On the television screen in 49er owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr.'s box high atop San Francisco's Candlestick Park, the green figures and the white figures were kicking up dust on a baseball infield. Half a dozen or so guests in the crowded room were clustered around the television, trying to root home the greens, who were the New York Jets, against the whites, who were San Francisco's divisional rivals, the Los Angeles Rams. The television viewers had just seen the 49ers come from behind in the fourth quarter to beat the Atlanta Falcons 24-20, and this was the after-dinner mint, the Jets and Rams in OT on TV.
Forty-Niner Coach Bill Walsh stood in a corner of the room, near the TV set but unable to see its picture, and every so often someone would rush over to him with up-to-date battle reports. "The Jets just intercepted," a guy said.
"That's nice," Walsh said.
"Now they're trying a field goal," someone else told him, waiting for Walsh to holler or elbow his way over to the television.
"Hope he makes it," Walsh said, nodding but not budging.
"The Jets win!" someone suddenly yelled over to Walsh. "You're leading the division!"
"Yes, I know," Walsh said, turning to find his wife.
The 49ers are 3-1 and all alone in first place in the NFC West. The rest of the division is 2-2. Break out some more champagne. Let's have a fresh plate of shrimp. Why is that coach so calm?
"Two months from now is when I'll start looking at the standings," Walsh said. "This thing is just getting started."
But, hey, the 49ers are on top. They won as many games in September as they did in the dismal, strike-torn 3-6 season of '82, when they fell from their lofty perch as defending Super Bowl champs. Last year in Candlestick the Falcons brutalized the Niners, beating them up physically and sending a lot of people limping off the field—"a clear case of child abuse," 49er Guard Randy Cross says. This time San Francisco matched the Falcons power for power, sacking Steve Bartkowski eight times and putting it to them on the ground at the end, when it counted. Atlanta's rookie coach, Dan Henning, treated the game as if it were his Super Bowl. He gave the 49ers the whole package—an unbalanced line on offense, a resurrected defense he'd all but scrapped in training camp, a flanker option pass and a buck-and-wing (pass and lateral). The works. And, ultimately, San Francisco had overcome.