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This one wins the title for weirdness. The San Francisco 49ers' 20-13 victory over the Washington Redskins in an NFC divisional playoff last Saturday was a roller coaster ride into lunacy. It was three games rolled into one for the 49ers: awesome power, followed by panic, followed by redemption.
The Niner offensive linemen were edgy all week as they prepared for Washington defensive coach Richie Petitbon's multiple schemes. "The Skins are doing things I've never seen before," said center Jesse Sapolu, who calls the blocking signals at the line, last Thursday. "They yell, 'Move!' and then their defensive front jumps into completely new positions. You're afraid of screwing up a call, of leaving an unblocked man."
The night before the game the offensive line met at the usual time, 7:30. This time, though, everybody was in the room half an hour early "just to make sure," Barton said.
Indeed, the entire Washington team was an unchartable element. The Skins should not have been in the playoffs in the first place, not after the Los Angeles Raiders and the ghost of Vince Evans drove the length of the field to beat them on the final Saturday of the regular season. Washington spotted the Minnesota Vikings a touchdown in a wild-card playoff at the Metrodome a week later, only to come back and put the game away in the third quarter.
"I've never had a team that battled through adversity like this," Joe Gibbs said last Friday. "We've had 69 games missed by starters. Last year we had 14. Guys dragged themselves back from injuries that should have put them out for the year. People were playing in games after they couldn't practice all week."
Then there was the Candlestick Park field, a soggy mess. "Rain all week, plus a full moon last night that brought the tides up," Barton said. "Both teams should have warmed up in the parking lot, then come in and played."
Into this arena of doubt and uncertainty came the 49ers, with all their jets turned up, and at the half, with San Francisco ahead 17-3, the game looked to be over. The Niners had put up 278 yards against a defense that had held the Vikings to 148—total—the week before. San Francisco quarterback Steve Young had been a matador, darting away from tacklers on the slippery turf ("I like this kind of field," he said. "It gives me an edge"), throwing on the move, generally making things miserable for Washington.
Oh, sure, there had been some flukes. The opening touchdown, a five-yard Young to John Taylor pass, had bounced through the hands of cornerback A.J. Johnson in the end zone. The 49ers had closed out the half with Young's 16-yard bullet to tight end Brent Jones, who fumbled at the one and then recovered the ball in the end zone.
Young had turned the ball over twice before intermission, once on a fumble and once on an interception, but who cared? He had come right back after the interception and, with the pass to Jones capping the drive, put the Niners in the end zone in 45 seconds. A machine.