He stepped back with the ball, tripped over a teammate's foot and started giving in to gravity, and for a split second San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young felt his stomach drop and his heart stop. I'm going down, he thought as the last seconds of the Niners' made-for-tabloid-TV season ticked away and the horror of another playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers began to sink in. In front of 66,506 fans at 3Com Park, the 49ers had battled the Packers as hard as they could, yet for the fourth consecutive postseason they appeared to have fallen short against their bitter rivals. Once Young hit the turf, it would mark San Francisco's most frustrating flop.
Then, in a flash, Young did what the 49ers do when all hell breaks loose—he steadied himself and stood tall. Staring at a seam the width of a broom closet between four Green Bay defenders, Young, the most accurate passer in NFL history, set his feet and made the throw of his life. The ball zoomed down the middle of the field toward the goal line, where it ended up in the hands of wideout Terrell Owens, who until that point had handled Young's passes as if they had been packages from the Unabomber. Owens held on to this 25-yard strike with three seconds remaining, even after absorbing brutal hits from safeties Pat Terrell and Darren Sharper, and a sea of red surged onto the field to celebrate perhaps the most emotional wild-card victory in history. By a 30-27 margin the Niners had settled a score and so much more.
Suddenly, in a season marked by front-office turmoil, owner-in-exile Eddie DeBartolo's legal troubles, questions about second-year coach Steve Mariucci's job security and a devastating leg injury to star defensive tackle Bryant Young, all was well with the 49ers. The victory propelled San Francisco into a divisional playoff game at the Georgia Dome on Saturday against the Atlanta Falcons and broke a mental stranglehold by the Packers that had spanned five defeats over four seasons. As Steve Young said upon leaving 3Com long after Sunday's game, "If we'd lost to them again, it would have become a monster. When you put this in the context of all the difficulties this organization has faced and the crap our coach has had to put up with the past few weeks—heck, the past two years—it's an incredible triumph."
Incredible even by the standards of the 49ers, who have had more than their share of triumphant moments. Their rise to prominence began 17 years ago when Joe Montana rolled right and Dwight Clark soared to make the Catch, propelling San Francisco past the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game. The Niners won the first of their five Super Bowls that season and went on to produce the longest run of sustained excellence that the NFL has known. On Sunday, five weeks after Clark extricated himself from San Francisco's front office to become the director of football operations of the expansion Cleveland Browns, Owens made the Redemption Reception. Now it's the Packers, NFC champions the past two seasons, who face an uncertain future, as coach Mike Holmgren mulls offers from teams hoping to hire him as a general manager-coach.
"They've been running their mouths for a long time, but now it's time for the Packers to eat some humble pie," strong safety Tim McDonald crowed after the game. Pressed for specifics, McDonald cited two examples: A Green Bay assistant coach allegedly was overheard referring to the Niners as the Pack's "perennial bitch" following the Packers' 36-22 victory at Lambeau Field on Nov. 1. Then there was Green Bay All-Pro strong safety LeRoy Butler's remarkably prescient statement before Green Bay's January 1997 playoff triumph, which triggered Niners coach George Seifert's departure: "You'll see Mayflower trucks backed up at that place. Some asses will be out of there." The latter remark in particular had stuck in the craw of McDonald, a 12-year veteran not disposed to verbal outbursts. "Now I guess they can see what it's like when the moving vans pull up," he said. "I like LeRoy, and he's a hell of a player, but let those guys see how tough it is when jobs are on the line, everyone's gunning for you and you're fighting to maintain that standard."
Last Friday night, at a Mexican restaurant near the 49ers' Santa Clara training facility, McDonald expressed a similar sentiment: "The standard around here is incredibly demanding. It's something all of us feel, and that's a lot of pressure." A waiter approached, and McDonald ordered an off-the-menu entrée: chicken enchiladas with a spicy cream sauce, along with rice and beans. "This can be one of the most remarkable seasons ever in sports, for us to win it all in the face of all the adversity and confusion. We need to get up on them early and feed off that because for some reason—maybe because of all we've been through—we're a very emotional team."
In the previous five games against the Pack, the Niners had burst from the blocks like Drew Carey running the 40. The cumulative first-quarter score was Green Bay 53, San Francisco 6. Each time Holmgren seemed to have the perfect game plan, and the 49ers' secondary flailed while trying to contain Packers quarterback Brett Favre and his receivers. "Mental breakdowns just kill us," McDonald said, his voice rising in anger. "Take our game in November: First play—first play—Brett throws into coverage to [Antonio] Freeman, but a few things break down, and Freeman breaks it for an 80-yard touchdown." The waiter returned with McDonald's food and placed it on the table. McDonald stared at it disdainfully. "I've lost my appetite," he said. "Can you box this up? Maybe my wife will eat it."
McDonald, a six-time Pro Bowl selection, has been playing hungry all season. Though denied a trip to Honolulu for the third consecutive year, he may be having his best campaign, even while playing with a painful rib injury. Since Bryant Young suffered a compound ankle fracture in the Niners' Nov. 30 victory over the New York Giants, San Francisco's once-mighty defense has been held together by chewing gum, twine and McDonald's unmatched savvy. With 5:43 left in the first quarter on Sunday and the Pack leading 3-0, McDonald burst through the line and popped halfback Dorsey Levens. Free safety Merton Hanks swooped in and swatted the ball free, and defensive end Chris Doleman recovered it at the Green Bay 19, setting up the first of two touchdown passes from Steve Young to tight end Greg Clark. In the second quarter McDonald blitzed Favre and ended a Packers drive by batting his pass to the turf.
Even while giving up 27 points, the 49ers intercepted Favre twice and never allowed Green Bay more than a seven-point lead. The first interception, by linebacker Lee Woodall, came after Favre was pressured by Charles Haley, a San Francisco star from 1986 to '91 who later won three Super Bowls with the Cowboys but hadn't played since midway through the 1996 season. Haley's exit from the Niners was hastened by a string of grotesque incidents, many of which involved bodily functions, and his surprising signing the day before the game was akin to Monica Lewinsky's returning to the White House.
But when Favre got the ball at his own 11 with 4:19 remaining and the 49ers leading 23-20, it didn't matter who was rushing the passer for San Francisco—he was going to get a score. The touchdown came off an audible when Favre read blitz, rolled to his right and found Freeman with a 15-yard pass, the pair's second end-zone hookup of the day.