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John Brodie sat on an equipment trunk in the San Francisco 49er locker room last Friday and considered how he felt about having to sit on the bench the next day. He has been the 'Niners No. 1 quarterback for more than a decade, but since an ankle injury in October young Steve Spurrier had led the club—and led it back into contention.
He took a sip of a soft drink and thought long before he answered. "No," said John Brodie at last.
He is an insouciant man, with a quirky sense of humor and a good, relaxed and happy face. But now Brodie was dead serious. "If I go in tomorrow," he said, "it will probably be because we are behind. I like to play, but I like to win more. Steve has been doing a good job, and I want to win."
As it turned out, San Francisco got behind, and Brodie did go in—and the team won because of that. It may be that John never played more masterfully in his life than he did in his brief but melodramatic appearance against Minnesota Saturday at Candlestick Park. He was not called into action until near the end of the third quarter, when San Francisco was almost finished. The 49ers were down 17-6, and though it did take Brodie a while to get untracked he brought San Francisco home, 20-17, with two late touchdown passes.
The exciting, if not so stylish, victory gave the 49ers the championship of the Western Division of the National Football Conference. They finished with a record of 8-5-1, the worst of any playoff team this year, but in the NFC West that was good enough to beat out Atlanta and Los Angeles, neither of which showed any taste for a stretch fight. Although San Francisco has the poorest record of any qualifier, league policy gives the 49ers the right to open the playoffs this Saturday at home. Their opponent will be Dallas, a team they whipped 31-10 on Thanksgiving Day.
That was Spurrier's most glamorous performance, one he did not live up to against the Vikings Saturday. He made some egregious mistakes. For example, on one important play in the third quarter, given excellent protection, he took a full five seconds and then threw a long pass down the middle into the teeth of the Minnesota zone. This violated a cardinal rule: never throw late long down the middle against a zone, because all the deep coverage will congregate there. In this case three Vikings had a better shot at the ball than the intended receiver, Gene Washington. Paul Krause made the interception.
On another occasion Spurrier tried to force a pass into the same deep zone and had two Viking defenders bat it away. He was lucky that one was not picked off. In a shoddy first half, the 49ers gave the ball away four times. It took a series of small miracles by a superb San Francisco defense to keep the home team close—trailing 7-6 at halftime.
The Viking touchdown had come after one of San Francisco's seven turnovers (no playoff team in the league this year has made that many in a game and still won). The scoring play was an 18-yard pass from Fran Tarkenton to rookie Running Back Ed Marinaro, who was wandering around in the San Francisco secondary as Tarkenton tried to avoid a thundering 49er rush. All San Francisco could then manage was two field goals by Bruce Gossett, one of them a last-minute Viking gift.
The 49ers, though unpredictable all season, have tended to be effective in the second half—as they were in the big win at Dallas. But what hopes they had for their third straight Western title seemed to disappear in the third quarter, when the Vikings added 10 more points.