Two Stars, Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, were at the top of their games; two teams were playing for the NFC championship, but all the big plays were on one side of the ball. The result was a blowout—San Francisco 49ers 28, Chicago Bears 3—and now the Niners will face the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII. Who said football was such a complicated game?
Montana, a future Hall of Famer, was written off after losing to the Minnesota Vikings in last season's playoffs. Steve Young, fleet of foot, strong of arm, is the man, people said. O.K., we'll give Joe a year to break the kid in, and then it's goodbye and good luck.
"Joe Montana is my quarterback," coach Bill Walsh kept repeating this season, but then he would add, "as long as he's healthy." Ah, the copout. Montana brooded. At 32, he saw snakes under the bed. Staring him in the face was the end of a career. He was benched for a game. He split time with the 27-year-old Young. The Bears roughed him up en route to a 10-9 win in October, and Montana went on the inactive list for a week. "Wait till he's healthy," Walsh said, but no one listened.
Well, Montana came back. San Francisco won four of its last five regular-season games with him at quarterback. Montana gave a solid performance against the Vikings in the NFC divisional playoff game. He was even better on Sunday: The velocity returned to his passes, and he showed his old ability to dodge the rush, buy time and find the receiver who popped open at the last minute. Most of the time, that receiver was Rice.
Montana put some fancy numbers on the board against the Bears—17 completions in 27 attempts for 288 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. He has had bigger statistical days in his 10-year career but never with the conditions so poor and the stakes so great. At kickoff the temperature was 17° and the 29-mph winds seemed to be blowing in from every direction.
Rice, 26, was the NFL's MVP in 1987, but he was a forlorn figure in last year's playoff loss to Minnesota. His leg bothered him, and he couldn't break loose. He made All-Pro again this year, but he didn't seem right for much of the season. This time it was a bad ankle. He felt he was letting the team down. After games he would disappear from the locker room before the writers could get to him. Then on Saturday he made a prediction. "You're going to see a different Jerry Rice tomorrow," he said. "The first time we played the Bears this year I had a bad ankle. I couldn't really move. But I'm going to have a big game tomorrow. I'm healthy and that's all the difference."
"How about the weather?" someone asked him. "It's going to be cold and windy."
"I don't care," he said. "I'll catch the ball in any kind of weather."
He caught five balls for 133 yards. Two of the receptions were for touchdowns; the other three figured prominently in scoring drives. In the first quarter the Niners faced third-and-10 on their own 39-yard line. Montana, under pressure of a blitz, threw to a spot 20 yards downfield on the right sideline. The pass was high, but Rice came down with the ball, dodged cornerback Mike Richardson and nickelback Todd Krumm, and sprinted 61 yards for the first score of the game.
In the second quarter Rice kept a drive alive by turning a little look-in into a 20-yard gain. On that one he beat Chicago's other corner-back, Vestee Jackson. Five plays later, on second-and-10 at the Bears' 27, Rice went in motion to his right and bent his route inside of Jackson. Montana, under a strong rush from defensive end Al Harris, rose on his tiptoes, came off his primary receiver and hit Rice on the break. Rice sprinted 15 yards for the TD.
"Rice only runs about a 4.6, but he has a special explosion that the 4.4 guys don't have," said Jackson afterward. "He knows how to change speed and adjust when the ball is in the air."
The score was 14-0, and the pattern of the game had been set. The weather—Bear Weather the local papers had gleefully called it—was now working against Chicago.
Bears coach Mike Ditka's surprise starter at quarterback, Jim McMahon—no one knew he was the man until Friday—completed some underneath stuff but next to nothing down-field. The Chicago running game was stop and go. Meanwhile the Niners did what they weren't supposed to do: They got big plays from their big-play people, despite the weather. "The cold won't bother us," said Walsh before the game, "but I'm concerned about the wind."
A long history of AFC and NFC Championship Games—and before that, NFL and AFL Championship Games—said otherwise. Since 1950, when the Los Angeles Rams faced the Browns in Cleveland for the NFL title, there had been 19 games in which a warm-weather or dome team had played for the championship in cold weather. The home team had won 18 of those meetings. (The exception was the '72 Miami Dolphins, who beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in Three Rivers Stadium.) Still, Walsh said, "We can play in the cold. We're not the finesse team some people say we are."
