They are dancing their way to the height of ecstasy, high-fiving and high-stepping and stomping their foes into the turf. The San Francisco 49er Party Shuttle has been in business since early October and is gaining altitude by the week. On Sunday the San Diego Chargers were merely parties to the party. While the Chargers stood by like a bunch of baggage handlers, it was left to a pair of yahoos at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium to ground, albeit temporarily, pro football's highest-flying team.
Moments after punctuating the 49ers' 38-15 victory with a 90-yard touchdown jaunt that was half interception return and half Soul Train revival, Deion Sanders removed his helmet and jogged toward the tunnel that leads to the visitors' locker room. As he approached the darkness, Sanders was showered with whoops, cheers, taunts and autograph requests...and an incoming cup of warm beer. Sanders turned to confront his attacker, but teammate Rod Milstead, a guard who happens to outweigh Neon Deion by 105 pounds, argued successfully in favor of restraint. Friends know when to say when.
The incident would have faded into the background, but as Sanders turned back toward the tunnel, another airborne beverage met him head-on, this time an ice-cold soda. Now Sanders was back in full view of the stands, jabbing a finger and threatening to jump into the crowd. The NFL's most buoyant player had been transformed into a junkyard dog, overcome by a disgust that lingered well into the evening. The splashings hadn't been quite as repugnant as one suggested by a PEE ON DEION banner draped over a wall, but they were of the same tribe.
The dousing of Sanders was idiotic, but it was also prophetic. The Niners have a built-in mechanism that guards against exuberance, and they usually don't need a flying beverage to restore sobriety. With a nine-game winning streak, a league-best 12-2 record and a chance to wrap up home field advantage in the NFC playoffs against the Denver Broncos this Saturday, San Francisco might feel entitled to do a little strutting. On this day all it took to stop the 49ers in their tracks was a cola bath and a short speech from quarterback Steve Young.
If anyone in the football world has reason to strut, Young is the man. Young has entered a comfort zone that would make David Letterman envious. The Niners have scored at least 30 points in all but one of their last eight games—and that was their 21-14 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Nov. 13 in which Young outplayed his counterpart, Troy Aikman. Over the nine-game winning streak, Young has thrown 22 touchdown passes and only two interceptions. Two of those TDs came on Sunday, as Young put together a typically stress-free and brilliant performance, completing 25 of 32 passes for 304 yards.
So why was Young so dissatisfied? Because the 49ers had failed to put away a team to which they were clearly superior. Because he felt a 21-3 halftime lead should have been 35-0. Following coach George Seifert's perfunctory postgame address, Young stood up and told his teammates to knock off the grins. "We have to tighten it up," Young warned them. "We have work to do in all phases of our game. We're not where we want to be yet, and this is no time to get lax."
Players nodded in agreement. In his third season as the Niners' undisputed starter, Young is still emerging as a locker room force, and his words came as a pleasant surprise. Even wide receiver John Taylor, a man known in the world of sports journalism as the Human No Comment, felt compelled to offer his overt support. Taylor, who cradled a four-yard dart from Young in the second quarter for the 49ers' second touchdown, spoke glowingly of the postgame speech. "He had to say it," Taylor concluded. "That's important, because things are getting real lax around here. And when things get lax, that's when bad things start to happen."
This striving for perfection is not what the Niners' rivals in Pittsburgh or Cleveland or Minneapolis or Dallas want to hear, but that's the way San Francisco operates. As fun-loving as they have become since Sanders's arrival in mid-September, the 49ers, at heart, still reside in the staid, corporate house that former coach Bill Walsh built. Having lost three of the last four NFC championship games by increasingly wide margins, the Niners take nothing for granted, even though their victory, combined with the Cowboys' surprising loss to the Cleveland Browns last Saturday, left them a game away from clinching home field advantage through the playoffs. It also made them the team that will generate the most Super Bowl hype. "We're not going to fall for that bull——," swears wideout Jerry Rice.
The Chargers know all about misplaced hype. Five weeks ago coach Bobby Ross's team seemed like a thriving entity incapable of rapid destruction. Then again, so did Orange County. Now the Chargers are in danger of completing a colossal collapse. Having begun the season 7-1, San Diego is now 9-5, with two blown chances at nailing down the AFC West title and with two tough games remaining—in New York against the Jets and at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Back in October, The Bolt Is Back was the town's favorite slogan, and the Charger bandwagon was more lively than a Lollapalooza tour bus. Now, says San Diego cornerback Darrien Gordon, "there's nobody on it. We're barely on it ourselves."
A major reason for the Chargers' collapse is an injury to their best player, All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau, who played Sunday with a pinched nerve in his neck that severely curtailed the use of his left arm. Even Harris Barton, the 49ers' standout right tackle, told Seau, "Look, buddy, you've got to take yourself out. There's a lot of football ahead."