"I think we can get a touchdown out of our tight end, Brent Jones. Pittsburgh should have had one [in the AFC Championship game], but Bubby Brister threw the ball late. We line up Rice and Taylor on the left side, and motion Craig right, toward Jones's side. If Atwater doesn't go with Craig [and the corner-back picks him up], we can get Brent down the seam. If Atwater does take Craig, we can get something up on top to Rice or Taylor."
In the first quarter, as diagrammed, Atwater stayed put, Jones beat the jam of linebacker Michael Brooks and split the zone for a seven-yard TD. "Just what they'd shown on film," Jones said later.
In the third quarter the Niners did the same thing, only this time Atwater went with the motion man. Rice broke over the middle for a 28-yard touchdown. "Give us two weeks to prepare for someone, and they're in trouble," said Rice.
"Here's another one," Holmgren had said on Friday. "We motion Craig left to right and hope the cornerback goes with him. If he does, we've got Rice on the post. It's a college coverage, figuring wider hash marks and a narrower side of the field to work with—in the pros the hash marks are in tighter and you've got a bigger area on the short side—but Denver plays it."
That was the play that produced Rice's 38-yarder right before halftime. Holmgren draws it up, the line blocks, Montana throws, Rice spikes. Textbook football. "They were rushing only three guys a lot of the time," said Collie. "Yeah, good luck. We realized at half-time that the only way they could get to Joe was to come in off the corners, to blitz more. They tried it once, and we blocked it and got a big gain, so they went back to the old stuff. But they seemed unsure, like they'd had too much to drink or were hung over."
While Montana and the textbook were dismantling Denver's defense, John Elway and the Broncos' offense were unraveling. Denver got a field goal on its second possession, but even that drive was weird. Elway tossed a shovel pass to running back Bobby Humphrey, who picked up 27 yards. On the next play Elway tried another shovel pass, but the ball hit Humphrey in the back. When Elway tried a third shovel pass, outside linebacker Charles Haley tipped the ball and the 49ers almost intercepted. "We expected them to go deep early," said Millen, "but this was strange, like they were setting us up for something that never came."
Elway was subjected to constant pressure, especially by right end Kevin Fagan, who was charging in like a maniac. Fagan played himself into exhaustion and spent half an hour in the trainer's room after the game. A couple of Elway's passes were batted away by nickelback Tim McKyer, who made the kind of plays Denver's defense didn't. Another Elway pass was deflected by free safety Ronnie Lott. Then Elway started pressing and misfiring, and the interceptions came—two of them, both in the second half.
Elway completed only 10 passes in all, for 108 yards. The Bronco running game picked up 64 yards. Put it together and you've got the worst Super Bowl blowout ever. A couple of hours after the game, Elway walked hand in hand with his wife, Janet, across the Superdome field, surrounded by photographers and autograph hounds. Finally, he said wearily, "Can't you let a guy sulk in peace?" They couldn't.
Before he stepped on the team bus, he answered a last question. "This is going to live with me," he said. "I know that."
For the Niners the victory completed an unparalleled run of postseason excellence. The historians will be spending the off-season trying to assign them a place in history. Greatest team ever? Well, offensively, yes. San Francisco has the perfect scheme and the perfect cast to execute it. Defensively? Sorry, we still like the Steel Curtain bunch in Pittsburgh, even though the Steelers played in the era of the head slap and the extended downfield bump. Greatest overall team? Let's put it this way. No other team has been as hot over three games—against top-caliber competition—as these Niners.