The Bolt is back? Fans were bolting for the exits with 8:20 left in the game. And with good reason. The Chargers had forced a punt on the game's first series and then allowed the 49ers deep into their territory on each of San Francisco's remaining eight possessions. One Niner drive ended when San Diego stopped San Francisco on fourth-and-one at the Charger six, and another was terminated by defensive end Leslie O'Neal, who knocked the ball out of Young's hand and pounced on the fumble at the Charger 23. The play was all the more impressive because O'Neal had beaten left tackle Steve Wallace, who has been burned by only two other pass rushers this season, Kansas City Chief Derrick Thomas and Washington Redskin Ken Harvey.
The 49ers looked as though they could score at will. Their first touchdown came with 1:31 left in the first quarter, as Young flicked the ball to tight end Brent Jones at the 10-yard line. Jones rumbled down the left sideline to about the two before two blue-clad blurs interrupted his progress. After a hard shot from cornerback Dwayne Harper, Jones landed in the end zone—on his head. "I knew I scored," a still-groggy Jones said later, "and that was about it."
Speaking of heads-up plays, the 49ers got one from rookie kicker Doug Brien, who saved a touchdown when he tripped San Diego's Andre Coleman after he broke into the clear with the second-half kickoff. The Chargers reached the end zone anyway, cutting the San Francisco lead to 21-9 on a 12-yard rumble by Natrone Means. But the Niners scored on their next two drives, leaving it to Sanders to provide the grand finale.
For the 49ers, garbage time is Prime Time. After Charger quarterback Stan Humphries connected with Tony Martin on a 54-yard heave with 53 seconds left, he came right back with a pass toward Johnnie Barnes that Sanders jumped on like it was a big-money shoe contract. Sanders corralled it at the Niner 10 and was gone before anyone exhaled. At the five he launched into a shake-and-bake routine that undoubtedly met the approval of his good buddy Hammer. The name of the dance wasn't immediately clear, because Sanders was jarred enough by his dousing to beg off all interview requests.
In their morose locker room the Chargers weren't saying much either. Things were so grim that backup quarterback Gale Gilbert, who took only one snap, while holding for a field goal, had an ice pack on his throwing arm. You could hear the water from the shower drip as defensive tackle Reuben Davis conceded that he had been so taken by the 49ers' offensive excellence that there were moments when he was an awestruck observer. "I just checked it out a couple of times," he said. "They're in such a rhythm that sometimes [Young] doesn't even look. He just throws."
Indeed, Young likens his recent play to driving a car while lost in thought and then reaching a destination and asking, "How did I get here?" Some of his actions, he says, "are happening on a subconscious level. Sometimes you watch the film and say, 'I don't know why I did that.' " But the 49ers are not content to marvel at their achievements. Their outbreaks of festivity, it seems, are always tempered by the somberness of unfulfilled aspirations.
Neon Deion left the locker room wearing a burnt-red suit with brass buttons and a grimace that bordered on dejection. Sanders is much more straitlaced and sensitive than people know, and his postgame shower had not washed away the bath he took near the tunnel entrance. As Sanders reached the dusky daylight of the parking lot, a young security guard extended his hand. "Prime, I got him," the guard said. "I got that guy." Sanders nodded, thanked the guard and continued on his unmerry way. No reason to get lax, not when the most important dances are still to come.