First the facts. The San Francisco 49ers beat the New Orleans Saints 30-17 in Candlestick Park on Sunday. The Saints have only an outside shot of making the playoffs: the Niners are in. San Francisco can win the NFC West by defeating the Los Angeles Rams at home this weekend.
The 49ers are peaking at the right time. They are playing the best defense in the NFL. Quarterback Joe Montana is on the beam. Against New Orleans the Niners showed poise and maturity by shrugging off a series of first-half mishaps that could have put them in a deep hole and then by grabbing control of the game with a 21-10 lead by halftime. "Our best game of the season," said San Francisco coach Bill Walsh.
So what's new? The 49ers have earned a spot in the playoffs during each of the past five seasons. But beneath the surface these Niners are different from those of recent years, and they are having a strange season.
The change has its roots in San Francisco's 36-24 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in last season's playoffs. Going into that game, the Niners had the league's best record (13-2), and they had beaten their last three regular-season opponents by a combined score of 124-7. But the Vikings outplayed the 49ers. True, All-Pro wideout Jerry Rice had a bad leg and couldn't go full out. But Montana, subjected to relentless backside pressure by end Chris Doleman and tackle Keith Millard, had a poor day. Steve Young replaced him and moved the Niners, as he had in his brief appearances earlier in the year. As the new season approached, Young and Montana got into a competition for the hearts of the Bay Area faithful, and Walsh had to contend with an angry owner, Eddie DeBartolo Jr., who couldn't understand how a team with the best record in football could lose to a wild-card entry.
Young started against the New York Giants early this season. Walsh said Montana had a bruised elbow, but Montana played the second half and won the game with a 78-yard bomb to Rice. In Game 6, a three-point overtime loss to the Denver Broncos, Montana was twice knocked out of action. He played the next week against the Rams after receiving painkilling shots for rib and elbow injuries. The week after that the Chicago Bears beat him up in a Monday nighter, and Young finished the game, which San Francisco lost 10-9. Young started the next two games, and then Montana returned in Game No. 11, a 9-3 loss to the L.A. Raiders in which nothing went right for the 49ers. Walsh says that the loss to L.A. was "the low point of our season." The Niners were 6-5 and fading. New Orleans was 8-3.
"Very few teams go through a season without a low point," says Walsh. "Physical or mental fatigue, stale, funky, whatever you want to call it. I see it now with the Bears. The Vikings have had it, the Bills, everyone this year. It's part of the dynamics of the sport. You try to play through it."
In Game 12, against the Washington Redskins, Montana reasserted himself, throwing for two touchdowns and running for another. Starting with that victory, the Niners have won four in a row, and Young has left the bench only to spell Montana or mop up. San Francisco is back on top of the division, but things are different. Montana is still upset about the time he spent on the bench.
"The coach has a right to make his decision." he says, "but everyone has bumps and bruises. I don't think I was any more banged up than I was in other years, and I played. This year it got to the point where I played with trouble in my mind."
"Look, Joe Montana is a very proud athlete," says Walsh. "At one time this season he was physically worn down to the point where he didn't realize it. He had a dysentery type of thing [the flu, actually]. He had trouble with his back and his ribs and his elbow. His appearance wasn't good. He doesn't see it the way I can, after being around him for 10 years.
"The time I said Steve would start. I knew that Joe hadn't practiced during the week, but the press couldn't wait to push the story around the country. They made it seem like I was vacillating. It became the thrust of all our problems."
Troubled minds all around seemed to be the problem in the early going against the Saints. New Orleans stopped three San Francisco drives in the first quarter, one by an interception. A blocked punt set up a Saints field goal, but thanks to the Niner defense. New Orleans led only 3-0 as the quarter ended. Then Montana and the offense took charge.
Four possessions in the second quarter produced three touchdowns. The first two scores came on drives of 56 and 80 yards. The third covered 68 yards in one play—a pass from Montana to wideout John Taylor. A San Francisco fumble had set up New Orleans's only first-half TD—a 27-yard halfback option pass from Dalton Hilliard to wide receiver Lonzell Hill—and the 49ers entered the break leading 21-10. Three second-half field goals by Niner kicker Mike Cofer put the game away.
Montana completed 18 of 29 passes for 233 yards and a touchdown; he ran for another score. Roger Craig rushed for 115 yards and a TD of his own. But if you're looking for the heroes, try the defense, which had a tendency to leak points earlier this season.
After the Saints blocked that punt in the first quarter, they had a first down on the San Francisco 23. Three plays produced only three yards. On its next possession New Orleans got the ball on the 23 again, thanks to cornerback Dave Waymer's interception. The Saints moved to the 10, but rookie defensive linemen Daniel Stubbs and Pierce Holt sacked quarterback Bobby Hebert, and New Orleans wound up back on the 22. Morton Anderson then missed a 40-yard field goal attempt.
"With all the chances we had, we could've been up 14-0, and they would've been playing catch-up," said Hebert afterward.
"To win in the playoffs, you have to have defense," said San Francisco center Randy Cross. "For the first time people are starting to realize how good our defense is. For years they've been dazzled by all our offensive stars."
The defensive play of the game was made by the 49ers' right cornerback, Eric Wright, whose career seemed over when he missed the better part of the last two seasons with a severe groin injury. In the second quarter Hebert called a deep post pattern to his fastest receiver, Brett Perriman. Wright read the play, got a perfect break on the ball and made a picture interception. "I thought I had him," said Hebert. "I'd looked the free safety off, and it was just Wright against Perriman, but Wright made a great play. I don't know if the NFL gives a comeback player of the year award, but it should go to Eric Wright."
Even though the win put San Francisco comfortably in control of the division, Walsh's postgame remarks were prickly. "I know many of you have picked this team we played to go all the way," he said. "We managed to hold them off another year."
Translation: That'll show you, all you doubters and disbelievers.
"New Orleans is a great team," he continued. "They came to play the game of their history, I was told."
Translation: Emotion and ballyhoo can take you only so far. Execution, soundness of game plan and the poise that comes from experience in big games are the true deciders. So much for glorious upstarts.
Last year San Francisco entered the playoffs with a conqueror's swagger. This time the Niners will be hungry. "I'd rather come into the playoffs like this," said Cross on Sunday, "fighting through these games tooth and nail, then having a week off to rest up. Last year we lost a bit of the edge. You've got to stay mad. That's what worked for the Giants and Bears when they won Super Bowls. There's a fine line between confidence and arrogance."
It would seem that too much has happened to the 49ers in this strange season for them to cross that line.