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The Bears came out winging, trying to get on top early and thus put the pressure on Joe Montana. They went with the long pass on their first drive of the game. They threw the ball on their first five plays. A three-yard TD by Payton was set up by McMahon's 34-yard pass to Willie Gault. They scored in six plays, covering 73 yards, and it took them less than 2½ minutes. The next time the Bears had the ball, they drove 45 yards and kicked a field goal. Then they knocked the ball loose on two straight series, setting up two field goals, and with 1:05 gone in the second quarter it was 16-0.
An eerie silence settled over the 60,523 people in Candlestick. The fans had been part of the 49er story this year, the way they had booed, how quickly they'd forgotten last year's magnificent 18-1 achievement, but they weren't booing Sunday. They were in shock. The Bears simply weren't supposed to come out throwing. They called 27 pass plays and only 10 runs in the first half, and 14 out of 18 first-down plays were passes.
But the pass got the 49ers back in the game when McMahon, under heavy pressure from blitzing linebacker Todd Shell, threw the ball up for grabs. Strong safety Carlton Williamson intercepted and ran it back 43 yards for a score. As the second quarter wound down, the 49ers put together their only decent drive of the day and kicked a field goal. The half ended 16-10, and it was a ballgame again.
Then the troubles that have plagued the 49ers this strange, error-laden season crystallized. They managed only three first downs, and 45 of their 183 total yards, in the second half. Steve McMichael, the Bears' greatly underrated defensive tackle ("Right now my best defensive lineman," Ditka says), was getting great penetration up the middle and disrupting the San Francisco operation. "He was very good," 49er right guard Randy Cross said, "and I was very bad." The blitzes were coming in bunches, and Montana, who suffered a career high seven sacks, was coming unglued.
He was missing short and long. After the loss to New Orleans, Walsh had criticized Montana's penchant for holding the ball too long, looking for something downfield that wasn't there, and Montana's huge game against Atlanta the following week (37 for 57, 429 yards and five TDs, all club records) was an instructional session to get him back in the short-passing groove, according to the coach.
Now, against the Bears, it was all coming apart. Flags were flying on practically every series. Montana looked at a first-and-25 on his first series of the third quarter. Result—punt. At 19-10 early in the fourth, with the game slipping away, he faced a second-and-25. Another punt. In one series in the second quarter he had had a third-and-28 situation. Punt. The 13 San Francisco penalties were the most since 1954. Montana would call an audible and people would move.
The Bears applied the cruncher with Payton. Eighty-eight of his season-high 132 yards came in the second half. It was a very sound philosophy—get the 49er linemen tired trying to rush McMahon in the first half and then stick it to 'em with Payton. And Walter, whose work load (and rushing yardage) decreased this year with the emergence of McMahon, was a little bundle of energy, breaking tackles, faking people off their feet or crumpling them with his low, precise cut blocks. A year ago he averaged 23.8 carries and 105.2 yards per game. This season he's averaging 15 carries and 70.3 yards a game.
"Walter's never seen this happen." Ditka said. "He's never been on a team that didn't rely solely on him to win. I don't care what the statistics say. He's having a great year. He's by far the best blocker we have. He'll pick up the blitz all day, he'll catch touchdown passes, throw them, you name it."
"Maybe I'm not getting all the yards I used to, but I'm happy now," Payton said. "Looking back at what I went through in years past, I'd be crazy not to be. I feel so much better, my legs, my mind. Mentally I'm not tired like I used to be."
For his part, Walsh would not blame the loss on Montana's poor play, but he has to be wondering where his quarterback has gone.