This one wins the title for weirdness. The San Francisco 49ers' 20-13 victory over the Washington Redskins in an NFC divisional playoff last Saturday was a roller coaster ride into lunacy. It was three games rolled into one for the 49ers: awesome power, followed by panic, followed by redemption.
The Niner offensive linemen were edgy all week as they prepared for Washington defensive coach Richie Petitbon's multiple schemes. "The Skins are doing things I've never seen before," said center Jesse Sapolu, who calls the blocking signals at the line, last Thursday. "They yell, 'Move!' and then their defensive front jumps into completely new positions. You're afraid of screwing up a call, of leaving an unblocked man."
"Petitbon's like an evil genius, a Darth Vader," said right tackle Harris Barton. "He's got us worried."
The night before the game the offensive line met at the usual time, 7:30. This time, though, everybody was in the room half an hour early "just to make sure," Barton said.
Indeed, the entire Washington team was an unchartable element. The Skins should not have been in the playoffs in the first place, not after the Los Angeles Raiders and the ghost of Vince Evans drove the length of the field to beat them on the final Saturday of the regular season. Washington spotted the Minnesota Vikings a touchdown in a wild-card playoff at the Metrodome a week later, only to come back and put the game away in the third quarter.
"I've never had a team that battled through adversity like this," Joe Gibbs said last Friday. "We've had 69 games missed by starters. Last year we had 14. Guys dragged themselves back from injuries that should have put them out for the year. People were playing in games after they couldn't practice all week."
Then there was the Candlestick Park field, a soggy mess. "Rain all week, plus a full moon last night that brought the tides up," Barton said. "Both teams should have warmed up in the parking lot, then come in and played."
Into this arena of doubt and uncertainty came the 49ers, with all their jets turned up, and at the half, with San Francisco ahead 17-3, the game looked to be over. The Niners had put up 278 yards against a defense that had held the Vikings to 148—total—the week before. San Francisco quarterback Steve Young had been a matador, darting away from tacklers on the slippery turf ("I like this kind of field," he said. "It gives me an edge"), throwing on the move, generally making things miserable for Washington.
Oh, sure, there had been some flukes. The opening touchdown, a five-yard Young to John Taylor pass, had bounced through the hands of cornerback A.J. Johnson in the end zone. The 49ers had closed out the half with Young's 16-yard bullet to tight end Brent Jones, who fumbled at the one and then recovered the ball in the end zone.
Young had turned the ball over twice before intermission, once on a fumble and once on an interception, but who cared? He had come right back after the interception and, with the pass to Jones capping the drive, put the Niners in the end zone in 45 seconds. A machine.
Then came the third quarter, an evil one for San Francisco. Young scrambled for 13 yards, slipped, tried to get up and lost the ball. He fumbled again at the end of the period as he tried to pass. Back came the Skins. They scored 10 points, and 24 seconds into the fourth quarter they were down only 17-13. On the sideline the 49ers were trying to stay cool, but there was a frantic feeling in the air.
"Everyone's yelling and screaming," Barton said. "Some guys are going over to Steve and saying, 'Hey, brother, let's get it going.' Others are staying away from him. There's near panic out there."
In four of the five postseason games played before this one, the team that had scored first had lost. The Houston Oilers had blown a 32-point lead in the second half, and the New Orleans Saints had wasted a 10-point advantage in the fourth quarter. Now the Niners had seen their 17-3 lead melt away, and the Redskins were coming at them again. They had a first down at the San Francisco 23 and were driving for the TD that would put them on top...and...and...quarterback Mark Rypien and running back Brian Mitchell botched a handoff. Niner ball.
Young led the offense onto the field, but on the sideline number 16 had taken off his 49er jacket and was warming up. Joe Montana, folks. It was really him. In the stands a tingle went up.
"A tingle?" said Young. "Oh, yeah, I remember that tingle—all those years that Joe was in there and I'd start warming up on the sideline. I used to try to stay warm too. I did that for a long time."
But just as it was Montana's team for so many years, it is now Young's team. This year Young was All-Pro, the highest-rated NFL passer, the AP's Player of the Year, his teammates' choice for their MVP. "I thought Steve might have gotten banged up, diving for the last fumble," said coach George Seifert to explain why Montana was loosening up.
"I was standing next to Joe on the sidelines when he took his jacket off," tight end Jamie Williams said. "He told me, 'No way they're going to put me in.' "
What was Young's reaction to the stirring on the sideline? "My reaction was, It's time to go back to work," he said. Which he did, moving his team 57 yards in 13 plays, a drive that ended with a field goal, ate up 7:01 and left Washington with one last shot, trailing 20-13.
But Rypien was done in by the soggy field. Three times on that last possession he tried to buy time with scrambles, and three times San Francisco's linemen ran him down for sacks, including two by Pierce Holt. The drive ended with three straight incomplete passes.
So now it's the Niners against the Dallas Cowboys for the NFC championship. The same two teams met in one of the most famous games ever held on the West Coast, the '82 NFC title game. The Drive. The Catch. Joe Montana to Dwight Clark, remember? Now it's Steve Young's team, and number 16 can only stand on the sidelines and watch.