two touchdown passes.
2. Let Henry run. Rookie running back Travis Henry must have a big game for the Bills' offense to be effective and score points. The Bills need balance in their attack if they hope to keep up with the 49ers.
3. Target TO. The Bills might not be able to stop Owens, but they can't let him beat them. They should roll the coverage toward Owens and make J.J. Stokes have to step up and make plays. Stokes has four TD receptions, which is a lot less than Owens' production (12).
Three keys for the 49ers
1. Go to TO. Owens is the player who really stands out on the 49ers. Owens has 69 receptions, more than double the amount of the second-leading receiver (Stokes with 32). He has said some things that will have to be dealt with in the offseason, but Owens is a play-maker. He is a horse -- big, strong and powerful. He holds onto the ball and runs with it after the catch. You'd be hard-pressed not to say he is the best receiver in football. Get him the ball often.
2. Shut down Moulds. The Bills have the same type of offense as the 49ers, one that features one particular receiver. The 49ers must take away Moulds as a threat and make Van Pelt go somewhere else with the ball.
3. Block the pressure. The Bills will come after Garcia and try to disrupt the timing of the 49ers' offense. So their experienced offensive line must handle the pressure.
Buffalo and San Francisco are two of the NFL's youngest teams, but the 49ers have figured out how to win.