By the second quarter, Merton Hanks was doing a duck walk, celebrating with a strut as showy as Deion Sanders’ high step.
By the third quarter, Steve Young and Jerry Rice weren’t even in the game, left with little to do put prowl the sidelines and smile.
By the end of the game, the score was 44-15 and the San Francisco 49ers were headed to their fourth NFC championship game in five years with a revamped team anxious for another crack at Dallas.
Even though the Chicago Bears scored first Saturday, the outcome was never in doubt.
“It tells me we’re playing into the postseason the way we finished the season,” Young said. “We’re playing our best ball. I didn’t want to leave our best ball in December.”
“Last year, when we scored 44 points at this stage, we were a little surprised. This year we know we have a team that’s peaking,” he said, referring to last season’s 44-3 divisional playoff win over the New York Giants.
After spotting the Bears a 3-0 lead, the 49ers reeled off 30 straight points in the first half to put the game away, and Chicago’s improbable playoff run came to an end on Candlestick Park’s soggy, shredded turf.
“I didn’t see much of anything we did wrong,” San Francisco coach George Seifert said. “We’re pleased with our first step. We know we have to crank it up.”
San Francisco (14-3) will be at home next Sunday against either Green Bay or Dallas, who meet today in another divisional playoff. The Cowboys beat the 49ers in the last two NFC title games; San Francisco, which defeated Dallas 21-14 on Nov. 13, hasn’t been to the Super Bowl since winning it in 1989.
“It doesn’t really mean nothing if we don’t go out and do something next week,” said San Francisco linebacker Ken Norton Jr., one of six new starters on the remade defense.
Chicago, an upset winner at Minnesota in a wild-card game last week, finished 10-8 in Dave Wannstedt’s second season as coach.
“Obviously, it’s disappointing. We don’t have what it takes to beat a championship team,” said Chicago defensive back Shaun Gayle.
With Young passing effectively and also joining Ricky Watters and William Floyd on a power running game, the league’s top-scoring team surpassed 30 points for the ninth time in the last 11 games despite the wet conditions.
“It felt like their offense was on the field forever in the first half,” said Chicago guard Jay Leeuwenburg. “I thought we were playing well, then the next thing you know, we’re down by 20 points.”
Young threw for 143 yards and a touchdown, completing 16 of 22 passes. He also ran five times for 32 yards, including a touchdown that set off a brawl. Floyd had scoring runs of 1, 2 and 4 yards.
San Francisco took advantage of two interceptions against Steve Walsh and a botched fake punt during their scoring burst. The 49ers made it 37-3 in the third quarter and Young and most of the other regulars were lifted with 5:48 left in the period.
Offensive linemen Bart Oates and Jesse Sapolu took a seat on the bench and gave the thumbs-up sign to the approving, hankerchief-waving fans behind them.
Young and Rice, along with Sanders, Gary Plummer, Norton, and other defensive newcomers, had nothing to do but walk the sideline and congratulate one another and await their next challenge.
Chicago, 0-3 in its playoff history against the 49ers, proved to be no match despite forcing a turnover on San Francisco’s first series. Brent Jones fumbled after catching a pass and Alonzo Spellman recovered at San Francisco’s 36. Chicago had to settle for Kevin Butler’s 36-yard field goal.
From there, it was all San Francisco.
“We found out today what we need to do to get to the next step as a football team,” Wannstedt said. “We’re going to look at this as a stepping stone.
“It’s not the crisis of the loss; it’s how you deal with it,” he said.
Young directed a 13-play, 68-yard drive capped by Floyd’s 2-yard scoring run for a 7-3 first-quarter lead, then the 49ers pulled away with a 23-point second period.
Eric Davis’ interception set up San Francisco’s next score, an 8-yard pass from Young to Brent Jones, and Floyd’s 4-yard touchdown run made it 20-3.
Walsh was intercepted a second time, with Hanks bringing it back 31 yards. Hanks, showing a strut every bit as dynamic as Sanders’ stepping, celebrated the play with a duck walk, and the 49ers converted the turnover into Doug Brien’s 36-yard field goal.
Down 23-3 and struggling to move the ball, the Bears tried a fake punt with 2:15 left in the half. The ball was snapped to the upback, Tony Carter, who dropped it as he began to run and Dedrick Dodge swooped in to stop him.
The 49ers took over at the Chicago 32, and Young capped the drive with a 6-yard scramble for the TD, putting San Francisco ahead 30-3 at the half.
Young was hit late by Gayle after he scored, prompting an end-zone brawl that included an in-your-face spike by Young and a shoving match between Gayle and Rice.
49ers 44, Bears 15
Chicago 3 0 0 12 - 15 San Francisco 7 23 7 7 - 44
Chi-FG Butler 39, 3:58.
SF-Floyd 2 run (Brien kick), 11:19.
SF-Jones 8 pass from S.Young (kick failed), :44.
SF-Floyd 4 run (Brien kick), 8:56.
SF-FG Brien 36, 12:15.
SF-S.Young 6 run (Brien kick), 13:43.
SF-Floyd 1 run (Brien kick), 8:01.
Chi-Flanigan 2 pass from Kramer (pass failed), :49.
SF-Walker 1 run (Brien kick), 3:09.
Chi-Tillman 1 run (pass failed), 9:16.
A-64,644. No shows-3,741.
Chi SF First downs 20 27 Rushes-yards 18-39 37-145 Passing 208 185 Punt Returns 0-0 2-6 Kickoff Returns 6-137 2-24 Interceptions Ret. 0-0 2-31 Comp-Att-Int 29-47-2 18-26-0 Sacked-Yards Lost 4-31 1-5 Punts 4-37 2-39 Fumbles-Lost 2-0 3-1 Penalties-Yards 4-32 3-16 Time of Possession 29:40 30:20
RUSHINGChicago, Harris 8-26, Green 2-8, Tillman 6-5, Walsh 1-0, T.Carter 1-0. San Francisco, Watters 11-55, S.Young 5-32, Floyd 10-25, D.Carter 3-20, Taylor 1-15, Walker 3-3, Grbac 4-(minus 5).
PASSINGChicago, Walsh 10-19-2-78, Kramer 19-28-0-161. San Francisco, S.Young 16-22-0-143, Grbac 2-4-0-47.
RECEIVINGChicago, Green 5-43, Wetnight 5-39, Harris 5-24, Graham 4-33, Waddle 3-49, Conway 3-25, Jennings 2-20, Tillman 1-4, Flannigan 1-2. San Francisco, Jones 5-26, Taylor 4-51, Rice 4-48, Watters 3-18, D.Carter 1-44, Popson 1-3.
MISSED FIELD GOALSNone.
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