Unable to sleep the night before Sunday's game, Green rose at 5 a.m. and went for a walk. He thought about a prediction he had made to reporters earlier in the week: The winner of the Carolina-San Francisco game would represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. He reflected on coach Dom Capers's response to his prognostication. (Capers chided Green and pleaded with reporters not to use the quote, fretting that the Panthers would become "the laughingstock" of the league.) He thought about what Capers told the receivers on Wednesday of that week. ("We're going to win this game by winning the one-on-one battles on the outside," the coach had said.)
Sure enough, the Panthers won those battles—and they did so from the outset. On Carolina's third play from scrimmage, Collins and wideout Mark Carrier hooked up for 39 yards. Two plays later Collins zipped a five-yard TD pass to Walls, who sensed that his 23-year-old quarterback was turning a corner. "You had all this trash talking and shoving, and he's in the huddle telling people, 'Good job,' keeping everybody calm and cool." said Walls. "He called one play, then looked up and winked at me, and I thought, This guy is on."
That play called for Walls to run an inside route called a Y-shake pattern, but he couldn't get open. Not a problem. Collins lofted a sweet spiral to Green, who had gotten behind corner-back Tyronne Drakeford. The play went for 50 yards. Sensing Drakeford's vulnerability, offensive coordinator Joe Pendry called for Green to run the same pattern on the next snap. This time Collins threw an alley-oop, and Green, who is 6'4", out-leaped the 5'9" Drakeford for a 20-yard touchdown that put the Panthers up 24-14.
Despite their self-destructive behavior, the 49ers were in position to win the game with less than five minutes to play. On first-and-10 from his 32, quarterback Steve Young scrambled 33 yards. But three plays later he deliberately threw a high pass over Carolina defenders to rookie wideout Terrell Owens, who got one hand on the ball but could only tip it. Cornerback Eric Davis, who signed as a free agent with Carolina in the off-season after six years in San Francisco, made a one-handed interception. The Panthers ran out the clock.
Where was the incomparable Jerry Rice when the Niners were on their potential winning drive? He caught 10 passes for 129 yards and one touchdown, but with the game on the line, Young threw Rice's way on only two of San Francisco's final eight pass plays. Perhaps that was why the temperamental star receiver demanded, and was granted, a private meeting with club president Carmen Policy after the game.
Over in Carolina's dressing room, Walls was still incredulous about how much trash talking the Niners had done. "I think they thought they were going to intimidate us, beat us down and embarrass us," he said. "It happened the other way around."
The new kids on the block came out smoking.