You heard in the press room and in the parking lot as people headed to their cars after watching the San Francisco 49ers beat the Cincinnati Bengals 20-16 in Super Bowl XXIII. You heard it in the bars in downtown Miami and on the streets. What you heard was something you seldom hear in connection with the Super Bowl, which has almost become a parody of itself: "Great game...great game...hey, that was some game, wasn't it?"
A great game? The final quarter was certainly great—the best in Super Bowl history—but for almost 45 minutes it wasn't a great game at all. It was a screwup game played against the depressing backdrop of a city torn by riots and flames.
Then Joe Montana, who saves his best performances for the biggest games, stepped in and rescued this Super Bowl. So did Jerry Rice and Roger Craig. The cream rose. San Francisco marched 92 yards in the dying moments to pull out the win, and, yes, Montana and center Randy Cross, the only two of Sunday's 49ers who had been on the field for the great winning drive against the Cowboys in the 1982 NFC championship, said this victory brought back memories of that Dallas game, which until now had been the finest moment in Niner history.
The climax this time had no play to match the breathtaking touchdown catch Dwight Clark made against the Cowboys. Instead, it had lots of good ones. The first crisis of the drive came on the ninth play, with the Niners trailing 16-13 and facing second-and-10 on the Cincinnati 35. Cross committed his third boo-boo of the day—he was caught downfield on a fouled-up pass that started as a screen but ended as a dump-off to Craig.
"Holding, bad snap, downfield, I did it all today, didn't I?" Cross said. "But you'll be amazed at what a great game I had 10 years from now when we're looking back on it."
The penalty against Cross left San Francisco with second-and-20 on the Bengals' 45, and at this point, Montana admitted, he was "just thinking about getting the field goal that would put the game into overtime." To get in range, he chose a particularly dangerous play, a square-in to Rice. Bengal cornerback Lewis Billups and safety Ray Horton bracketed Rice, and strong safety David Fulcher backed them up. The pass covered 13 yards, but somehow Rice got the ball in the middle of the pack and broke clear for another 14 yards. "It had to be a perfect throw and catch," said Billups. "He had all kinds of hands flashing in front of him."
The ball was on the 18, and then Montana found Craig on an eight-yard crossing pattern, right to left. "Nothing greedy. I just wanted to get some yards," said Craig. Now the 49ers had second-and-two on the 10, and the Bengals went into a two-deep zone: short and medium coverage on Rice on the right side, the same on split end John Taylor on the left. The book calls for man-to-man in this situation, but zone coverage was what Cincy did best.
The play was 20 Halfback Curl X-Up. Rice went in motion to the left, passing behind Taylor before the ball was snapped, and decoyed into the left flat. Craig, who curled into the middle from the right, was the primary receiver, but he got jammed up in traffic. Taylor put on a little wiggle move and ran straight down the seam. Montana hit him in stride, inside Horton's coverage, and the Niners had their third Super Bowl win in eight years. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have won four, have more Super Bowl victories.
"That's Joe Montana," said Cross. "Primary receiver's covered, he goes to the No. 2 man. just like that—reflex."
Montana completed eight of nine passes on the drive for 97 yards. Counting the 10-yard penalty, the 49ers ate up 102 yards on the march. Montana finished with 23 completions in 36 attempts for a Super Bowl-record 357 yards. In three Super Bowls he has thrown 93 passes without an interception, and his 65.6 completion percentage is the highest in the game's history.