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COWBOYS, 49ERS ON TOP; BENGALS, BUCS ON BOTTOM; PARITY IN MIDDLE

It may have been the Sunday the San Francisco 49ers finally hit the salary cap wall.

For the rest of the NFL (except for the Niners and Cowboys at the top and Cincinnati and Tampa Bay at the bottom), just call it parity. A lack of depth caused by the salary cap has transformed the league into 3-1 teams that could be 1-3 and 1-3 teams that could be 3-1, and . . . "On any given Sunday:"- Joe Montana can be shut out for the first time in 16 years.

- Detroit can beat Dallas on the road, then come home and lose to New England.

- Minnesota can beat Miami 28-6 in the first half. Miami can win the second 29-10, and Warren Moon can have the frights about Buffalo Revisited?

- The only unbeaten teams are two that figured to be no better than .500 at the season's start? One (the Giants) didn't play Sunday, and the other (the Chargers) blew a 20-point lead and escaped by two seconds.

Of course, the way things are going, they still might still finish 8-8.

From the top:

The 49ers:

It was great highlight film footage and perfect timing, but Neon Deion Sanders' 74-yard TD return simply emphasizes once again that what Sanders does is flashy, crowd-pleasing and often unnecessary.

"It was a fourth-down pass. He could have knocked it down and we would have won anyway," Steve Young said. "But it was fun watching him run it back. It was great."

All Sanders did was overshadow the overriding problem for one of the NFL's two top teams - with all their salary cap manipulation to get Sanders and free agents like Rickey Jackson, Bart Oates, Ken Norton and others, they should have manipulated to get some offensive line depth.

Young was sacked five times by the Saints - a less mobile quarterback would have gone down 10 times - behind an offensive line missing Jesse Sapolu, Harris Barton, Ralph Tamm and Steve Wallace. So we got the 36-year-old Oates at center anchoring . . . Harry Boatswain, Frank Pollack, Derrick Deese and Chris Dalman?

Barton and Tamm will be out a few more months. Wallace and Sapolu are questionable for next week against Philadelphia.

So, is Young the next victim? Maybe Phil Simms should forget Buddy Ryan, wait for Young to go down and head for the Bay Area. On the other hand, if Young can't survive, can a 38-year-old who wasn't mobile at 28?

Montana:

We all have our bad days, it was raining at Arrowhead and Montana had the flu. So 18 of 37 for 175 yards and three interceptions can be excused for this week.

Still, it had never happened to Montana, in 153 starts over 16 years.

More relevant, the Chiefs had never been 4-0 in their history and, if they had to take anyone lightly, it was the Rams. "I don't think in your worst nightmare you could imagine the performance we put on out there today," Marty Schottenheimer said.

Sometimes they call that the law of averages.

The Lions:

If anyone was ripe for an upset, it was Detroit, which acted like it had won the Super Bowl after it beat Dallas. Wayne Fontes is an emotional coach and, despite his warnings about a short week and the potency of the Patriots, he couldn't keep his team on an "even keel" - one of the key sayings in the coaches' phrase book.

So with due credit to the Patriots, who finally played a little defense to support their offense, consider:

- Harry Colon, the nickel back, dropped a Drew Bledsoe floater with which he could have walked into the end zone.

- Scott Mitchell was an awful 14 of 29 for 189 yards and two interceptions, and he overthrew a wide open Brett Perriman in the end zone.

- Lomas Brown, who buried Charles Haley in Dallas (no tackles), let Chris Slade blow by him for a key sack.

It was another indication that the Patriots are back in the pack (who isn't?). "It's the biggest win we've had since I've been in New England," said Bill Parcells.

That may not be saying much.

Moon Over Miami:

A stat that tells it all: In their first three games, plus 29 minutes, 58 seconds, the Vikings allowed 33 points. In the last 30:02 Sunday, they gave up 35.

That can happen against Dan Marino.

It also can happen to Warren Moon, the losing pitcher in the biggest comeback in NFL history, Buffalo's 41-38 overtime win in the playoffs two years ago. Moon's Oilers had built a 35-3 lead in the third quarter of that one.

Was it deja vu? "Darn tootin'," Moon said. So he asked offensive coordinator Brian Billick to open it up instead of playing the prevent offense, and Minnesota pulled it out.

Was it the law of averages? Perhaps, but Miami had too many injuries to be 4-0.

"It looked great!" Miami linebacker Aubrey Beavers said of Moon over Marino. "Hats off to Moon, because they won. Hats off to us and Dan because he put up some good numbers, also."

Beavers is a rookie. He'll learn that Don Shula doesn't like losing - even if he does play Cincinnati, where son David is the coach, next Sunday night.

The undefeated and the AFC West:

The Giants didn't play so they couldn't lose, which brings us to the Chargers, who beat the Raiders at the Coliseum for the fourth straight season.

They blew a 20-0 lead, survived a tipped pass that Lionel Washington returned for a TD that gave the Raiders a 24-23 lead and won on John Carney's fourth field goal - from 33 yards with two seconds left. That's shades of last year, when Carney was the only offense San Diego had.

So they now lead what looks like the NFL's toughest division by a game over Kansas City and the surprising Seattle Seahawks, who resemble the Bills of the late '80s with their young stars - Cortez Kennedy, Rick Mirer and Chris Warren.

Moreover, Stan Humphries looks like the gutsiest quarterback since . . . Bill Kilmer?

He popped a knee on the interception, returned to the game against the advice of his coaches and actually blocked Nolan Harrison, a defensive lineman, on a reverse during the drive that set up Carney's winning field goal.

"He's got guts, I'll give him that," Harrison said.

The Raiders, probably the consensus AFC Super Bowl favorite (before they started playing, of course) are in trouble already, three games behind the Chargers, two games behind the Seahawks and the Chiefs.

They aren't as good as they were supposed to be (running game, linebackers).

And Art Shell and his staff (Fred Biletnikoff?) made some dubious decisions, like running up the middle on a fourth-and-3 from the San Diego six trailing 20-3 late in the first half. Even a field goal there and they probably would have won.

In a league so tight, that kind of thing makes the difference.