Two Stars, Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, were at the top of their games; two teams were playing for the NFC championship, but all the big plays were on one side of the ball. The result was a blowout—San Francisco 49ers 28, Chicago Bears 3—and now the Niners will face the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII. Who said football was such a complicated game?
Montana, a future Hall of Famer, was written off after losing to the Minnesota Vikings in last season's playoffs. Steve Young, fleet of foot, strong of arm, is the man, people said. O.K., we'll give Joe a year to break the kid in, and then it's goodbye and good luck.
" Joe Montana is my quarterback," coach Bill Walsh kept repeating this season, but then he would add, "as long as he's healthy." Ah, the copout. Montana brooded. At 32, he saw snakes under the bed. Staring him in the face was the end of a career. He was benched for a game. He split time with the 27-year-old Young. The Bears roughed him up en route to a 10-9 win in October, and Montana went on the inactive list for a week. "Wait till he's healthy," Walsh said, but no one listened.
Well, Montana came back. San Francisco won four of its last five regular-season games with him at quarterback. Montana gave a solid performance against the Vikings in the NFC divisional playoff game. He was even better on Sunday: The velocity returned to his passes, and he showed his old ability to dodge the rush, buy time and find the receiver who popped open at the last minute. Most of the time, that receiver was Rice.
Montana put some fancy numbers on the board against the Bears—17 completions in 27 attempts for 288 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. He has had bigger statistical days in his 10-year career but never with the conditions so poor and the stakes so great. At kickoff the temperature was 17� and the 29-mph winds seemed to be blowing in from every direction.
Rice, 26, was the NFL's MVP in 1987, but he was a forlorn figure in last year's playoff loss to Minnesota. His leg bothered him, and he couldn't break loose. He made All-Pro again this year, but he didn't seem right for much of the season. This time it was a bad ankle. He felt he was letting the team down. After games he would disappear from the locker room before the writers could get to him. Then on Saturday he made a prediction. "You're going to see a different Jerry Rice tomorrow," he said. "The first time we played the Bears this year I had a bad ankle. I couldn't really move. But I'm going to have a big game tomorrow. I'm healthy and that's all the difference."
"How about the weather?" someone asked him. "It's going to be cold and windy."
"I don't care," he said. "I'll catch the ball in any kind of weather."
He caught five balls for 133 yards. Two of the receptions were for touchdowns; the other three figured prominently in scoring drives. In the first quarter the Niners faced third-and-10 on their own 39-yard line. Montana, under pressure of a blitz, threw to a spot 20 yards downfield on the right sideline. The pass was high, but Rice came down with the ball, dodged cornerback Mike Richardson and nickelback Todd Krumm, and sprinted 61 yards for the first score of the game.
In the second quarter Rice kept a drive alive by turning a little look-in into a 20-yard gain. On that one he beat Chicago's other corner-back, Vestee Jackson. Five plays later, on second-and-10 at the Bears' 27, Rice went in motion to his right and bent his route inside of Jackson. Montana, under a strong rush from defensive end Al Harris, rose on his tiptoes, came off his primary receiver and hit Rice on the break. Rice sprinted 15 yards for the TD.