Definition of a finesse team: A team that slicks you and tricks you, that bites off yardage in huge chunks and gives up the same. The Denver Broncos and the Dolphins are finesse teams.
These 49ers don't fit the definition. Oh, their offense can be pretty clever, but they can also pound away with their Nebraska backfield of Roger Craig (class of '83) and Tom Rathman ('86). What's more, they can play defense. Two weeks ago San Francisco stopped Minnesota's running game, while also shutting down the Vikings' big weapon, All-Pro wide receiver Anthony Carter. And in the second half of that October loss to Chicago, the Niners held the Bears to three first downs and no points. Defensive teams don't quake with fear at the thought of a cold-weather game.
As for Montana, he grew up in Monongahela, Pa., where it has been known to get cold. The greatest game of his pre-49er career was Notre Dame's 35-34 come-from-behind victory over Houston in 20° weather at the 1979 Cotton Bowl. At halftime he got de-iced with chicken soup.
"You know something, that's what I was thinking about when we came out on the field and first felt that cold," said San Francisco tackle Harris Barton after the game. "Montana's chicken-soup game. I'd seen film clips of it."
Said 49er guard Jesse Sapolu, who was born in Western Samoa and grew up in Hawaii, "I came on the field and that minus-26 wind chill hit me. The fans got on me. They started yelling, 'Pineapple head!' I yelled back, 'This is island weather!' just to, you know, put a little confidence in myself."
Montana checked the flags above Soldier Field. The banners at the south end of the stadium were blowing from south to north. At the other end, the American flag was blowing the opposite way. Behind it a metal light pole was swaying ominously in the wind. The electric message board advised fans to BUDDY UP FOR SIGNS OF FROSTBITE...WATCH YOUR NEIGHBOR.
"I watched Steve Young throw, and his ball was dipping and tailing in the wind," said Montana later. "I figured if that was happening to him, I knew it would happen to me. Once the game started, though, I didn't think of it. I had a glove on my left hand, and between plays I was squeezing a handwarmer in my right. It worked out O.K."
The Bears put a field goal drive together just before the half, but on their first possession after intermission, the Niners marched 78 yards on 13 plays, most of them short passes underneath the coverage, for a touchdown. The final play was a five-yard toss from Montana to tight end John Frank. The score was 21-3, and the hunt was over.
"I can sum it up for us in three words," said Chicago center Jay Hilgenberg. "No big plays. What were our long gainers? A 14-yard run by Thomas Sanders? An 18-yard pass to our tight end? If those are your big plays for the day, you're going to be watching the Super Bowl on TV."
The San Francisco defense never lost control of the game, and the key man was strong safety Jeff Fuller. At 216 pounds, he's big enough to play linebacker, which he usually does in nickel situations. But on Sunday he got into the coverage downfield, broke to the ball quickly and generally disrupted McMahon's midrange passing game. Before the fourth quarter, McMahon threw 10 passes into Fuller's area. Three were complete for a total of 14 yards; six were incomplete, and Fuller intercepted one.
McMahon was making his first start since spraining his right knee in the ninth game of the season. "The difference in McMahon today was that he wasn't mobile enough to run away from the rush," said Fuller. "And he was staring at his receivers, which made him easier to read. Plus we disguised our coverages. During the week, [free safety] Ronnie Lott and I worked on something we call stemming to our coverages—rotating into our zones on the move rather than lining up in them before the snap. That made it tougher for them to call an audible. We had something to prove today—that the real strength of the 49ers is defense, not finesse."
The Bears overcame many obstacles to get as far as they did. They lost one former All-Pro linebacker, Otis Wilson, to knee surgery, and another, Wilber Marshall, who signed as a free agent with the Washington Redskins. Their top pass rusher, Richard Dent, went down with a broken leg on Nov. 27, and two quarterbacks, McMahon and Mike Tomczak, were sidelined at different times with injuries. As a result, Chicago was overmatched.
Montana and Rice elevated their performance and forced the Bears into a catch-up game they couldn't win. Then the 49er defense took command. The hot team overcame the cold-weather jinx, and now it's on to the Super Bowl and Miami, where the palm trees grow.