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THE PACKERS HAVE ARRIVED.

Byline: Bill Barnard Associated Press

Free agency is doing what the draft never was quite able to do, bring parity to the NFC.

Dallas and San Francisco have combined to win the last four Super Bowls, but neither is as strong as its previous championship teams in this decade.

Free-agent defections, in most cases by players who gave the Cowboys and 49ers depth and versatility, have left both teams top-heavy with talent but thin in key areas, making them vulnerable to disaster if injuries strike.

And injuries have struck during the preseason.

The Cowboys and 49ers are still favorites to win their divisions and make runs at the Super Bowl. But because they have sustained fewer serious losses than their rivals, the Green Bay Packers are poised to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since they won it for the second time in 1968.

With six straight losses at Texas Stadium, including the playoffs the last three years, Green Bay's hopes of playing in New Orleans on Jan. 26 could rest on wresting homefield advantage away from the Cowboys.

``That's something we have to look at when we start the season,'' quarterback Brett Favre said. ``We only play 16 games. It's not like baseball, basketball, hockey, where you play a bunch of games and no one really cares until you get toward the end. Every game counts with us.''

Despite an addiction to painkillers that landed him in a rehab center during the offseason, Favre passed for 4,413 yards and 38 touchdowns in his finest season. He did it in spite of the loss of All-Pro receiver Sterling Sharpe.

Sharpe's retirement helped instead of hurt, allowing wide receiver Robert Brooks, tight end Mark Chmura and running back Edgar Bennett to shine in a more diversified offense.

Brooks caught 102 passes, Chmura and Bennett combined for 115 more. Bennett also became the first Green Bay back in 18 seasons to run for more than 1,000 yards.

The defense ranked fourth in the NFL in points allowed, stopping just about everyone except the Cowboys.

Reggie White, at age 34, anchors the defensive line; Ron Cox was signed away from Chicago to play middle linebacker; and the Packers expect a big year from another free agent, defensive tackle Santana Dotson, who came north from Tampa Bay.

The Cowboys, on the other hand, lost Super Bowl MVP Larry Brown, Robert Jones, Dixon Edwards and Russell Maryland from the defense. The 49ers had a key defection in cornerback Eric Davis.

Dallas, of course, has other problems. Michael Irvin will miss the first five games with a drug-related suspension and defensive end Shante Carver is gone for the first six.

Emmitt Smith, Jay Novacek, Charles Haley, Erik Williams, Ray Donaldson, Godfrey Myles and Kevin Smith are injured or coming off injuries that could cost them time during the season.

The 49ers have also tried to build a running game. But Johnny Johnson wasn't the answer and a deal for Terry Kirby - a better receiver than runner - was made.

All is not lost for the Cowboys and 49ers, of course.

Steve Young and Jerry Rice are the nucleus of an outstanding San Francisco passing attack, with second-year man J.J. Stokes coming on and rookie Terrell Owens another apparent find at wide receiver.

CAPTION(S):

Photo

Photo: Troy Aikman will throw to Deion Sanders, not Michael Irvin, when the season opens.

Daily News File Photo
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 25, 1996
Words:572
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